A tale of two wine guides

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  • Oz Clarke Pocket Wine Book 2014 (Anova Books)
  • Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2014 (Octopus Books)

There are two leading pocket wine guides on the market, so I thought it would be interesting to compare the 2014 editions side by side.

The first is the original: Hugh Johnson’s, which is now in its 37th year and has sold a gazillion copies. The second is Oz Clarke’s, the young pretender to the phone (who is now a youthful 63), whose guide turns 22 this year.

Both Hugh and Oz are true legends, and I admire them both greatly. But neither guide fully acknowledges that they are actually written by a team of expert contributors. Yes, there’s a very small paragraph at the end of each book thanking them, but it would be much better if the extent of their role was made clear.

Both books are similar in size and weight (306 versus 309 grams), and consist of pithy entries covering grape varieties, regions and producers. But they are organized quite differently. The Oz guide is strictly alphabetical, while Hugh’s is arranged by country. I think Hugh’s approach makes more sense.

Both try to justify the annual purchase of the guide with a little filler material from Oz and Hugh. This jars a little with the rest of the content. For example, Hugh’s book finishes with an essay on Pinot Noir in full colour on a glossy insert which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the material. Oz gives us a breezy report card on the world of wine.

Hugh uses a four star rating for each producer, with a range allowed. Oz uses a three star rating, but it is slightly more complex: within each regional entry, producers are given a score; within each producer entry, individual wines are scored.

How reliable are these books? If you look down the list of contributors, then you’ll see that both are calling on experienced wine writers with good reputations. So, on the whole, they are going to be pretty reliable. To get a better idea of this, I took a closer look at three regions I have particular in depth knowledge of: New Zealand, Portugal and South Africa.

Overall, Hugh does Portugal a bit better than Oz. I found myself in pretty much full agreement with Hugh’s Portuguese content. The Oz coverage seemed a bit off the pace, with an unusual list of ratings for the Douro producers, for example.

New Zealand coverage in Hugh was a bit mean on the ratings. Just four producers got the full four stars (or a range going up to 4 stars): Stonyridge, Te Mata, Millton and Neudorf. In contrast, for South Africa, Hugh gives 23 four-star ratings to producers. There’s no mention of Kusuda, Rippon gets 2-3 stars, Pyramid Valley gets 2 stars, and both Bell Hill, Ata Rangi and Felton Road get 3 stars. This is an odd set of ratings.

Oz doesn’t like Pyramid Valley either: they get just one star, as does Seresin. The only Kiwi wineries to get 3 stars (remember, this is maximum rating for Oz) are Ata Rangi, Dry River, Neudorf and Felton Road: no complaints there, but there are other wineries that should also have received 3 stars. No one in Marlbrough gets top ratings, for example.

Hugh’s coverage of South Africa felt a bit behind the times. There’s a long list of four star wineries – 23 of them – which looks a bit like a list of top wineries 10 years ago. However, these top ratings are somewhat diluted by the wide ranges given in many cases. Lots of them are 1-4 or 2-4 star ratings, which isn’t all that much use to the reader. It would be far better simply to have a single rating for each winery.

Oz’ South African coverage is similarly unsatisfying, just because the ratings are consistently mean. I couldn’t find a single 3 star producer rating. The likes of Crystallum and La Vierge get just 1 star, as do The Foundry and Reyneke. That’s mean. Waterkloof doesn’t even get a star; nor does Catherine Marshall.

Of course, there will always be differences of opinion, even among skilled professionals. My chief gripe with these two guides is that (1) the contributors aren’t properly acknowledged; and (2) there’s a lack of consistency from country to country.

Would I recommend buying both or either of these guides? Yes: they are both packed with a lot of information, and you get a lot of expertise for your money. I am not overly convinced that the ratings are fully reliable (at least to my palate, for the countries we have discussed). Take your pick between Oz and Hugh, because there’s little to separate the two. In the end, I’d opt for Hugh’s because I find the country by country breakdown of the entries more logical.

13 comments to A tale of two wine guides

  • I find both guides useful to have when travelling and space is at a premium. I have given copies away as prizes at tastings and they generally go down well with beginners.

