|There’s a moment in some interviews when the roles of interrogator and interrogated are temporarily switched. This happened earlier this summer, when I spent the day near Montreux, overlooking the piercing blue of Lake Geneva, at the Swiss home of Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing.
‘How,’ demanded the 98-year-old former proprietor of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac, ‘did you develop your palate?’
Under her inquisitive and keenly intelligent gaze, I went into tailspin. The version of this question I’m usually asked is, ‘How did you learn about wine?’ and to this I have built an answer. But specifically the palate? Can I even claim my palate is developed? What does it mean to Madame de Lencquesaing to have a developed palate? What does it mean to me?
I was still thinking when the next question came: had I read all the books of Serena Sutcliffe MW, the honorary chairman of Sotheby’s Wine? Reader, I have not read any of them. This got me thinking some more, not just at the time, but long after I had caught the predictably punctual train back round the shore of the lake and away from the snow-topped mountains.
The canon of wine literature is vast, and like all literary canons, there are key texts. Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW’s The World Atlas of Wine; Wine Grapes by Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz - the most-consulted wine book on my shelves and, yes, a big outlay at around £120 but a seriously good investment; The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud’s definitive work on ‘the Art and Science of Wine Appreciation’, first published in 1987 and as relevant as ever today.
All of us help to create the wine canon. The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has a key role in providing reading recommendations. But each of us has a role to play as we recommend to friends and on social media, and respond to the recommendations of others.
But we must also look beyond the ends of our noses. What bothered me when I thought about Mme de Lencquesaing’s question wasn’t the fact that I hadn’t read a single book by Serena Sutcliffe but that it hadn’t occurred to me to do so. The wine world changes and new guides and updates, attempting to capture the present moment, appear all the time.
But that doesn’t necessarily make older works redundant. For instance, I constantly refer to Great Bordeaux Wines for its wealth of historical detail. It was published in 1986 and written by James Seely, father of Christian, who now runs the wine division of AXA Millésimes; he helped his father research the book, long before becoming involved in wine himself. Other books - like early editions of The World Atlas of Wine (first published in 1971, it’s now in its 8th edition) - become a piece of wine history in themselves, documenting how the wine world once was.
Social media has improved communication in many ways, allowing us to reach different voices and follow threads of information. But it has also shifted the balance of the way we choose what to read, making it more reactive and less proactive. As an aside, I also spend way too much time considering how others communicate (thanks for that, Instagram) and not enough on what is being communicated (perhaps there’s a good reason for not dwelling too much on that).
Anyway, now I’m on a mission to bring a deeper level of reading and research back into my life. I want to spend more time exploring the nooks and crannies of wine literature, find more out-of-print books, pore over maps, immerse myself in studies and generally make more conscious choices about what I read instead of hopelessly trying to crunch through as big a chunk as possible of the mountain of information that presents itself daily on all my screens.
I want to choose, not wade. Here’s the plan.
Every day I wake at 5am and read for two hours before getting up. When I say read…I start with a daily newspaper (cover to cover, pretty much). After that, I scroll because I don’t want to get up. What if, before going to bed, I print out some of the articles or studies that are open in a window of my computer, awaiting a moment which never comes, and put them by my bed? Maybe they’d actually get read.
- Less scrolling, more chosen reading
Like many journalists I have a bad habit of dipping into books and skipping around, absorbing chunks here and there. I’ve just read about half of Henry Jeffreys’ brilliant new Vines in a Cold Climate in completely the wrong order and I WILL go back to the beginning and read it from start to finish so as not to miss any of its nuggets.
- Read more books from first to last page rather than butterflying around
There’s a fantastic depth and range of specialist wine writing out there but, for budgetary reasons, it’s not possible to subscribe to them all. As writers have left one publication and moved to or started another, I find my subscriptions don’t match the ones I would most like to read. I’ve cancelled robertparker.com as I so seldom refer to it these days, and am now deciding what to replace it with.
- Review my wine subscriptions
Those who have focused on one area or subject always have brilliant reading lists – all you need to do is ask. For instance, on a trip to New Zealand I was captivated by the stories and history that Nick Mills had about the area around Rippon, his family estate in Central Otago. Mills recommended an out-of-print book, Wanaka Story by Irvine Roxburgh, which was easy to source through Amazon and on my doormat waiting for me when I got home.
- Recommendations from specialists
Reading new work mustn’t happen at the expense of ignoring established names or forgotten books. Hugh Johnson, Andrew Jefford, Jay McInerney, Oz Clarke – these are all writers with much to offer. And then there are books like In the Vine Country by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, originally published in 1893, which is both very funny but also an illuminating look at Bordeaux.
- In with the old
It might sound ridiculous but reclassifying reading from luxury (no time for that!) to essential by putting it on the to-do list will make it easier to find an hour for it each day, as well as to remove the guilt I feel settling in to the written word when my in-box is overflowing. Planning reading also has the effect of bringing choice back into the equation – and when you think about what you want to be reading, you read different stuff. I am putting Jon Bonné’s The New French Wine at the top of my summer reading list. I hear excellent things about it.
- Put reading on the to-do list