Let's not feel sorry for Oz Clarke, the prolific wine writer. He was faced with a huge challenge: to write the history of wine. But how? Hugh Johnson gave it a shot a quarter century ago; Jancis Robinson has taken up the cudgel as well. How does one organize such a wide and wild field of knowledge? In this volume, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles (published Tuesday by Sterling Epicure) Clarke bypasses not only long-winded history and geography but grape varieties as well; in their stead, he tells 100 stories, short bursts of wine-related anecdotes.
Nothing wrong with that; after all, that's what I did in my own book Home Grown Seattle. The trouble with the "100 stories" format is that some topics will inevitably seem trivial compared to others. "Wine in legend" merits a thoughtful historical essay, yet ends up with exactly the same space as mini-biographies of Robert Parker.and Michael Broadbent. Bag-in-box wines get an entry; David Lett gets an entry for Oregon pinot noir; Chateau Ste. Michelle and Washington State do, too (though Associated Vintners prof Lloyd Woodbourne is identified as Lloyd Woodhouse).
Still, it's a good, breezy read, bouncing briskly from one decade to the next, one continent to another, taking into account forgotten details (Hitler had a collection of half a million bottles, and he didn't even like wine), and embarrassing moments (Rudy Kurniawan's fraudulent bottles). If this were Clarke's first (or only) book, one might hesitate to recommend it. But for those of us whose shelves are already creaking with the classic titles, this is the sort of reference work you want to keep closer at hand.
The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: from Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond, by Oz Clarke. Sterling Epicure, 224 pages, $24.95