  • Bob T

    I agree that there’s a lot of expertise in both books, and that Hugh’s country-by-country organisation is more useful for the reader. I’ve bought his book every second year for a number of years and refer to it a lot. However, one thing continues to annoy me — that there is no mechanism for readers to feed back on errors, typos, notable omissions etc. I did once email the publisher about a particular typo that recurs year after year, but no one ever replied and the typo duly appeared in the next year’s edition (where, I believe, it remains).

    It wouldn’t be very difficult to set up an email account for reader feedback and have an editor monitor it. It’d be an easy way to iron out typos of winery names that aren’t picked up by spellcheck, and mine your readers’ expertise and enthusiasms for what they might add or subtract in subsequent editions. At present, they have a good product that could be better and they risk looking a bit old-fashioned and complacent.

    Incidentally, in light of your recent trip to Canada, what is your view of the Hugh J book’s Canada page(s)? Obviously British consumers aren’t going to be buying a lot of Canadian wine so it can’t demand huge space, but the Canada entry (I’m going by the 2012 edition) is very inadequate IMO. Has it improved?

  • Max

    Good points. I’ve been using Hugh’s since I was a beginner. I was given my first as a gift. I prefer the ‘by country’ organisation, so I have stuck with it over Oz’s. I would agree that some regions/countries get less attention than others. This may come down to tradition (old-world getting more attention vs new-world?), but it may simply be due to lack of space!? It is a pocket wine guide after all. You should write your own pocket wine book Jamie, and have more in-depth segments on your favourite countries/regions….?

  • Alex Lake

    I’m not quite sure what the point of these books is in this day and age. Maybe it’s just an easy way to get some Christmas money from people who have a relative who they know likes wine?

    I find that when these things go to committee, they lose a real voice that you can identify with.

  • Giles

    As others have said above, to my mind these books have “for beginners” written all over them. I used to buy Hugh’s book religiously between the ages of 18 and about 26, but then I realised that the book wasn’t really telling me anything I didn’t know and, more importantly, I felt the content wasn’t really changing much each year – wineries had the same general descriptions and all that changed was the addition of a new vintage. Buying a group of books, like Platter on South Africa, Cooper on NZ and Halliday on Australia costs a lot more but they provide much greater coverage and information.

  • Bob

    I agree that there’s a lot of expertise in both books, and that Hugh’s country-by-country organisation is more useful for the reader. I’ve bought his book every second year for a number of years and refer to it a lot. However, one thing continues to annoy me — that there is no mechanism for readers to feed back on errors, typos, notable omissions etc. I did once email the publisher about a particular typo that recurs year after year, but no one ever replied and the typo duly appeared in the next year’s edition (where, I believe, it remains).

    It wouldn’t be very difficult to set up an email account for reader feedback and have an editor monitor it. It’d be an easy way to iron out typos of winery names that aren’t picked up by spellcheck, and mine your readers’ expertise and enthusiasms for what they might add or subtract in subsequent editions. At present, they have a good product that could be better and they risk looking a bit old-fashioned and complacent.

    Incidentally, in light of your recent trip to Canada, what is your view of the Hugh J book’s Canada page(s)? Obviously British consumers aren’t going to be buying a lot of Canadian wine so it can’t demand huge space, but the Canada entry (I’m going by the 2012 edition) is very inadequate IMO. Has it improved?

  • Laurence

    Wine anorak readers are not the target market for these books – these are ‘names’ who drive purchases. I find the one that is most useful is Matthew Jukes book of perhaps 4 years ago – not because of the wine suggestions, but his food and wine matching (a feature of all) are both interesting and worthwhile.

  • Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)

    Jamie,

    As a newcomer to your wine blog, I don’t have enough reading experience to know if you ever respond back to replies.

    (Aside: I am not “Bob T” / “Bob” above.)

    If so, here are my non-rhetorical questions:

    How commonly available in retail stores are the “best” producers of New Zealand and Southern African wines in England (Hugh’s home country) and in Australia (Oz’s home country)?

    If Hugh and Oz aren’t experiencing the “best” producers due to the absence of wine press press tastings or retail store distribution, then one might charitably conclude that Oz, Hugh, and Hugh’s “outsourced” editorial contributors are “benignly ignorant” of “how good is good?”

