Classic Wine Library revived – four more books reviewed


Curating a modern wine library the old-fashioned way. 

Much of our wine reading today is based on clicks and flicks. Writers are taught that the ideal length of a web article is seven minutes. 1,600 words. Editors snip out six-word headlines because you’re only going to read the first three words and the last three words. Writers whip in and out of regions in under a week and throw together six-and-a-half-minute snapshots that try to capture everything in the shortest time possible before attention is lost to the next most exciting thing.

So, it’s with enormous respect that I take my hat off to Infinite Ideas and the editorial team curating the Classic Wine Library series. It sticks a finger up to the attention-deficit, 140-character culture and models itself on something almost institutional in its reliability, depth and structure.

These are books written by subject specialists who have often spent years visiting or even living in the regions about which they’re writing. They are people who have observed the changes, seen the revolutions come and go, known some estates through more than one generation, and have tasted thousands of wines made there. The content is rich in fact and detail, meticulously researched, and written with a sense of connection.

They’re serious books with an academic bent, aimed at those who really want to understand a region. But they’re not ponderous or heavy – accessible to the non-professional wine lover and very easily used as a wine travel guide.

The editorial board is made up of three people. Richard Mayson, one of the world’s leading authorities on Portuguese wine including port and madeira, is the author of six books and writes for Decanter and The World of Fine Wine. Sarah Jane Evans MW is co-chairman of the Decanter World Wine Awards, was chairman of the 2018 Masters of Wine Symposium and former chairman of the IMW. As a writer she specialises in Spain and sherry. James Tidwell MS is consulting Master Sommelier with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in Las Colinas, Texas, co-founder of the TEXSOM Conference and the TEXSOM International Wine Awards. He writes for World of Fine Wine, Lonely Planet, Celebrated Living and The Dallas Morning News and is a tea and sake specialist.

I contacted Richard Mayson and he was kind enough to reply to my questions about why and how the Classic Wine Library came about – particularly kind considering I’d emailed him just after Christmas and it was probably the last thing he felt like doing.

He gives an interesting potted history of the series, so I’ve included his answers in full below:

How did the Classic Wine Library start and when?

‘The title that has longest heritage in the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library is Sherry by Julian Jeffs which was first published in 1961 by Faber & Faber and is now in its 6th edition. This became the basis of the Faber wine series with Julian Jeffs as Series Editor. Faber published my book on Port, Port and the Douro, in 1999 but they sold off all their wine titles shortly afterwards and most of the series was eventually shelved. [Mitchell Beazley, publishers of The World Atlas of Wine and Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book, owned the titles for a few years from 2003 but without great sales success – JR]

‘Those of us of a certain age (and with long memories) will remember that the Faber series was a staple for anyone with an interest in wine back in the 1970s and 1980s. The books were mostly well written by authors with a passion for their subject and the series was well edited. As well as Julian’s book on Sherry, I recall Jan Read’s books on Spain and Portugal, Anthony Hanson on Burgundy, John Livingstone-Learmonth on the Rhône, and David Peppercorn on Bordeaux as being my "go-to" books when I was studying for wine exams in the 1980s and early 1990s. These authors were (and continue to be) some of my “wine heroes”.

‘After the Faber series collapsed in the early 2000s there was a clear gap in the market for books covering a specific country or region written by an acknowledged expert on the subject. That is where Infinite Ideas stepped in.’

How did you get to be involved, how was the editorial board formed and how do you decide which books are going to be written and who is going to write them?

‘I came to be involved through a conversation with Natasha Robertson of Taylor’s Port, who knew one of the shareholders in an Oxford-based publisher named Infinite Ideas. I was looking for a publisher for my book on Port and she suggested that I contact them. They liked my proposal and the third edition of Port and the Douro (published in 2013) was a success so they suggested that we might look out for more titles. Julian Jeffs came on board with a new edition of Sherry followed by the late Nick Faith with Cognac, then my book on Madeira in 2015 and so the new Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library was born. Initially I was the sole Series Editor but it became clear that if we wanted to expand the series we needed more editors.

