The Story of Wine – book review

This edition of The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £30 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

If the title of the book sounds familiar, that is because it has been around since 1989, published by Mitchell Beazley. As far as I can tell the text is identical to the Mitchell Beazley edition I have from 1999, so I will start by comparing the 1999 edition with this one. Firstly, this book has the same wonderful soft-covered binding as the Sherry book from the same publisher, but the paper, rather than being bright and shiny, is a good quality matt. It is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 496 sides. The text is clear and well laid-out, and with no illustrations the page design is a lot less busy.

I think one of the major selling points of the Mitchell Beazley edition was the sumptuous quality of the book, with its rich colour illustrations, but personally I can see the attractions of the new edition. Basically, I find this version a lot more inviting to read – it’s considerably lighter to hold, the text is not broken up by illustrations, and it still feels sumptuous (but in a different sort of way). These are not minor points. In the last few years when I got interested in the origins of wine after having visited Georgia, I intended to reread the earlier edition, but somehow it just seemed too much like hard work due to its look and feel. Yet I now feel motivated to try again with this edition. But perhaps that is just me?

Regarding the illustrations, I have just checked a few places in the 1999 edition, and I cannot see any place where they are particularly closely related to the text, let alone essential for understanding it. Admittedly they do sometimes add information, but my overall impression is that Johnson wrote his book with the intention that the text should stand by itself.

It was a while since the last time I read the text and, irrespective of my new-found enthusiasm, I am realistically not going to reread it in the immediate future, so what follows here are a just few observations about the text. I’ll maybe write a follow-up post with more detail.

The first thing to note is the author’s intention to write this book as a story, hence the title of the book. He does not pretend to be a historian, and Hugh Johnson’s classic style of prose is unencumbered by footnotes, though there is a bibliography for each chapter. And as a story, it starts in the mists of time, and ends in the late 20th century, in the decades when Hugh is getting engrossed in the subject of wine. As such, the story is complete, and did not did to be updated since it was first written, he explains in his preface. Hmmm… that sounds like a pretty thin excuse to me, and I immediately spot some details in chapter 2 that could do with updating in the light of more recent archaeology, and I also consider how wine has changed in the last 30 years or so. But I could just about be prepared to treat it as a story on its own terms – a story reflecting its time of writing.

As for the subject matter of the book, I don’t think I could do better than reproduce the contents pages. (Try clicking on the image to make the text legible.)

If illustrations in a book are important to you, try to find an older edition – Google reveals there are still new copies kicking about waiting to be purchased. Otherwise, for sheer reading pleasure, I’d recommend you get this new Academie du Vin Library edition.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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