HUGH JOHNSON’S POCKET WINE BOOK 2023 - BUYER’S GUIDE TO A POTENTIALLY DEFECTIVE PRODUCT
by Andrew Chalk
When the 2022 edition of this long-running guide (hereafter HJPWB) was released, I reviewed it and reported that I found it seriously lacking and full of errors. I sent my published review to the publisher via their suggested feedback email address and got their feedback…nothing. When the 2023 edition arrived today I looked for the changes they had made and found them…nothing. Hugh Johnson had handed over editorial to Margaret Rand last year, and a whole year later she doesn’t seem to be on top of her role of General Editor.
Nobody has the knowledge to know something as vast as the world of wine in detail. They hand it over to sub-editors who cover small specialties. How do you monitor the sub-editors to confirm that they are earning their sizable paychecks? You hold out a big shingle encouraging readers to catch them out. Maybe pay readers for every factual error, with funds deducted from the sub-editor.
How do you judge a book on as vast a subject as the world of wine? You have the same problem as the editor. You can’t judge the whole thing (Ignore reviewers who pretend they can. They are the kind of people who run for Homeowner Association boards). To usefully review the book, you must pick out a subject you know and see what kind of job the it did.
In my case, the obvious (only) sub-area I could comment on was the coverage of Texas, as I have written over 120 articles on the subject of Texas wine.
Unfortunately, the book’s coverage is as bad as it was last year. As I said then
“The Texas section consists of about 100 words of ‘overview’ followed by a listing of the top 19 wineries. The overview is too vague and omits most important things as well as getting some facts wrong (there are not 400 wineries by any stretch, unless you include WINE.COM licensees which enable the reseller to avail itself of direct shipping to consumers). The list of wineries omits several important producers.”
The only change would be that there are now 22 wineries, and some of their names have spelling errors. The list is still wrong.
In the spirit of ‘put up, or shut up’, here is my substitute description for Texas. It is slightly longer, but there is more to say than the original sub-editor found on her one-day trip to the region:
TEXAS (TX) - revised.
Massive improvement in the last decade from an era in which re-bottling California jug wine was the main pursuit and the state legal framework so hostile that wineries in most areas could not hold tastings. A crucial 2005 legal change allowed direct-to-consumer shipping, bypassing the three-tier system. This caused winery numbers to explode from 40 to the current approximate 150 (producing). State law is now very favorable to winegrowing, including funding education.
The Texas wine industry is a geographic dumbbell. You grow your grapes in the High Plains AVA (around Lubbock) and sell them in The Hill Country AVA (the area west of Austin). US-290 is the state’s storefront, visited by more people, allegedly, than any other wine area except Highway 29 in Napa. Emerging parts of the state are The Davis Mountains (vineyards), and north of the Dallas Fort Worth area (wineries).
Not just mediterranean but also cool climate grapes thrive. Notable exceptions are Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. AVA regulations are Janus-faced on authenticity. AVA and County appellated wines must be 100% Texas grapes unless the bottle carries the exculpatory clause ‘For Sale In Texas Only’ which means the wine can be anything (likely 100% California bulk wine).
Climatic challenges are late freezes and hailstorms. The biggest long-term threat is pesticide drift from dicamba in the High Plains.
TOP PRODUCERS (Additions to the list in HJPWB):
Arché Winery and Vineyard - Winemaking has passed from father to son but Howard (and Texas Tech.) trained Grayson Davis well. Notable chardonnay, roussanne, and mourvèdre;
Eden Hill Vineyard - Great success in west coast wine competitions with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and tempranillo;
Hye Meadow Winery - strength is Italian varieties;
Inwood Estates Vineyards - Produces the most expensive wine in the state and sells out every year;
Kalasi Cellars - Opened by a couple who are new to winemaking but experienced High Plains grape growers. Promising early results;
Kerrville Hills Winery - Recently acquired by noted consultant John Rivenburgh. Quality improvements already evident. Expect great things;
Pheasant Ridge Winery - Bobby Cox, the Texas winemaker who has earned the most praise from Robert Parker over the years, owns this winery. Sparkling wine on a par with the best in the country. Good chenin blanc as well;
Siboney Cellars - The new Napa-quality tasting room in a prime location is a statement of intent about the seriousness of this venture from Miguel and Barbara Lecuona. Barbara makes the wine and is a student of John Rivenburgh's incubator.
Wedding Oak Winery - New winemaker. Recent whites show great refinement and the reds riper fruit than in the past. One to watch.
Presumably, a lot of the 2023 book is as bad as the Texas section. What publisher Mitchell Beazley should do is replace the General Editor, ending her sinecure. The replacement should replace the Texas sub-editor with someone qualified. Then, hold out that giant shingle on social media saying “please find our errors of omission and fact and help make this book worthy of Hugh Johnson’s name”.