Sunday, January 27, 2013

An encyclopedia worth reading

When I mentioned to a friend last month that I was reading the Oxford Companion to Wine, he replied that the task sounded like reading the encyclopedia, the paradigm of boredom, a pointless, mindless, joyless march through the alphabet. And he hadn’t even seen the book, which weighs eight pounds and is 800 pages long. Though not titled an encyclopedia, the OCW aspires to be as thorough as one, with entries on countries and regions from France to Pakistan (“where one of the richest resources of ancient, genetically varied plant material may still be found”) and grapes from Chardonnay to Grignolino.
More than once, I shared my friend’s assessment of the task I was undertaking, and of the implications for my own sanity. Planta Fina, Planta Nova, Plant cell diversity, Plantet. Why am I doing this to myself?
Far more often, though, I was enthralled and entertained. “Reading the encyclopedia” has a dismissive tone because it suggests someone who’s working through a long book only to finish it rather than because of curiosity or interest. It’s unattractive intellectualism taken to its extreme. But any broad subject contains within it interlocking universes; it’s the approach to cataloguing those realms that determines the value of the exercise.
Jancis Robinson, who edited the OWC, crafted a work that’s authoritative and deeply informed, as any reference work should be, but also witty, humane, and deeply aware of the contingency and subjectivity of its subject. In this sense, the most OWC’s significant entry may be “fashion,” which one would not expect to see in a definitive work. But tastes have always changed, and, “what has been most remarkable about fashions in wine consumption in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been how rapidly wine production has reacted to them, and in some cases created them (see wine brands, rose wines, pale cream sherry, low-alcohol wine, and wine boxes among others.” Or Sauvignon Blanc, which we learn was only the 13th most planted grape in France in 1968 but had risen to third in 2000. The OWC gives extensive coverage to the scientific and technical advances have that also transformed the way grapes are grown and wine is made in recent decades, which along with the sensitivity to changing tastes gives the subject a dynamism not generally associated with encyclopedias, whose heft alone suggests stasis and completion. 
The acknowledgement of change in the wine world allows for a focus on the people who have fostered it, starting with the Burgundian monks who “had several advantages over lay growers: they had cellars and store rooms in which to mature their wine; and, most importantly, they kept records and had the time and a degree of organization necessary to engage in systematic improvements.” Or, more decadently, King Henry IV, who favored wines from Givry in Burgundy “perhaps because it was the birthplace of his mistress Gabrielle d’EstrĂ©es.”
Samuel Pepys makes a cameo appearance, since his “life seems to have been a succession of drinks if his diary provides an accurate record, with references to Tent, Canary, Rhenish, and English wines from vineyards around London.” The 17th century diarist was also the first to refer “to new French clarets, in particular that of ‘Ho Bryan,’ ” or Haut-Brion, one of the great wines of Bordeaux, an region oriented toward export to Britain since the middle ages. Yellow Tail makes its appearance as a triumph of Australian marketing, as do Ernest and Julio Gallo for their canny domination of the U.S. market. 
These personalities make it easier for the non-specialist to retain focus on the entries describing technical developments, such as canopy management, a method of maximizing the sunlight that the leaves of the vine receive and therefore to make sugar that will be concentrated in the grapes, or refrigeration during the fermentation process, which “more than any other factor has permitted warm and hot regions to produce wine of internationally acceptable quality.” 
The OCW conveys a sense of the magic of wine that its devotees have shared for thousands of years and that the ancient Greek poet Hesiod describes in a passage quoted in book: “I love a shady rock and some wine from Byblos, a cake of cheese, and goat’s milk, and some meat of heifers pastured in the woods, uncalved, of first-born kids. Then I may sit in the shade and drink the shining wine, and eat my fill, and turn my face to meet the fresh west wind, and pour three times an offering from the spring which always flows, unmuddied, streaming down, and make my fourth libation one of wine.”

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