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Published:  23 July, 2008

Can wine books ever capture the imagination of the TV generation?Josie Butchart looks at old favouritesand checks out young hopefuls

There is a scene in the 1983 film Educating Rita that flashed through my mind when I was talking to publishers about the state of the book market. Julie Walters, as Rita, is poised on the threshold of Dr Frank Bryant's party, but hesitates, then decides not to go in because she is embarrassed by her choice of wine. Drinks publishing has come a long way since the 1980s, but how much impact do wine and spirits books actually have on the average consumer? Twenty years on, and although wine is a lot more democratised, many consumers still seem as intimidated as Rita about making a simple purchase. According to drinks publishers, wine books will never impact on the average consumer because it is - and always will be - a sector appealing only to the determined enthusiast or wine anorak'. So, although you might imagine the 21st-century Rita benefiting from the mass of information on the book shelves, she remains oblivious and unsure about what to buy. Wine publishing is very much a niche area. It is growing, but not at the same rate as wine sales, and it will always be a smaller group of people who actually go to the trouble of buying a wine book than will consume wine,' says Dorling Kindersley's senior wine editor Gary Werner. So, just because someone buys wine - and enjoys it - they are not necessarily interested enough to take the next step and read all about it. Never mind the consumer who is just looking for some help choosing party wine. Spirits publishing is even more niche,' says Hilary Lumsden, commissioning editor for wine at specialist drinks publisher Mitchell Beazley. We really had no idea how Dave Broom's book Rum would be received and niche areas are difficult to cover because we can't publish a book that is not commercially viable.' One possible exception to this might be cocktail books which, with the cocktail boom, seem to increase their presence every year. But many seem to be little more than drink cookbooks, with recipes that are not always tried and tested, and there is often little to differentiate one from the other, although there are notable exceptions. But for the enthusiast at least, the wine sector has come on in leaps and bounds and it seems that most regions, excepting the most marginal, and therefore commercially difficult for publishers, now have at least one or two writers probing for the latest information. And the sector generally appears to be in a healthy state, despite its specialist status, considering the global economic position and pessimistic mood across the publishing industry as a whole. Wine has a very positive stance in illustrated publishing, so although the book trade is going through one of its hardest times, our sales are stable,' says Lumsden. Websters also reports that the market remains resilient' despite the generally gloomy economic outlook, and The Penguin Group is starting to pump more money into Dorling Kindersley's wine list after a quiet period. The wine and drink list at Dorling Kindersley was in a dormant state a few years ago, before it became part of The Penguin Group, but the wine list is now being revitalised and has some proper investment behind it,' says Werner.

