A Modest Proposal for Reinventing Wine Reference Works

Why waste paper on thick tomes when digital media would offer so much more?
The Wine Bible

Workman Publishing Company

If The Wine Bible were digital, you could order it online, at any time of day, and have it immediately.

Recently, in the course of fact-checking an article, I reached for my copy of the second edition of The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, published in October of 2015. As I leafed through it, I was struck by the thought that, although it appeared only a year old (the original dates from 2000), time has moved on so much. I couldn't help asking myself the question, why would anyone ever put an encyclopedic tome like this on paper in the digital age?

If The Wine Bible were digital, you could order it online, at any time of day, and have it immediately. You could choose either a snapshot or a subscription, a lower-priced advertising-funded version or a more expensive advert-free format. The content could be in any one of dozens of languages.

The foreword could be a video presentation that MacNeil herself would deliver. She could highlight the updates in that week’s revision — anything from news of a new French appellation, to an interview with a wine personality, to links to five new wineries that had just come online, to corrections to last week’s content.

Content that the paper version could not offer would now be possible. Reviews and tasting would be current. Reports from seminars and shows would be real-time.

Stories would not be a dry recitation of facts with a single voice. Rather, consider how The Bible might handle the recent Brunello scandal (the one involving non-approved grape varieties in Montalcino). Proprietor and winemaker podcasts would talk about what has really happened and what they think about it. There would be Italian TV footage from recent days that showed the miscreants — the “Lance Armstrongs” of winemaking — after being sentenced in court. That could lead to a video by a sage on the wines of the area such as James Suckling (who lived in Tuscany for many years) with some of the doctored bottles. He could discuss his tasting notes of them versus compliant Brunello.

Any week’s Bible would be a mashup from potentially hundreds of experts, each signing his or her contributions. MacNeil’s function would be an editorial one — ensuring quality, cross-referencing, and turning the mashup into a directed whole.

Untrammeled by the constraints of the written word, subjects better shown rather than described could be left to videos. For example, the worst-explained technique in winemaking must be dégorgement (removal of sediment from a sparkling wine bottle before putting in the mushroom-shaped cork). A video tells the story more clearly. The reader can play and replay it, at half speed if desired, and will likely never forget what the intricate process involves.

All of the above is possible today. In the internet era, it is important to realize how much the digital format offers, especially for reference works, over "dead tree" publications. The modern reference work should be a digital orchestration of all the media suited to the task, pooling the knowledge of literally thousands of individuals harnessed through an onboarding process that is transparent, open, and meritocratic.

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Wikipedia is somewhere down this road, but no wine reference work has gone remotely close — yet.