I pre-ordered this book the very second I learned of its existence. It’s Jefford’s first book since The New France, and it collects columns he originally published in DECANTER and WORLD OF FINE WINES, updated and revised, and it’s a pleasure to finally have them under one roof, as it were. [Update, you can get $5 of Andrew's book by using the code TERRY5 at the publisher's web site I don't get anything from this, it's just a generous offer from the publisher!].
It accumulates into quite a portrait of the writer, omitting only his participation as leader or panelist in WOFW tastings, in which his contributions are consistently clear, strong and insightful. Indeed I find Jefford at his best as a taster, when he can bring his impressive gifts to bear with less temptation to be “Writerly.”
Cards on the table: I cherish Andrew Jefford’s work as I do no other person writing about wine. That is only partly because he and I agree about nearly everything, including issues where we seem to be the only two people sharing that particular point of view. We are very different; Jefford is better educated and more erudite than I (as can be seen by this book’s title), yet we appear to have been shipwrecked on the same island. So yes, I think he’s right about nearly everything.
I do find him at his strongest in these pages when he is writing informatively and not discursively. His essays on tea (yes! Finally another wine guy making this sensual connection…), on auctions, on fermentation viz. different yeasts are masterpieces of clarity, reasonableness and command of material, and they show his prose at its most elegant and companionable.
He does have a florid side. Usually it is beautiful, but at times I have the impression of him lobbing dozens of images at us assuming at least a few will stick. His prose can lapse into rococo gaudiness. You might find this in his piece “A Honeycomb Of Light” (p59), which attains such density of image and allusion as to feel almost like a lyric hectoring. But then you might read his astonishing passage comparing Montrachet with Corton Charlemagne – nice work if you can get it - and you realize the thrumming lyricism is in the service of a barely contained passion, and if Jefford’s prose can feel undisciplined when he writes in this vein, it is a noble flaw. I read a passage from a trip to Rioja: “As we made for the vineyards, white clouds edged over the mountain: vapoury buckshot. The tissue of birdsong thinned; a moist stillness fell,” and I confess he loses me with vapoury buckshot as a depiction of clouds; nor am I following him with tissue of birdsong. I have the feeling the two images could have been exchanged and made no less sense….”tissue of buckshot” or “vapoury birdsong.”
These are cavils, and the reason I do so is that I love this kind of writing and I admire Jefford for the courage of just letting-fly, and I don’t want readers to be put off by all these Valkyries and things. Because when he’s good, he’s peerless.
But I have a bone to pick with his logic about using point scores, which he does, though he writes a lengthy essay called “Scored Rigid” in which he skewers them with impeccable reasoning. He concludes “My view is that scores are foolish, philosophically untenable and damage wine culture rather than enrich it.” Admirably straightforward! But then he goes on to say “Of course I use them: refusing to do so would be pompous and unhelpful.” He claims, correctly, that “Readers (and editors) like scores,” which observation I myself have made when claiming that writers do not use scores – scores use writers. What galls me in the passage is the word “pompous.” It’s just wrong. I’d be entirely comfortable with him (or anyone) saying “In order to publish tasting notes I have to use scores, because I have a living to make, though I am opposed to them on principle and deem them an unnecessary evil until they become necessary in order to feed myself and my family.” I wonder how he would proceed if he were independently wealthy. Would he still find it “pompous” to align his output with his values?
These are small blemishes – if blemishes they are – in an otherwise indispensible book in which the formidable strengths of this writer are on full display.