Food & Drink

Three Wise Gifts

It’s not the slickest, hippest wine book in the world but that lack of attitude is one reason why it’s the best. Also because it is crammed with facts, an A to Z of wine with over 4,000 entries, presented tidily, logically, in language that everyone can understand. The third edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine (Gift #1) was edited by British wine writer Jancis Robinson, and it has captured her demeanour perfectly, a personal observation made after meeting her a few days ago in Toronto. She has an aura of approachability in person and in print that makes this monster book feel like a companion indeed. She also has the depth, objectivity and assurance to make it The Authority.

I asked her, given the volume of work its 800+ pages represents, how much direct involvement she had. “I am very hands-on editor, I’m afraid,” she said. “I am a bit of a control freak”. She worked on it for two years, in addition to several other endeavours that make her among the most prolific wine writers ever. She has authored countless books. She has done television. She writes weekly in London’s Financial Times and syndicates a monthly column in magazines around the world. Her Web site is one the most heavily trafficked wine sites in cyberspace, possessing over 5,000 subscribers in 70 countries who pay $140/year for her insider Purple Pages (Gift #2) of daily-updated tasting notes, news and opinion. There’s lots of free stuff too!

She’s a sponge for wine knowledge, always connecting the dots, always wanting to share what she knows, and not afraid of expressing her opinion once she has stopped to consider that opinion. Her abilities captivated over 200 Toronto wine enthusiasts for two hours during her talk at George Brown College earlier this month. During a Q&A, she deftly fielded queries on everything from screwcaps to biodynamic viticulture to her opinions on US wine critic Robert Parker, with whom a difference of opinion on one wine—Chateau Pavie—became the lighting rod for a global controversy on wine styles and the power of wine critics. She was upset that the debate had become overblown. “Robert Parker is absolutely brilliant, very hard working, and cares about wine at least as much as I do. I know him well, we would on occasion visit each other. Then it went all very silly. This was just a disagreement of two people over one wine.”

The other subject bound to emerge was her opinion of Canadian wine. She dodged nicely saying she hadn’t at that point done enough recent tasting of Canadian wine, although a “crème de la crème” tasting was convened for her later that day, and we all await her Web site diagnosis. But she did, more than once, rail against the issue of Canadian producers using off-shore wine in Product of Canada wines that are deceptively labeled and marketed at the retail level as domestic wine. She wondered aloud to me, “how Canadians are ever going to appreciate their own wine as long as this situation exists.”

A good question, although here on the home front our own wine writers are toiling to build that appreciation anyway. Front and centre is Tony Aspler, perhaps Canada’s best known chronicler of our wine scene. He too was also at George Brown College to welcome Jancis, and promote his new book, The Wine Atlas of Canada (Gift #3). Aspler has written several other books, but none better than this detailed, lively, cross-country profiling of the people and places that define Canadian wine. As an atlas the maps are not what they should be but the text and terrific photography by Steven Elphick, are very engaging, making it a must-have.

Both books should be available at larger bookstores, specialty food and wine bookstores and at accessory retailers.


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