Book review: “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wine Producers of the USA”

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Jancis Robinson and Linda MurphyAmerican Wine

278 pp. Mitchell Beazley.

Hardback. £40.00 / US$50.00. 978 1 845 335281

Published 4th March 2013

Double acts are not uncommon for wine books. Indeed, Jancis Robinson is co-author with Hugh Johnson of recent editions of the mighty The World Atlas of Wine. “Jancis Robinson makes frequent visits to the USA to stay ahead of the crowd,” asserts the dust jacket’s blurb. A search of www.jancisrobinson.com shows that her last visit to America was, as far as I can tell, in July 2009, when she went to Bonny Doon winery in Santa Cruz, California. If Jancis does stay ahead of the crowd it is through her handpicked stringers – such as Linda Murphy – and not through “frequent visits”.

American Wine is very comprehensive, covering every state and every AVA. Who would ever have guessed that wine is made in such unlikely places as Arizona, Hawaii, Nebraska and Texas? The opening chapter is an excellent overview of the past, present and future of the American wine industry. The authors speculate on how “one can only imagine the advanced state of the grape growing and winemaking in America today, had Prohibition not stalled progress”. Indeed.

Things change but rarely stay the same in the USA wine industry. For example, in 1900 Missouri was the country’s second largest wine producing state behind only California. Today it is not even in the top ten.

The influence of conglomerates is noted wryly: “In the modern-day Californian wine business, one needs a scorecard to track all the players”. The diametric of USA wine’s big business is the so-called “natural wine movement”. There are plenty of references to organic and biodynamic estates but there is no mention of “natural” wine. Is this an oversight by the authors or is it that such wines are so insignificant commercially that they do not merit any attention?

The maps, part borrowed from the World Atlas, are outstanding. Handsome as the book is, some of the “snapshot” boxed texts are very hard to read (for this reviewer, anyway), with a small and faint font on a light-coloured background.

The text needed closer editing. Having “seven thousand” on one page and then “7,000” on the next is admittedly tautological but also indicative of poor, or more likely non-existent, sub-editing. The 57-word sentence that begins “On a visit to Napa Valley” is not a sentence at all: there is a “who” missing before “had kept”. Worryingly, no editor or sub-editor is cited on the masthead.

The “200 breathtaking photographs” are not breathtaking but they’re certainly easy on the eye. They’re not bespoke, however, and have been sourced mainly from wineries and winemaker associations, as the credits on the book’s final page make clear. This is disappointing for a book that costs £40 (or £32 on Amazon; it will also be available as an eBook) but so perilous is print publishing these days that one can sympathise with the need to keep image costs down – but surely not editorial costs.

American Wine is comprehensive, authoritative and close to definitive – an outstanding reference work. To see a hardback book on wine like this might suggest that all is well in wine publishing. But the lack of time, money and attention paid to images and editing – and no trips for Jancis – says otherwise.

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