Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia

An edited version of my review of the new edition of the Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was printed in the Sunday Times Travel & Food supplement in January.
so Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia

The failure of Sotheby’s last fine art auction to live up to its hype as the reality of the US sub-prime financial fiasco sank in, sent Sotheby’s share price into freefall. This book is unlikely to restore any glamour to the franchise. For over-hyped it certainly is. US magazine Wine Spectator reports “this is what a wine encyclopedia should be” while America’s über-palate Robert Parker is quoted on the back cover saying “Tom Stevenson has struck gold again… I was amazed by how current his information is.”

Alas not in the section on SA, as Tom thinks Beyers Truter is still Kanonkop winemaker, when Abrie Beeslaar has been doing the job for several years. The sad news that Anton Rupert – “the second richest man in SA” – has passed on, has yet to reach Tom and he clearly was not a creditor of Sentinel, the winery of Rob Coppoolse and Walter Finlayson that went to the wall the year before last.

Niel Bester will be surprised to find out that he is owner-winemaker at Distell’s Plaisir de Merle flagship estate while Woolworth’s CEO Simon Susman will be pleased to hear that his “winery produces wines that are stylish and generally good value.” Woolies top supplier, Cape Point Vineyards that gave the supermarket chain a five star stunner in the 2008 edition of Platter’s, is conspicuous by its absence from the seven pages containing Tom’s top 136 SA producers. So much for their Winery of the Year award from Platter’s.

So much too, for the 2007 edition of his Wine Report that lists Sadie Family Vineyards as the second “greatest wine producer” in SA – it’s not in Tom’s book. Which covers the sins of omission. When it comes to the sins of commission, outspoken Tom is in a class of his own.

Take his opinions on SA Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Fellow UK hack Tim Atkin felt moved to opine in the Observer that “the Cape is producing some of the top Sauvignons in the world at the moment.” Tom begs to differ: “this is not this country’s most successful varietal… there are too many over-herbaceous wines for those who are trying too hard with this varietal and a great many dull wines from those who are jumping on the Sauvignon bandwagon.” No vintages are listed, as presumably the wines are rubbish, no matter the year.

Syrah is flagged as SA’s “most exciting red wine variety” even if fellow British boffin Jancis Robinson could find only one gold medal worthy in a line-up of 151 at the Old Mutual sponsored Trophy Wine Show last year. It was Dave King’s Quoin Rock that failed to make Tom’s Top Ten. But then Dave’s winery also failed to make the 136-producer cut.

Tom has some peculiar ideas about Pinotage, claiming the varietal was created “to provide Burgundy-like elegance in the baking-hot vineyards of North Africa” presumably for SA troops fighting Rommel up north. No wonder he comments “if anyone has the audacity to criticize this grape on its home turf, the South Africans become very tetchy indeed.”

The people’s virtual encyclopedia Wikipedia, is often put down for the many inaccuracies in the articles. Tom shows you can get the same thing in hardcopy for R540.