Beyond the Cellar Door: Discovering the Secrets of the Grape in Bottles and Bookcases the World Over
While much attention is given to wineries and vineyards, less is given to the accompanying cellars and libraries that tell us all about their history as well as other secrets of the grape.
As winemaking is an art form that has been honed by so many over time, it is vital that this information be captured and preserved – whether in the form of books or the vintages themselves.
Joe Fattorini, wine expert and presenter of The Wine Show, loves a wine library that is tangible in this way. “Digital doesn’t cut it. I still refer to wine books that are more than 50 years old. It means we have a view into wine in the past in a unique way.”
One of the most famous wine libraries is the Great Library of Californian Viniculture, based in the UC Davis library. The curators received a huge boon to their archives when Hugh Johnson, the celebrated wine writer who, along with wine royalty Jancis Robinson, authored the World Atlas of Wine, gifted them his collection, lovingly built over the span of 60 years. His reason? “It’s simply the greatest wine library in the world.”
Along with the archives donated by the Wine Institute, the library boasts vintage wine catalogs from which they have extracted wine pricing information for research purposes, speeches by prominent wine writers, and French wine label artworks, amongst other artifacts.
It also houses gloomy handwritten harvest predictions based around the cycles of the sun and created for King Loius XIV’s war ministry. Perhaps alarmingly, these are entitled the Prophéties Perpetuelle depuis 1521 jusqu’au la fin du Monde (prophecies from 1521 to the end of the world, which they predict as the 21st century). There is even a letter from Robert Livingston to Alida Livingston where he details the alcohol he procured on a voyage: A “large cargo of claret, brandy, and white wine.”
The entire collection is made up of 30,000 wine books, written in over 50 languages. But, while it may be the biggest, it is not the only one. The Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg is another collection that brings together vital regional wine-making resources, many of which are specific to this important growing area.
Curator Megan Jones explains that “Our wine library is important because of where we are located and the community that we serve.” The region’s long history of grape-growing and winemaking has directly supported many industry jobs and related professions.
Jones adds that they have made a concerted effort to ensure that the data is accessible to all. “Our collection seeks to support industry members, students, and researchers with free access to technical and specific materials,” she says.
Lisa Mattson, the creative director of Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg explains that their hand-picked vintage library is “curated around themes meaningful to Jordan.” This means that, alongside their small wine section, are included segments on travel, land stewardship, animals, and food, as well personal interests such as economics, US history, and German.
“We love starting a tasting of library wines with our guests surrounded by hundreds of vintage books,” says Mattson, who spearheaded the effort to remodel the Jordan tasting salon into a vintage books library during the pandemic. “It’s the perfect setting for a visual taste of history before they step into the cellar.”
The annals of winemaking can be found in less traditional places too, like the mezzanine floor of Central London’s 67 Pall Mall, a private member’s club aimed at wine lovers. Fattorini explains that he is particularly fond of this collection, because it contains all the classics, but also “some surprises.” He admits that he has more wine books than bottles in his personal archive, noting that they “lend themselves to collectors and collections.”
Jim McClellan from Geometry Wines, sourced mostly from Sonoma, explains the differences between types of wine libraries, which can be made up of books and related artifacts or a vintage collection of actual wines. “If you’re speaking with retailers or collectors, you will hear different definitions of a ‘wine library.’”
“We tend to think of our wine library as a comprehensive production record and save a few cases of each vintage in a climate-controlled environment,” he says“It represents a living record of our brand, and showcases not just what we have produced in the past, but the overall quality and style we seek.” This living record serves multiple purposes, he notes: To offer customers and club members a unique tasting experience and an opportunity to learn firsthand how wines evolve with time.
Jack Brennan, head buyer at Kent Wines in Sussex, England, echoes these sentiments. “Wine libraries are important for vineyards to see how their wines develop over the years,” he says. “[They] also help with clarifying the right times for wines to be opened and tasted, and to show which years are the best for different grape varieties.”
Rachel Tremblay, the co-founder of Nomad Wine, based in Market Drayton in England, became familiar with wine libraries when she worked on a family brand in Champagne, France. “It would always fascinate me when visiting other small independent producers how many years of Champagne they often had in their libraries,” she says. She was charmed when “families would open up something old and reminisce whilst sipping away,” noting a wine’s power to remind us of days gone by.
To keep their brand accessible, she explains that they don’t use libraries at Nomad Wine in order to preserve the “fun outlook” of the brand. She added that they enjoy changes in vintage without the traditional approach of keeping wines to sell or taste later on.
There’s something romantic about this notion of a wine library having a dual meaning – that which can be read and that which can be drunk (or, better yet, both – perhaps even at the same time). Whether paper, digital, or liquid, these collections are ever-evolving records of the passion and research that go into creating a living, breathing beverage that drinkers can better understand and appreciate with every sip.