‘I had known Sarah-Jane Evans MW for many years and we had worked together as Panel Chairs at the Decanter World Wine Awards. I thought that she would be a good author to cover Spain (The Wines of Northern Spain was published in 2018) and with her knowledge and contacts I thought she would be a good co-editor. So it has proved. We also needed someone with publishing experience in North America where the books are also published and we were delighted to welcome Master Sommelier James Tidwell to the editorial board in 2018. He has also become Panel Chair for the USA and Central America at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

‘As editors we are always looking for new titles to expand the series, particularly into places that have not been well covered in the past. We communicate by email, have regular meetings with the publishers in London and suggest potential titles and authors to each other. If we all agree, we follow this up. Now that Classic Wine Library is up and running and gaining momentum we frequently receive proposals from potential authors. I am always meeting up with potential new authors to discuss the series.’

Are the authors restricted to a certain style and format?

‘From the start I felt it was very important not to constrain authors with a style or format. Every wine-producing country or region works in a different way and our authors are the experts. They are the ones who shape the book. Having said that, the editors approve the format of the book at the outset and we issue our authors with guidelines. The books must not be too long or unwieldy (Spain, for example has had to be split into two and California will need to be split up as well) and our authors have to be selective about which producers to include. We are not looking for a directory of producers. The books should be seen as a good read for someone who wants to sit down and gain in-depth understanding but also be a work of reference for someone visiting a particular country or region. We are not looking for tasting notes that date quickly but books that have a shelf life and can be easily and regularly revised and updated. Naturally some regions are changing much faster than others and we always like to see some of the regional colour and culture expressed in a book.’

Do you have to bribe, cajole and persuade authors or is it easy to find someone willing and able to put their lives on hold for what looks like an enormous amount of work?

‘There is no question of bribing or cajoling. We want authors with experience who bring their passion for wine to the series. Everyone who writes a book for us feels passionately that they have something new to say. Some author's find generic support for their titles, either in help with their research or in a few cases with guaranteed advance sales. Writing a book is a time-consuming commitment and we work with the authors over the timing of their work and can be fairly flexible with publishing deadlines. We try to make the publishing process as smooth as possible and it is important to me as an author that the Infinite Ideas in-house editing is meticulous (which it is!). All we want at the end is a good, well-researched and well-written book where the author’s knowledge and flair comes through. Without any bribery, cajoling or very much persuading we have built the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library into a successful series with 19 titles with subjects ranging from Spain to Sake, Canada to the Côte d’Or.‘

What are your future plans?

‘Infinite ideas have just published the fourth edition of my book Port and the Douro and there are eight new titles signed up for publication:
Fizz! Champagne and Sparkling Wines of the World by Anthony Rose
The Wines of Chablis by Rosemary George MW
The Wines of Germany by Anne Krebiehl MW
The Wines of Great Britain by Stephen Skelton MW
The Wines of Roussillon by Rosemary George MW
The Wines of South-West France by Rod Phillips
The Wines of the Rhône by Matt Walls
and my own Wines of Portugal.

We are working on South Africa and discussing Hungary at the moment and we are still actively seeking authors for Bordeaux, Australia, parts of South America, parts of Italy, California and the USA. We want to cover the world of wine (as well as some other drinks) and the series editors are open to suggestions and proposals from authors, no matter how obscure the subject. If (in conjunction with the author) we can make a title work, we will. More information on the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library can be found here.’

There are now 19 books in the series, with eight more in the making, covering not just wine but sake, cognac and other spirits. I was pleased to see that Anne Krebiehl is writing a book on German wine and Rosemary George is writing one on Roussillon. Both regions are long overdue a good, up-to-date reference guide in English.

There were four Infinite Ideas books published in 2018 which I didn’t get around to reviewing in any depth, but which I feel are worth mentioning.

One of the most recent books in the Classic Wine Library series is one by Sarah Jane Evans herself. The Wines of Northern Spain – from Galicia to the Pyrenees and Rioja to the Basque Country was published in 2018 and was originally intended to be a book on the wines of the whole of Spain. Early on, however, she realised that to write about Spain would require two books, and so Catalunya, the Levant, southern Spain, Andalucía and the islands will have to wait for the next book.

As you would expect, she starts with the general history of northern Spain and grape varieties most commonly grown there, and then takes on the regions one by one, starting with Galicia and covering the usual ground of history, styles, changes, soils, climate, viticulture and winemaking.

Each chapter finishes with a solid list of producers either well known and established or doing interesting things and making great wine. Her profiles are succinct but with a level of observation that can come only from someone who knows the wines and people very well. In certain regions, such as Rioja, the profiles run to quite some length.

