I always hoped Max Allen would write a big book on Australian wine. Now he has: 440 satisfyingly fat pages. If you want to read about Australia’s brightest and best, get it (ISBN 978 1 74066 661 9; £30).
I had the chance to observe Australian wine writing at close hand over the last 15 months. In many ways, it’s an impressive scene: wine gets much more column space in Australia than it does in either the UK or France. There are plenty of fine writers and journalists in action over there: wise, succinct Huon Hooke and affable, engaging Peter Forrestal on the East coast and West coast respectively, and thoughtful Tim White in the middle; a talented younger generation with writers like the lyrical and inspiring Campbell Mattinson or hip, savvy Nick Stock; instinctive, probing journalists like Jeni Port in Melbourne; and then Philip White, of course, the Rimbaud of McLaren Vale.
Sadly I never got to meet ‘Whitey’ personally, but I admired his delivery, bandanna on head, standing on a table outside the Victory Hotel, shooting geology at the assembled wine-sluggers with all the fiery conviction of a temperance preacher in the goldfields.
Australian wine-writing, though, is cursed by points: they’re everywhere, ham-stringing writers and creating a climate of fear and phobia about standing out of line. A kind of points hyper-inflation has set in: if you only get 88 Australian points, you’ve bombed, and wines which, from any sane international fine-wine standpoint, would struggle in truth to get much above 82 or 84 points are all donging away in there with 92 and 94 Australian points. (I saw ‘Halliday 94-point wines’ advertised in the newspapers for sale as cleanskins during my stay.)
The end result is apparent precision concealing near-meaninglessness. This must be galling for those who really deserve those 95 and 96-point scores. It doesn’t do any favours, either, to those whose wines are wildly over-scored at 90 or 92 or 94, since it comforts them in the thought that they are making some of the best wines in Australia whereas in fact they should be in line for a critical roasting. (A personal opinion, obviously.)
Now here’s the good news: Max doesn’t score wines. When you buy The Future Makers (Tim Flannery fans will spot the cunning elision of Future Eaters and Weather Makers), you are buying a score-free book. Phew!
Max is sometimes criticised in Australia for being overly pro-biodynamic and pro-organic (he writes and publishes www.redwhiteandgreen.com.au, an interpretative BD/wine website). He is partial, and makes no secret of it. There are, though, non-biodynamic and non-organic producers profiled in the book – as well as some of the weaker BD producers (which often equates with the most doctrinaire). Careful reading of the entries enables you to gauge the author’s pulses of enthusiasm.
The core appeal, though, is that this is a book packed with great profiles of those who are moving Australia forward. Max writes attractively flexible, evocative but always unpretentious prose; he lets those who have something to say speak in their own voices; and the necessary background has been researched, digested and stitched seamlessly into the text so that you learn without ever realising that you were studying in the first place.
He’s also got together with a skilled cartographer called Martin von Wyss to create some maps which I’m very enthusiastic about, too: see www.australianwinemaps.com. Australia is ferociously difficult to map because of its contrasts in scale, and because of the deeply ingrained Australian belief that all you need in life is a road map. To understand vineyard areas and terroir, though, relief maps are essential (and road maps almost useless).
Moreover in as flat a country as Australia, you need exaggerated relief maps to illustrate to human eyes the differences felt by each vine leaf as a subtle breeze steals up on a September afternoon, or the precise moment at which sunlight might be lost towards a January dusk. (OK, I exaggerate – but to understand the broad outlines of all of that.) The maps of Victoria and of Australia as a whole which Max has created with Martin are indeed relief maps, and in addition to Martin’s limpid and elegant cartography you get deftly summary, terroir-focussed texts from Max. These are essential maps for anyone who is looking to understand Australian wine as well as enjoy it.
While we’re on books, some sad news (for me, at any rate): Mitchell Beazley is not undertaking any further reprints of The New France. It was selling ‘only’ 2,200 copies a year, Mitchell Beazley’s Denise Bates told me. (That seems reasonably successful to me for a £30 book eight years after publication and given no revision, but that was the official line.) I will be sad to lose the £600 or so it was worth per year in royalty payments. I hope to arrange the reversion of rights as soon as possible.
*** UPDATE: Following the appearance of this blog entry, Mitchell Beazley tells me that the 2,200 figure was erroneous, and that the true figure for sales last year was 222.***
Amazon.com in the US has been telling customers that the book was unobtainable for some time. Amazon.co.uk still has both new and used copies for sale at the time of writing.
My experience with Mitchell Beazley post-publication was a depressing one. Apart from replacing the initial, rather funereal cover with a brighter yellow version, Mitchell Beazley showed no interest at any point in promoting the book, in celebrating the book, or in undertaking any kind of revision or expansion of it. There were years when I couldn’t even get replies to emails sent to my Mitchell Beazley editorial contacts. Its physical distribution into bookshops was always patchy.
Yet (and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here) no other new book published by Mitchell Beazley in the last decade received reviews as enthusiastic as those achieved by The New France (there is a selection at http://www.andrewjefford.com/newfrance). I also don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that it was an influential book in certain unusual ways. I continue to receive many generous letters and emails from readers, both professional and amateur.
It was, in fact, written in a tearing hurry (around 18 months, start to finish), and the subject unquestionably merited an expanded, more slowly researched subsequent edition. As a guide not merely to one French region but to the wines of the whole country, it might easily (given necessary investment in revisions and improvements) have merited a permanent place on the list.
Having bought up rival companies and wine lists, it was Mitchell Beazley’s ambition at the beginning of the last decade to be the UK’s leading wine-book publisher. Any company with those ambitions should surely have, on its list, a permanently revised book dedicated to French wines as a whole.
I’m not sure Mitchell Beazley retained those ambitions for long, though. The company did a fine job in revising The World Atlas of Wine with Hugh Johnson and now Jancis Robinson, but in other respects it has seemed a visionless market leader over the last decade, and many of its seed investments misguided and ephemeral.
What’s certain is that any new entrant to wine-book publishing in the UK is welcome. Good news, then, that Max Allen’s publisher Hardie Grant last year established a London office. The new book-publishing extension to The World of Fine Wine (from Quarto) has also made an auspicious debut, and other publishers like Dorling Kindersley and Kyle Cathie continue to believe that high quality, well-researched and well-written wine books have a future.