The future's bright... for the classics So things are generally good - and even on the up. A quick look at the groaning shelves reveals a wide range of titles covering most regions and subjects. New drinks books seem to be flooding on to the market each year: atlases, annual wine guides and detailed regional profiles. Mitchell Beazley has more than 70 titles in print after taking over the Faber wine titles (now the Classic Wine Library) which are being gradually updated and selectively reissued or even rewritten. There are other regions I would like to commission books on - the up-and-coming areas such as the Middle East, China and Thailand - but they are simply not viable at the moment,' says Lumsden. The most popular regions, producing most interest from readers, are Italy and France.' Publishers may still be concentrating on the classic regions but they are starting to push the boundaries further. Mitchell Beazley admits that it expects less interest in Monty Waldin's Wines of South America than Andrew Jefford's The New France, because fewer people want to read about the area, but it was happy to commission it because there is still enough potential interest. Sales of South American wine are certainly significant and many wine enthusiasts will be eager for up-to-date news on the area. There is a lot of excitement in the field of wine publishing these days,' says Werner. But how far has it all come since the first truly modern wine writer set the ball rolling? It is widely agreed that the first person to write about wine in a modern way, and make it approachable, was Hugh Johnson, way back in the 1960s. His annual wine guide still leads the pack in terms of sales, and his wine credentials have a huge impact on the market. People come back year after year to Hugh's books and sales remain consistent. We have never lost sales on the previous year, which is a hard thing for any writer to achieve,' says Lumsden. In the wine book market it helps if you are an established name: He is a brand,' says Mitchell Beazley's publicity manager Fiona Smith of Hugh Johnson. You can always make a success out of a book by Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, Michael Broadbent MW or Jancis Robinson MW,' says Adrian Webster, chairman of Websters International Publishers. Beyond that it's harder.' Several writers have a similar style to Johnson: Jancis writes very much in the same tradition as Hugh, and Andrew Jefford is a stylist following in Hugh's footsteps,' says Webster. Michael Broadbent MW has certainly got a loyal following and sales of his latest offering, Vintage Wine, have been very good this year. But it is aimed at the very niche end of a niche market; only hardcore wine enthusiasts are likely to persevere with this incredibly detailed tome, although perhaps it will prove a winning alternative in the UK market to Robert Parker's books. Parker is a dominant voice,' says Werner, but we sell a limited number because his books are expensive. There is also a certain amount of hype surrounding Parker and some people have opinions before they have even sat down to read the books.' Since Johnson burst on to the scene there has been a steady stream of annual guides, packed with A-to-Z wine listings and recommendations, but very few truly original books. You see a lot of "me-too" publishing on wine,' says Webster. A lot of books get sold at high discounts and then die.' There have, of course, been other highlights over the years. Jancis Robinson wrote a ground-breaking book, Vines, Grapes & Wines, which over many years became outdated. Websters commissioned Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand to write Grapes & Wines because we believed there was something genuinely new to say on the subject,' says Webster. It is important that each new book does actually offer something genuinely innovative because, he goes on to warn, there is a real limit to the number of wine books the market can bear'. We're back to the problem of a niche market catering only for enthusiasts, which ultimately limits sales.

New books on the block The past 12 months, though, have seen the launch of several new stars, books perhaps offering a fresh approach to wine writing. Credentials still play a vital role for Wine Report 2004 by Tom Stevenson - a collection of regional updates and reports on core issues from highly regarded wine writers - but it is also offering something new for the true enthusiast. Part of the draw for Wine Report is the contributors - they carry a sense of authority,' says Werner, but it is the concept that is most important.' Wine Report promises to tell the reader about important events and developments in each region or subject - including privileged insider information'. So, is it more than just the usual collection of tasting notes? It's something that is not duplicated on the wine book market,' says Werner. There are plenty of annual guides but Wine Report offers a new angle - frank opinion from high-profile experts. It will be updated and republished each year and promises to provide a snapshot of the wine market. It is definitely a must for the trade and wine lovers, but perhaps contains too much insider information to attract the general reader. Andrew Jefford's The New France has also grabbed the headlines, and certainly the plaudits, since it arrived on the scene last year. Jefford writes in the introduction: I hope it will help you love French wine', and his beautifully constructed prose seems the perfect vehicle to convey his evident passion for the subject. The most striking aspect of the book is the thoughtfulness of the writing and the sense of place it evokes; conjuring up images of the wine landscape and producers. Although it seems aimed, again, at the more advanced-level wine enthusiast with a fairly traditional, anti-globalisation stance, a wider range of readers have reacted positively to the sheer beauty of the writing. It has been a real success story because it appealed to a broader market than we expected. Andrew makes the information more accessible by putting his opinions across in a delightful way. People just love his writing,' says Lumsden. And winning awards does make a difference to sales.' Matthew Jukes has achieved great success with the annual Wine List and consumers seem to respond to his down-to-earth approach: I use modern language in my writing because it works,' says Jukes. It is used for every other lifestyle subject, it's used to describe food, so why not wine?' Accessible language and style seem a winning combination that has also worked for the IWSC Communicator of the Year 2003, Max Allen, and his books are a great introduction to wine, says Jamie Oliver's wine operations manager, Matt Skinner: He is a fantastic author, I still think his book Red and White is ground-breaking, it's such an easy read. We're using a Max Allen text at Fifteen to teach the trainees.' A new book in the pipeline at Mitchell Beazley, Planet Wine by Stuart Pigott, also promises to make wine more accessible. On the cocktail front, Simon Difford takes a refreshing approach with his Sauce Guide to Cocktails. It is a comprehensive guide with more than 1,500 recipes, each, uniquely, illustrated with a photograph to keep budding mixologists on track, and each personally mixed - and tasted - by Difford to ensure they actually work. The idea was to produce a guide for consumers as well as bar professionals,' says Difford. The focus is different from a wine book, because the cocktail market is fashion-led and faster-moving. Difford has included elements that give it an up-to-date feel - helped by the funky magazine format, such as reviews of the hippest bars and his opinion on which cocktails are on the up or on their way out. It draws in readers with its fun, yet informative, style. And with the cocktail market expanding, it should have a positive future. But perhaps there is a way of bringing wine books to a wider audience and somehow capturing more of the growing wine market. As Adrian Webster comments: There is a synergy between wine publishing and the wine trade. We have the same goal: getting people to enjoy and buy more wine.' So, surely it would create benefits across the entire trade if drinks publishing could reach a wider market. Food writing has a much higher profile and seems to appeal to consumers across the board. We are starting to be more adventurous with our wine consumption, but the content of our fridges has changed even more dramatically since the Educating Rita era, when Adam Ant topped the charts. Fresh basil is now a kitchen staple and consumers don't seem to be intimidated by French cheeses, or the more exotic ingredients in the supermarket, in the way they are by wine. Food writing is constantly in the spotlight, and retailers have responded by stocking more and more adventurous ingredients. Jamie Oliver's close link with Sainsbury's is perhaps the most obvious example and must surely be good news for importers of speciality Italian ingredients. Delia Smith certainly taught us how to cook, but Nigel Slater, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson sold us the lifestyle - and resell us a new variant every year. Now, perhaps, we are ready for possibly the next big thing: the wine lifestyle. And there's the crux. Who offers us the wine lifestyle these days and are there any really inspirational wine lifestyle books on the market to spread the word? All around the globe, wine is integrated into the way of life, but wine publishing, in a contrary fashion, seems to strive to divorce wine from lifestyle - broken down into A to Z, incorporated in a factual reference work or encyclopaedia, or separated in a small regional guide. It is fine to discuss terroir, but perhaps this should go hand in hand with an explanation of the lifestyle and culture that make up the origin of the wine. Surely that is the overriding factor in terroir - the spirit of the place where a wine is born? Writers like Jefford have started the ball rolling, but perhaps we could take it further by bringing the same message to a wider audience.

