“What is worth drinking is worth thinking about”

“A Handbook of Wine: How to buy, serve, store and drink it”, Wm J. Todd (first published 1922)

In the week where Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s coffin was rediscovered in a Highgate wine cellar and Fortnum and Mason published their food and drink awards shortlist, it seems appropriate to consider how writing about wine has developed over the centuries and what – if anything – is new to argue about. The ancient civilisations knew that “In Vino Veritas“, a sentiment that permeates all society in various guises from Western Europe to China, via Persia and Russia from the Romans to the present day (as anyone who has divulged a secret while in their cups is painfully aware). Has anything really changed?

As a history graduate whose enthusiasm for the subject didn’t dissipate after an 8,000 word dissertation over a decade ago,  “A Handbook of Wine” was a great choice of birthday gift from my boyfriend. Not only does William Todd kick off with one of the finest definitions of mansplaining in the last century:

“I am afraid that there are not wanting men with a spurious air of connoisseurship who make pretence to knowledge and perceptions they do not possess… It has been my own fortune occasionally to be taught my own business, and it is not always easy to be as polite as the occasion warrants!”

but he continues in the wonderfully lyrical vein throughout this 100-page treatise. (Yes, I understand the irony of a man defining mansplaining… just enjoy the language).

William Todd was a second generation owner of the vintners incorporated by William Todd’s father and partners, Findlater Mackie Todd & Company, established in 1850 around London and the South. At the outset, Mr. Todd presents himself as a counsel on wine – not an expert by any means, but an aide-de-camp for the consumer. Indeed, probably those who were shopping at his business on most occasions.

He introduces the wines of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Australia, South Africa and even Algeria in an unpatronising and informed way. In true Handbook style, each major European vintage has a table rating each year’s cuvée from fair to excellent. There are some real nuggets in there – in the twenties for example, Algeria was the fourth-largest producing country in the world, producing wines that were, per William, “soft and vinous, entirely free from coarseness and earthiness, and keep well“.  Is Algerian wine due an revival? It sounds delicious.

While the markets have developed well beyond our previous understanding of the Old World and the New, with the vinous rise of Eastern Europe and even China, many of the issues and confusions appear to remain the same 100 years after William Todd was writing. Which glass to use for each type of wine, and is it so important? Do we really need to decant? And how do you store it?

While the lexicon has moved on, now a combination of chemistry, accepted frameworks and a little artistic interpretation, sometimes a pared back approach can be refreshing. Of Burgundy, Todd writes of “a most pleasing farewell” left on the palate. In wine writing, we might hear of “length” or “finish”. I’m going to think of the kind of farewell I experience next time I taste a wine.

After reading a few texts on the subject, I would tentatively conclude that introductions and descriptors of wine are coming back to this simpler approach. No longer the preserve of the wine-buff stereotype, the accessibility of enjoying and understanding wine is becoming much more democratic. But the same thought permeates all styles of wine writing, discussion and description – the belief that Mr. Todd espouses at the outset: what is worth drinking is worth thinking about. This book was meant to be taken, referred to, used as a notebook and remain relevant for years to come. Ninety-six years later, I can only agree.

And what of Mr. Todd? The retail operation was expanded to include almost 50 shops. After a change in fortunes in the Sixties, the Todds sold the company to Bulmers, followed by Beecham Group. But, you can still enjoy some of their legacy today – the business was later was acquired by the John Lewis Partnership in 1993 to bolster their Waitrose Cellar offering. Hopefully they keep the same ideals in mind.

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