Book Review: The Wine Bible, 3rd Edition

I’ve now been writing about wine for 19 years, and the more time that goes on, the list of things that I don’t know gets longer and longer. That would be true if nothing ever changed in the world of wine, but of course, the opposite is true. Change both evolutionary and radical unfolds relentlessly, meaning that quite literally there’s more to know every year.

All of that by way of saying how terrifyingly impossible the prospect of capturing the entirety of the wine world in a single volume would be, and how amazing it is that Karen MacNeil has attempted to do it, not once, but thrice.

What has she learned along the way to publishing the third edition of her best-selling The Wine Bible? I recently sat down with my friend and colleague to find out.

“I learned that you don’t leave Italy until the end,” she says. “Italy is chaos. If you leave Italy and Germany until the end, you’ll throw yourself off the roof of the building. You get Portugal, Germany, and Italy out of the way early on, and you don’t do them one after another. You need something easy in between that you can really handle, like Oregon.”

MacNeil wrote the first edition of The Wine Bible in 2001 without much of a track record as wine writer. “I was better known as a food writer,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have a readership, and I didn’t have any expectation of sales. The first one was a passion project.’

The second edition was published in 2015. Between those two editions, the book has sold more than 800,000 copies, making it one of the top five best-selling wine books in history, and the best-selling American book on wine.

“I feel like at this point it has its own life and it drags me along behind it helping,” laughs MacNeil. “This time it only took 4 years to write, which was twice as fast as the original.”

Updating a reference book with the kind of aspirations at comprehensiveness inherent in The Wine Bible (I mean look at the title, for Pete’s sake...) doesn’t involve merely refreshing the number of hectares under vine in Romania.

“I realized I could keep the same house and paint the walls a different color, or I could take it down to the studs, put a new roof on and add rooms,’ says MacNeil. ‘I took it down to the studs. It would be faster to just change the facts, but it is much more satisfying to create a whole new book.’

MacNeil set out (both for this edition and the previous one) to largely rewrite the text, which meant re-researching every section of the book. Somewhat shockingly, MacNeil refuses to rely on other writers’ research for her own, preferring authoritative, primary sources for any facts she conveys to readers.

While many of us might be content, say, to trust Jasper Morris when he tells us the acreage of Echezeaux in his authoritative Inside Burgundy, not so Karen MacNeil. She’ll rely on government records, thank you very much.

To say there are a lot of facts in this 728-page tome would be grossly understating the case.

Karen MacNeil

The Wine Bible has always stood somewhat apart in the world of wine reference books for its insistence on being a one-stop-shop for the wine-loving reader. This approach makes it unique, even in the company of some of the world’s greatest, most encyclopedic works on wine.

The Oxford Companion to Wine is as close to a universal reference for the English-speaking wine world as it comes, but it doesn’t really recommend wineries or their wines, teach you how to taste, or tell you what Baumes-de-Venise actually tastes like.

The World Atlas of Wine covers well the geographical, climatological, and regulatory facts about major wine regions and appellations of the world, briefly indicating their most notable wines, but it doesn’t explain what tannins are, or how wine barrels are made.

The Wine Bible attempts the incredible feat of trying to do it all: giving you the fundamentals about what makes wine special;…

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Book Review: The Wine Bible, 3rd Edition  
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