First of all, a moan about the mysterious world of publishing. When I bought this brilliant, enormous, beautiful tome there were two interesting numbers on it (there are lots more inside). On the back, printed onto the sleeve that the book sleeps in between thumbings, was the figure £75 – the amount it is supposed to cost. On the front, printed on a sticker placed there by the retailer, was the figure £15 – the amount the book actually cost. That’s a titchy 20% of the advertised retail price. Something here isn’t making a lot of sense.
It’s not like this is some dusty old remaindered tome that I intercepted on its way to the incinerator: it’s the seventh edition of a much-loved and widely-venerated publication and was released on 7 October, a couple of weeks ago. It’s just that nothing about books is as fictional as the make-believe prices their publishers print on them, while simultaneously agreeing to charge a pathetic fraction of that amount to any business willing to place a massive order. This leads to comedy price-cutting by online giants, a sense of helplessness among small, independent booksellers and a feeling of confusion and suspicion among shoppers.
There are two editions of this book in the UK, with official retail prices of £40 and £75, the main difference so far as I can tell being that the latter is housed in a presentation sheath and that the words “special” and “edition” can be applied to it (though I see no sign of them on the book itself). Waterstones is selling the £40 version for £30.10, Hive for £26.32, WH Smith for £24.80, and Amazon for £19.66. The Book People are selling the £75 version for £15 (it was briefly knocked down to a tenner earlier in the week) but it’s on Hive for £45.26, at Foyles for £54.75 and from Amazon there’s no discount at all. It’s absurd for a new publication to be available at such wildly varying prices, and it’s unfair on retailers and consumers. If they’re going to do this, they should also release a World Atlas of Buying the World Atlas of Wine, to help the potential purchaser through the confusion. My message to the publishing industry is clear: Stop it, the lot of you. Right now.
Fortunately, the book is probably worth any of those prices, and certainly more than the amount I paid for it. It was never going to be, and certainly isn’t, full of hilarious jokes and clever wordplay, but the text is all extremely readable, admirably so given how much work it’s got to do. There’s a mind-bending amount of information here, all assembled with incredible attention to detail and then decorated with innumerable photographs and maps and labels (I’m not sure I need all those wine labels, really) before being spread across a table-vexing 377 pages plus index. It has been written, edited and proofread with unusual care, and my cap is doffed to all concerned. It takes itself so seriously that each page is split into a grid, so that the index doesn’t just point you towards the right map for your entry of choice, but to the specific square inch of utmost relevance.
Beyond the bizarre pricing it’s very hard to quibble with anything about this book. Indeed my list of complaints, and I’ve searched fairly hard because I quite like complaining, has just two entries. First, it’s inevitable that some people will find their favourite wine region under-represented, particularly given that France gets almost a third of the book on its own, but I was surprised to find that the next largest chapter is devoted to North America, which with 37 pages get five more than Italy (even though the Italians make more than twice as much wine) and more than twice as much space as Spain (the world’s third-biggest wine producer). However many pages you’ve got, there are never enough. Second, in the colour-coded map of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s soil types the area known as Orange is predominantly pink, but the area next to Orange is mainly orange. Where’s the logic in that?
There’s more, or rather less, to wine than the accumulation of knowledge, than soil types and geography and average rainfall and prevailing winds. But this ancillary information can also add a joy of its own, and no wine will ever be less appreciated if the drinker reads the appropriate page or two of this book before it’s opened. I have never owned or paid much attention to the six previous editions, and now I find myself awed with appreciation for the effort, knowledge and beauty that I have just acquired. This pristine palace of pages – a Châteauneuf du Paper, if you like – is the most essential of all wine books. Buy it. Just be careful where.