Sour grapes

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Earthman Arthur Dent was deeply offended to learn that Earth's entry in that epic compilation was the single word "Harmless." Not to worry, he was told by a Betelgeusian fellow-traveler: In the new edition the entry would be revised to "Mostly harmless." Reading the "completely revised" fifth edition of The World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley, $50), I know just how Arthur Dent felt. In the fourth edition of Hugh Johnson's gorgeously illustrated survey of every world wine region with pretensions to quality, the Pacific Northwest rated just three pages. But that was nearly a decade ago, when our area was a dewy-fresh contender for connoisseurs' attentions: Surely the new edition would reflect our phenomenal growth, both in quality and quantity. Well, it does, sort of; we get six pages instead of three. But in this case, double the pages doesn't double the pleasure. The name of Hugh Johnson, he who first published the World Atlas in 1971, is still on the fifth edition. But where the Northwest is concerned, the content savors strongly of his nominal co-editor, Jancis Robinson. In wine jargon, you might describe Johnson's prose as ripe, even overripe; Robinson's is bone-dry, with overtones of acid and alum, like a first-growth chablis of an indif- ferent vintage. Robinson has an encyclopedic knowledge of her field. Indeed, as she authored both the Oxford Companion to Wine and Wines of the New World, you could say she wrote the encyclopedia. Hence her lightest word tends to be regarded as straight from Mount Sinai, and where the Northwest is concerned, this may have unfortunate consequences. Although she does not say so outright, Robinson clearly does not approve of deserts as a place to grow wine grapes. In her entry on eastern Washington, the adjectives hammer away: "arctic," "rainless," "icy." Irrigation, essential for Washington viticulture—and widely regarded as valuable in controlling the ripening of grapes—does not sit well with her; hence the more temperate (but still tangy) tone of her coverage of Oregon's cooler, moister Willamette Valley. But enough carping; it's a big galaxy, after all, and it's healthy to have our little corner of it put into perspective. And there's solace, too, in Robinson's sternness. In her book, New York state and the Dominion of Canada rate only a page each, and the entire continent of South America just six. In comparison, we don't look so harmless after all. Sips tips? E-mail

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