    (Extending the example: How conversant are Hugh and Oz and other European writers about California’s most revered small scale producers? Wines that never appear in the pages of Decanter magazine? Wines that are hard enough to find at retail here in the States, and that aren’t exported?)

    Speaking as a wine industry professional living and working in Los Angeles — the largest retail wine sales (dollar and unit volume) market in the States — it has three years to four years since our fair city was last hosted to a trade tasting by the New Zealand producers.

    And I am unaware of the Southern African producers ever hosting a trade tasting in Los Angeles over the last 10 years.

    It’s easy to fall out of step with producers who never sample you on their product.

    I invite your considered reply.

    ~~ Bob

  • Bob
    Oz is British as is Hugh
    The outsourced contributions are coming from experts who are in some cases located in the countries they cover, and in others who will have access to the best wines.
    Oz and Hugh will have access to pretty much any wines
    With regard to California, v few over here know anything about the best Californian wines – but, even if they are not exported, you can find out about them and taste them if you are curious enough and are prepared to travel

  • Bob Parsons

    Plenty of Bob`s here!!

    Bob P Alberta.

  • Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)

    Jamie,

    Thanks for the nationality clarification.

    For some reason I always associated Oz as Australian.

    (Perhaps from seeing this wine book in stores — and none others — penned by him: “Oz Clarke’s Australian Wine Companion,” Little, Brown & Co (2004) ISBN 978-0-316-72874-4 Must be the provincialism of the “gate keepers” at the stores selecting tomes for the shelves.)

    As for Hugh’s pocket book, I haven’t seen it yet, so I was unaware that “country experts” (mostly) hail from those same regions.

    Regarding this comment:

    “With regard to California, v few over here know anything about the best Californian wines – but, even if they are not exported, you can find out about them and taste them if you are curious enough and are prepared to travel.”

    Since Hugh outsources his content (and therefore doesn’t need to travel overseas), does Oz have a reputation for regularly traveling to countries like South Africa and New Zealand, sampling the “best” local wines, and writing up those excursions?

    Regards,

    ~~ Bob

  • Hugh Kruzel

    I loved these guides in the early years. There wasn’t much out there and we were willing to get data a year out of date. It doesn’t work like that any more; I want current news. So many winery websites have everything you can imagine and with tasting notes that reach back combined with real-time webcams… I can get moisture readings and even harvest reports lickety split. Communicating with winemakers direct is now de rigeur. Hugh Kruzel

  • Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)

    Jaime, et. al.:

    On a related topic, see this November 14th blog posting from California wine reviewer Steve Heimoff (currently a columnist for Wine Enthusiast magazine; formerly a writer for Wine Spectator magazine):

    “The World Atlas Didn’t Get Paso Robles Right”

    Link: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/11/14/the-world-atlas-didnt-get-paso-robles-right/

    Excerpt:

    “In their splendid new book, The World Atlas of Wine (which I am devouring), Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson devote all of two paragraphs to Paso Robles (which Wine Enthusiast just declared our Wine Region of the Year). That is not near enough–for such an emerging region –and those two paragraphs could have been written ten years ago, for all the reader knows, because the information is so out of date.

    “The only Paso wine companies the authors name are Constellation, Treasury and J. Lohr, east of Highway 101. As for west of the Freeway, the only winery mentioned is Tablas Creek. This is what I mean by my “ten years ago” remark. Is it surprising that the only winery on the West Side the two Brits would think to mention was started by the Perrin family, of Chateauneuf-du-Pape?

    “I’m not bashing Jancis and Hugh so much as pointing out the difficulties of writing a coffee table book that purports to report the latest information on the wines and regions of the world, when the authors really have not kept abreast of what’s actually happening on the ground. This is always a challenge for the wine writer who’s a generalist, as opposed to a specialist (like me), who focuses on a single region. No one approach is perfect–but the Atlas’s sadly out-of-date reporting on Paso Robles (a region I happen to know quite well) makes me wonder about the accuracy and timeliness of the book’s reporting on other regions.”

    ~~ Bob

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