The 24 Hour Wine Expert, by Jancis Robinson MW
Penguin Books (To be published in the U.S. by Abrams in September)
It’s well-known that wine-drinkers currently live in a Golden Age. There is more good vino at affordable prices being produced in more parts of the globe than ever before. Even great wines (before they are discovered by speculators, of course) can be within financial reach for many.
More wine available, however, also means, among other things, more stuff we should know: more producers, more grapes, more styles, more countries, what’s hot or not, and, alas, more wine terminology. Wine is a complex topic even before you get to the mechanics of how to store it, serve it, open a bottle and, yes, drink it.
In fact, it can be daunting. Which really begs the following question – and we can thank those inquisitive and rule-challenging Millennials for posing it: how much and what does one really need to know to derive maximum pleasure from wine without spending a lot of money and time on wine education courses?
Jancis Robinson, a Master of Wine and the doyenne of British (actually, of all) wine critics, has weighed in on this question in her new book, “The 24-Hour Wine Expert.” I should really call it a “booklet” because at 111 pages, this is the long-time Financial Times columnist’s “shortest-ever” wine book (her words). Her previous tome, the 4th Edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine (2015), spanned 860 pages with a very small font size. My bookshelf happily sags under its contents and that of its three predecessors.
In a column in the FT at the end of January, the author credits her 24-year-old daughter, Rose, with the idea for the book. It seems Rose’s friends -- those Millennials who are already challenging previous generations’ views on wine consumption – asked her to sound out her mom on what are the basic essentials for wine appreciation. Focus groups (involving these young would-be oenophiles) were held, with facts gathered about what wine knowledge needed to be included.
The 24-Hour Wine Expert is the happy result. Amazingly, this thin volume manages to cover the major aspects of wine appreciation at a very high level. There are the basic facts about the major wine-producing countries, the top grape varieties, how wine is made and so on. But all in very concise and in readable, mostly jargon-free prose. Jargon is actually consigned to a brief section on wine terms.
Such a beginner’s guide to wine will necessarily contain many lists, and this book is no different. In this case, Robinson provides a valuable service to the reader because only a veteran expert can distill the immense subject of wine appreciation into its essentials.
One important list (pps 46-47) is on “Ten Common Wine Myths.” The first myth the author dispels is perhaps the most crucial: the more expensive the wine, the better the bottle. She notes that the sweet spot for good value wine runs from roughly $10 to about $30, which is the focus of our website as well. Wines under those amounts run the risk of being industrial plonk, while paying for wine in the “ultra- premium” category north of $30 often means one is subsidizing marketing budgets, massaging egos and kowtowing to speculators.
Perhaps the most useful all-around list is the “Top Ten Tips” on page 56. Robinson provides strategies for wine buying, wine serving, and pairing wine with food. For example: “Colour doesn’t matter as much as weight when matching wines and food.” So, yes, you can order a Pinot Noir in a restaurant to go with your salmon or an Alsatian Riesling to go with your soba noodles.
The book is not all lists, of course. There are short but informative sections on the main regions in the world (the author calls it a “cheat sheet”). The main wine-producing countries (by volume)—France, Italy, Spain and the U.S.—are described in relative detail and there is good information here. The section on the corresponding main grape varieties is also very useful.
As noted, this book is directed at, or at least inspired by, Millenials, who also happen to be the fastest-growing age group of wine drinkers (though Boomers are still the largest single segment, for now). While Robinson’s point of view and experience are certainly global, some Euro-centrism still creeps into parts of the book, which Millennials might find, well, “so last century.” As the sommelier and self-described Millennial wine geek Leora Kalikow wrote in The Huffington Post in 2014: “To our generation, the mystique of French Bordeaux is perceived as pretension. We like what’s kitschy, eco-friendly, nostalgic and retro. And boxed wine fits the bill.”
Overall, though, Robinson is well aware of the Millenials’ different philosophy when it comes to wine consumption and that is reflected in these pages.
If I ran a restaurant, I would have my wine director buy this book for all the sommeliers and waiters on his/her staff. Not that the sommeliers would need to study it per se, but sometimes the shortest answer to a customer’s question is the most convincing. This book can help all in the wine trade provide better service.
With this handy little work, Robinson lays the foundation for novices to begin the process of mastering the complex topic of wine. There’s something in it for anyone who desires to know a little more and who, perhaps someday, will “graduate” to the Oxford Companion to Wine, perhaps while sipping on Sauvignon or Syrah from a box.
The 24-Hour Wine Expert will appear in the U.S. in September. If you happen to be in the U.K. before then, buy the Penguin version. Why wait?
In vino veritas et felicitas