Jancis Robinson Shares a Look Inside the Evolution of The Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis R. Robinson, MW, was faced with a daunting task in late 1988: the writing of the first edition, The Oxford Companion to Wine. The first edition was a huge success and became one of Oxford University Press‘s (OUP), second only to the dictionary. It also provided a valuable resource to the wine industry. The impressively comprehensive book contains thousands of entries, ranging from viniculture’s origin to climate change, NFTs, and more. It is frequently referred to by wine enthusiasts, professionals, and students, whether they are beginners or working toward the Master of Wine title.

It is important to keep the book up-to-date, as there are few other places where you can find such depth and breadth in the ever-changing wine world. The fifth edition was published last month, almost 30 years after the publication of the original edition. This is thanks to Julia Harding MW and Tara Q. Thomas, who are now the lead editor and assistant editor.

What has the Oxford Companion to Wine changed over the past three decades, and what does this mean for the wine industry as a whole? SevenFifty Daily interviewed Robinson to learn more about the evolution of The Oxford Companion to Wine and its impact on wine industry professionals.

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SevenFifty Daily: How was it to write the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford Companion to Wine)?

Jancis Robinson: Absolute terror. I knew that I needed to fill in 800 pages of two columns per page, which were all blank when I began my work in 1989. The contract was originally dated November 30, 1988, which is probably invalid because that date does not exist. The agreement was amended in 2011 to include electronic rights. These are jointly controlled, just like all other rights, by the OUP, the editor, and the publisher.

It was a time before email, so all contributions were on paper. For the first two editions, I did not have an assistant editor. OUP demanded that I provide them with at least a printout of the manuscript. Imagine how long it takes to print.

SFD – How did this project come to be?

JR: Caradoc King has been my literary agent for 45 years. She apparently suggested it to the OUP publishers without me knowing. It was an honor to me that OUP would dedicate their Companions series, which began in 1930 with English literature and moved on to art and music. Alan Davidson, who was commissioned years before me to write an Oxford Companion to Food, had to update entries he had already registered. So I decided to move quickly. Although five years may seem like a long time, our younger daughter Rose was also born during the time I worked on it.

It was a great honor to have studied Math and Philosophy at Oxford. It helped that, unlike most writers, I’ve always admired science. Logic is the link between these two subjects, and it was a logical mind that helped me divide the world of wine’s complexity into topics, categories, and entries.

SFD – Did you know that the book would be so important to the wine industry when it was first published in 1994?

JR: No, absolutely not. It was a surprise to find out that the first edition of OUP’s dictionary was their best seller. In retrospect, I realized that the English language had a surprising lack of publications on wine science. There was also nothing on some of the amusing general terms such as “fashion” and “the literature of wines.”

Editors of the 5th edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine. Tara Q. Thomas (left to right), Julia Harding, and Jancis Robertson. Jancis Robinson provided the photo.

Since the first edition, SFD has seen a huge evolution in the industry. What is the difference between the first and the fifth editions?

JR: Thanks to Julia Harding MW and Tara Q. Thomas, the new version is a million words long, or 25 percent longer. It is also much better edited. Tara provided a new set of contributors to the geographical entries. Julia continued her work with Wine grapes[a reference to 1,368 varieties of grapes, including their origins and flavor], which greatly improved the grape variety entries. She also continued her excellent work with the viticulture, enology, and viticulture entries that she was responsible for in the third edition and fourth editions along side Richard Smart, Ph.D. and Valerie Lavigne, Ph.D.

SFD – How did you go about revising each edition?

JR: Every entry, including the historical ones, is read and analyzed. A decision is then made on how to update them and, if needed, by whom. It wasn’t only us who reviewed them. We asked experts from each country or field to review and update the content. We heavily relied on their current, on-the-ground expertise. Walter Speller, JancisRobinson.com’s Italy editor, has a much deeper understanding of Italy than any of us. Ferran Centelles is JancisRobinson.com’s Spanish specialist and knows Spain better than we can.

In this edition, we also tried to find as many people as possible who could report on the ground from their own countries. Instead of having one person covering all of California, we had five people saying from each region (Matt Kettmann, Patrick J Comiskey, Alder Yarrow, Elaine Chukan Brown, and Kelli white). In Australia, a single reporter is used to cover the country. We found someone in New York who works and lives in the Finger Lakes, Maiah Johnson Dunn. We sought out people to tell us what the wine scene in Estonia, Latvia, and Finland is like today. We also worked to make the book more global and less Anglocentric in terms of content and tone.

The latest edition of the Companion contains 65 percent materially updated entries, a proportion that is similar to previous editions. It’s been a long time since we had a version of the Companion at JancisRobinson.com. (It is so easy to click cross-references). Julia has done a great job updating the online edition with the latest developments, although not to the same level as a brand-new edition.

SFD – What should wine professionals look out for in the recently released fifth edition of the book?

JR: Everything! The revisions were made to ensure accuracy, update the text in some cases (such as climate), and bring a global perspective. Greg Jones, an expert in viticulture and a research climatologist, has significantly revised all entries that are related to climate. The design, navigation, and bibliography were also updated, as well as the online references.


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