Good Old-Fashioned Bad Wine

I recently bought several old wine books in a Kirkwall charity shop. There were quite a few, and they were well-read, with creased covers, age-speckled edges, and the occasional wine stain. They were obviously much-loved favourites of some keen local wine drinker who had decided to pass them on (or who had passed away.)

Nowadays there’s an endless stream of wine writing on the web - reviews, advice, blogs, ‘how to’ guides, ecommerce sites, cellar management tools, not to mention thousands of sites belonging to individual wineries, importers, and of course shops like us. But relatively recently, none of those sites existed.

These days, if someone asks us about an obscure wine or winemaker, our first port of call will be Google. But when we opened in our current shop down the lane, in 2007, there was virtually nothing on line, and we had a small library of favourite reference books to refer to: The World Atlas of Wine, James Halliday’s Australian Wine Guide, Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, edited by Tom Stevenson, Andrew Jefford’s The New France - still the most reliable AND most poetic guide to that country (quite a feat to combine those two attributes.) And of course we had Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book; renewed and refreshed every year.


So I was delighted to find a much bigger, more detailed and ambitious Hugh Johnson book in the charity shop:, simply titled Wine, it was published by Mitchell Beazley in 1974. It was the revised edition of a book that originally came out in 1966, and Johnson begins his foreword by saying, ‘The eight years since the first version of this book came out have been the most tumultuous and exciting in the entire history of wine. I am not talking about […] the spectacular increase in wine-drinking in countries where only a narrow spectrum of society ever used to drink wine at all. ‘ (Kirkness & Gorie has been selling wine since 1859, but not in the quantities that we do today: and we are very small fry compared to the supermarkets and online retailers.) What Johnson was really talking about when he mentioned ‘tumultuous change’ was quality: ‘Eight years ago good wine was the exception: the bulk of the world’s wine was mediocre. Today good wine is the rule: a real old-fashioned bad wine is getting hard to find.’

Happily, wine quality has progressed even further since then. We may find wines that are not to our taste, or even the odd bottle (one in a hundred?) that is corked or otherwise faulty. Really bad wine, meaning dirty, unhygienic, undrinkable, unpleasant? No, they just don’t get made any more, And if they do, they certainly don’t make it very far from their cellar door. There’s so much excellent wine made in so many parts of the world that there’s simply no way ‘a real old-fashioned bad wine’ would make it past the starting line. Everything you buy from us - or anywhere in Orkney, to be fair - will be clean, fresh, and possessed of fruitiness of some variety or other.

We take that fact entirely granted these days. So it’s fascinating to be reminded that , as recently as the 1970s, it was still a gamble when you bought a bottle whether you would get something drinkable or not. Less of a gamble than it had been in the 60s, but still, far from the complete certainty that we enjoy these days.

Some things do improve with time!

But has Johnson’s book stood the test of time? Has it improved with age? How about the others I picked up for a few pence? Can they tell us anything useful about the wine we drink now? I think I should go off and read beyond than the foreword, then I’ll get back to you.

Duncan McLeanComment