Paving the Path to a Proper Wine Education in 800 Pages
The single word that best describes the latest edition of the venerated The New Sothebys Wine Encyclopedia is “ambitious”. Like the other “encyclopedias” covering wine that have been published in the past, this tome attempts, through survey and codification and not a little editorial comment, to catalog the current state of wine. It is the kind of book that will see its mighty slipcover fray and tear over time as it is slid off and slid back on to the shelf many times as the owner uses it as a reference.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is the relationship with wine possessed by those who would purchase the book or by those who would receive it as a gift. If the “wine industry’ could create a comprehensive profile of this group of wine drinkers, it will have uncovered a pathway toward significantly increasing the number of what we call “core wine drinkers”.
The “core wine drinker” is one that drinks wine on a consistent weekly or monthly basis. This group amounts to roughly 25 percent of the adult U.S. population and they consume a remarkable 90% (+/-) of wine sold at retail. Put another way, these core wine drinkers are the primary target audience for Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.
But here’s the thing. The wine industry has never in the past 30 years undertaken a generic marketing effort aimed at increasing the number of core wine drinkers. There are a number of reasons the wine industry has not undertaken a “dancing raisins” or “Wisconsin Cheese” or “Got Milk” campaign to increase the core wine drinker base in the country. What I do know for sure is that all the information you’d need to undertake such a campaign could be derived from understanding what motivates readers of the Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.
Not every wine book finds a collection of readers that reflect the characteristics that ought to inform the wine industry what to look for in potential customers. Many wine books are aimed at an audience that is already too dedicated to wine and wine culture to provide any insight into those that could be pushed into the circle of core drinkers. Books highlighting the intricacies of Bordeaux, Burgundy, specific types of terroir, and the beverage’s history are aimed at the core of the core.
The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is built to open up a new circle of knowledge for those already inclined to see that circle as possessing the potential to enhance their lives. Just deep enough in its exploration of winemaking, wine history, and the wine business, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia gives its readers and browsers entrance to the second circle of wine knowledge.
For example, the average Pinot Grigio drinker has no interest in a timeline of wine that stretches from 500 BC to 2020 found in the front of The New Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine. While the average bag-in-a-box Chardonnay drinker could care less about the timing of France’s 19th-century reckoning with phylloxera, there are those who see in their nightly glass of cheap New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, $20 Sonoma Cabernet or newly discovered Argentina Malbec a hint of intrigue that may, in turn, endear them to the idea of a sitting comfortably with a timeline of wine.
While the vast majority of Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is devoted to opening up the world of wine one region at a time, a good one-sixth of the giant book is given over to the way the wine world works and how wine is made. We get modules on the wine market, climates, soils, red wine, wine wine, sparkling wine, grapegrowing, packaging and tasting wine. Whether one is drinking deeply from this introductory section or browsing, the information is more than enough to give the wine-curious and potential inhabitants of the core a lot to swallow. It provides a broad and necessary introduction to wine as a body of knowledge.
What’s inevitable about the kind of person who is inclined to make the move from a casual wine drinker to a core wine drinker is that they have come to understand that wine is a product that is lodged firmly in the idea of place. Different places offer different terroir and with those diverse terroirs come different kinds of wine. This leap from treating wine as useful primarily for its wet and alcoholic properties to understanding it as the product of a specific time and place is at the heart of the mentality of the core wine drinker. The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia supports this conversion with about 800 pages of facts, figures, pictures, descriptions, and lists all concerning wine and the places wine is made.
Its history, if not its current importance in the world wine market, places France at the top of the list of places wine is made. Author Tom Stevenson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Champagne, Alsace and French wine in general, makes this point by devoting more than 25% of the entire book to the wines of France. Region by region, terroir by terroir, and wine by wine, Stevenson makes the case for France as the spiritual home for core wine drinkers everywhere. This is not to say that The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia draws too much attention to French wine. It does not. However, by devoting so much space to the wines of France, Stevenson is forced to short change other established as well as newly-appreciated wine regions around the globe.