There are plenty of gems tucked into these lists for anyone looking for wines and producers off the beaten track. And the final chapter, a list of places to eat, drink and stay, is exactly what a travelling wine lover needs – although some indication of the price tiers of these establishments would have been useful.

Michael Garner, with more than 35 years in the wine trade, most of that specialising in Italy, has written Amarone and the Fine Wines of Verona. The book, Garner is at pains to explain, covers ‘the wines produced within the two delimited, contiguous and partly overlapping vineyard areas of Soave and Valpolicella’.

It could be argued that an entire 256 pages devoted to just Soave and Valpolicella could be asking too much of our twenty-first-century seven-minute attention spans. But Garner extracts illuminating tutorials out of the most unlikely topics. Old-fashioned pergola training, for example, might well have an important part to play as climate change affects vineyards, as Walter has hinted. The chapter on biodiversity, which looks holistically at local attitudes to the environment rather than being a brush-past of numbers of organic/biodynamic wineries, is an important and very relevant one. The chapter on winemaking is incredibly thorough but largely focuses on the particularities pertaining directly to the specific wine styles made in the region.

Garner homes in on each DOC and DOCG nested within the two regions, discussing them at a level of fine minutiae that would have MWs break into a sweat. The history of Amarone is particularly interesting, as is his breakdown of the communes within the Valpolicella Classico DOC.

The producers he has chosen to profile are those representing ‘a broad cross section of production today’ with selection ‘based on at least one visit’. It’s one of the longer winery guides in the Classic Wine Library series with some very detailed profiles running to several pages. Garner explains that ‘the longer profiles are of producers who neatly illustrate some of the many aspects of today’s winemaking scene or who are particularly important to its recent history’ and they do not necessarily represent the best producers.

This is Soave and Valpolicella under a powerful microscope.

Anthony Rose, wine writer, educator and serial wine-competition judge, is co-chair of the Sake International Challenge in Tokyo and teaches sake courses in London. He’s spent the last 10 years immersing himself in sake and Japanese wine, and the result is the Classic Wine Library’s most edgy book to date: Sake and the Wines of Japan.

Rose had my attention right from the start – and it wasn’t just because I know nothing about sake and next to nothing about Japanese wine. He has a knack for taking the foreign and complicated, and laying it out in such a way that it becomes clear without losing any of the mystery in the process. If you picked up this book completely indifferent to sake, you wouldn’t make it 60 pages in without getting online to see where you could find a sake tasting. Suffice to say that although I’m not going to review it here and now, this is a book well worth reading.

The final Infinite Ideas book worth mentioning is Wine – a social and cultural history of the drink that changed our lives by Rod Phillips. It’s not officially part of the Classic Wine Library, possibly because it’s not about wines from a specific geographical area, but I can’t help thinking it’s a pity not to include it.

When I first saw that there was another book by Rod Phillips on the history of wine, I was a little surprised. It was only a year ago that I reviewed his book 9000 Years of Wine: a world history, and a year before that, French Wine – a history. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’s a historian, after all, and wine history is his thing. But I was still a bit worried – how much of this would be a bit of a re-hash of the four wine-history books he’d previously written?

There is overlap, but this is very different. Where his previous history books behaved like dispersive prisms, slowing the light and splitting it into single orderly rays of colour, Wine is a reflective prism, flipping and rotating the historical images of wine we have, in order to understand how they have shaped our world and our perceptions of wine today. He delves into relationships such as wine and health, wine and crime, wine and the gender roles, wine and eating, wine and religion – there are more – and in each chapter connects tiny little dots in the past to bring fascinating insights into our present.

Some of the nuggets he unearths are very amusing, For example, pears, being considered feminine in seventeenth-century France, were deemed best paired with ‘masculine wines’ in order to achieve digestive balance. Cheese ‘was a food for peasants, herdsmen, woodsmen and savage people who verged on the animal condition’. Modern wine and food matching takes on a political correctness I’d never perceived until now.

Others are a little more sinister: the legislative and social control over women’s intake of alcohol in order to subject them to male domination is eye-opening, to say the least. That being able to drink copious amounts of alcohol and hold it well was a sign of masculinity, made me wonder whether much has changed – certainly not at a lot of university campuses and bars in the developed world.

For anyone interested in cultural and social anthropology and our ever-complex, capricious relationship with wine, this must be the most forensic study out there.

PS I’ve gone way over 1,600 words. I blame Richard Mayson’s lengthy replies…