Celebrity sippers? So why do wine books not attract the general reader in the way food writing does? That question still remains to be answered,' says Lumsden. For one thing, there's not the celebrity status that you get with food.' There have been a handful of wine writers who have brushed against the fringes of fame over the years but no real current wine heroes. Hugh Johnson is certainly fairly well known, but he isn't out and about much any more. We all remember that Keith Floyd likes the odd tipple, and we had lots of fun watching him enjoy his lifestyle, but it all seems a bit pass and faded these days. Then there was Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke on BBC's Food & Drink. Whatever anyone says about flowery wine prose, they certainly did more to bring wine to the masses than anyone else in the industry; it's all a bit like stale Liebfraumilch now. So, what do the publishers think? I don't think the current state of wine publishing conveys the full story of wine beyond the glass,' says Werner. Jefford and perhaps Stephen Brook go some way down the road of bringing the subject to life, but I would point to the success of history that reads like a novel. There's room in a multifaceted area like wine to do more with that.' Websters is waiting to see who the next great wine writer is: We need some really bright, sassy writers who are telegenic, because we need exposure on television,' says Webster. That would be the single biggest thing that could happen for the market. There is a direct correlation between television and sales of the books that go with it.' Lumsden agrees that television exposure would help the wine book market expand, but says that television is tentative about experimenting too far. The producers always say there is not much you can do with wine except pour it into a glass or traipse through a vineyard.' Most agree that television is a hard medium for wine, in comparison to food, which is generally more visual. With wine television, the person who does it is really going to have to think outside the square, because you can't sit on the other side of the television and think "that smells fantastic" unless you have the same bottle sitting in front of you at home,' says Matt Skinner. But surely someone out there can rise to the challenge and think of a way to do it? It's about time the glamorous world of wine stole into the limelight - and perhaps the books that follow will eventually reach out to Rita, as well as the most ardent wine enthusiasts.