If there is any roadblock to potential and new core wine drinkers embracing this Encyclopedia as their primary reference, it is Stevenson’s choice to emphasize France over other regions that have gained more attention and prominence in the thirty-two years between the publication of the original Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and this newest Encyclopedia. This may be a concern to someone who views those who will buy this book as the folks likely to sustain the wine industry over the next four decades; the new core wine drinkers. This is not Stevenson’s concern, however.
Stevenson’s choice to overemphasize French wine in this rendition of The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia is his answer to the question: What are the most important foundational touchpoints in a proper wine education?
It’s fair to point out that much younger and less experienced members of the international wine industry would answer this question differently than Stevenson. It’s fair to point out that those with one or two fewer generations of wine experience than Stevenson and younger inner core wine professionals who have not had the time to write more than 20 books on wine might argue that a proper 21st-century wine education shouldn’t over-emphasize stuffy things like long-established French appellations and their wines quite so much.
I most recently came across this perspective while reading Vinka Danitza’s blog, Bottled Bliss. In a thoughtful recent post addressing “power and privilege” in the wine industry, Ms. Danitza—a talented Chilean-Canadian wine educator who is also an impressive writer—described a younger generation of wine professions this way:
“If the trends in wine show us anything, it is that there is a desire to move away from classics – classic styles, classic regions, classic wine communication and to CREATE something new. There is a new generation of male and female winemakers, marketing directors, sommeliers, wine buyers, writers, social media influencers who want to explore further, going beyond the stuffy, old school way of doing things.”
Danitza and the younger wine professionals’ desire to “create something new” in wine and to go beyond the “old school” and “stuffy” is in opposition to Stevenson’s approach in The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Whether or not this is an accurate description of what younger wine professionals are feeling (and I think it likely is), the more important question for both Stevenson and the wine industry that would like to create more “core” wine drinkers remains “What are the most important foundational touchpoints in a proper wine education?”
Even in the face of trends, the exuberance of a younger cadre of wine professionals, and the stuffy, old school way of doing things with which Danitza and others take issue, I think it is likely the case that Stevenson’s emphasis on a more traditional swath of wine knowledge is the better approach to a proper wine education.
None of this is to say that the New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia ignores New World and emerging wine regions that are playing a more important role in the international wine trade. In fact, Stevenson does an excellent job of providing at least a fly-over view of the smaller, emerging regions and gives a much more in-depth explanation of wine production, the lay of the land, and the brightest lights within all the most established wine-producing countries.
The wine industry will never have access to the names and contact information of those who eventually purchase this outstanding new edition of Sotheby’s wine reference. Nor is it likely they will have a breakdown of the most common demographic characteristics (age, sex, education, income, job title, travel, allocation of credit card expenditures, marital status, kids, etc.) of those who put this volume on their shelves. And this is too bad. The scope, depth, breadth, and utility of this book mark it as one of perhaps four or five books currently published that will serve as the primary reference for wine enthusiasts and that small group of wine consumers who contribute a hugely outsized amount of spending toward fine wine across the globe and in the U.S.
It needs to be mentioned that there are perhaps five or ten people in the world who have the talent, stamina and knowledge to edit and write this book. Stevenson, clearly one of that group, has accomplished an outstanding refurbishment of the original Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It undoubtedly will aid, educate and entertain hundreds of thousands of professionals, enthusiasts and core wine drinkers.
At $75.00 this latest edition of The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia represents an investment. But the fact is you can’t produce a book in physical form like this one at a price that gets it into the hands of anyone who wants it in their library.
The new publisher, National Geographic, adds a new and different kind of heft to the series’ already impressive reputation; a reputation that made earlier editions of this book required reading by Masters of Wine and Master Sommelier candidates. This important reference book is very highly recommended. It is in fact one of perhaps four or five books that must be acquired by a wine drinker looking to put the beverage into their core collection of interests that help define their intellectual, recreational and libational pursuits.