WineInk: Two books five centuries apart

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Weighing in at 10 pounds, The Impossible Collection of Wine: The 100 Most Exceptional Vintages of the Twentieth Century is as impressive in its presentation box as it is in a wine cellar.
Assouline courtesy photo

I was in the process of wrapping up last week’s piece on the effects of the digital age on wine when, ironically, an email came through that caused me to stop and reconsider previous generations of wine media.

A London auction house named Chiswick sent a missive announcing the sale of a German book on wine published in the 1560s — yes, about 450 years ago — and the public relations folks wanted to let us know about it. It was obviously from a different place and a different time.

To refresh, the point of last week’s column was that we live in the digital age, a time when everyone has the capability, thanks to evolved technology, to be a critic or “expert” and to weigh in with their thoughts and opinions on wines. These thoughts and opinions can travel the ether via email, Facebook or the Twitterverse instantaneously, fully illustrated, and so real that one can almost taste the subjects themselves.

But in the 1500s, publishing a work — any work, much less one about wine — was a significant task that required time and attention. Especially if one wanted to illustrate said work. The book that Chiswick Auctions has on offer for auction on May 29 brings to life the commitment that was necessary to share wine knowledge of the times.

Titled “Kellermaysterey,” with an extensive subtitle in German, the book is an extremely rare copy of an “anonymous treatise on the production, storage and improvement of wines and other beverages, such as beer, vinegar, mead, wormwood, and brandies.” It had 11 different reprints and was often sold, or “bound together,” with Germany’s first cookbook, “Kuchenmaysterey.” “Imagine,” German gourmands of the times must have thought, “food and wine in one easy-to-find volume.”

I assume the text of the tome is both instructional and fascinating, but what makes the book so interesting to the lay person, namely me, are the wood cut illustrations. They portray a man in a cellar making wine along with scenes of harvesting, degustation and transactions. The artisan who created the illustrations was Hans Schäufelein, a student of one Albrecht Dürer, who if you know about that sort of thing, was a legendary printmaker and member of the German Renaissance. And they offer some of the earliest visual representations in book form of a life in wine.

“There has been a growing curiosity for wine books, as well as an increase in prices over the last few decades, mirroring the explosion of interest in food and wine in our wider culture,” said Carmen Donia, who is the book specialist at Chiswick Auctions. The opening bid is 1,200 pounds and the expected sales price of “Kellermaysterey” is expected to be in the range of $2,500–$3,800.

“Large collections of rare and first-edition wine books have typically been amassed by wine estates, but, equally, academic institutions and wealthy individuals, especially traders and passionate oenophiles, have taken an interest,” Donia said in reference to what is driving the price of the book. “All early printed books (15th-16th century) on winemaking, or on the culture surrounding wine, are very rare.”

As I thought about this history of wine in media, a quote from a more recent book seemed appropriate: “To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of human history.” Indeed.

The quote is in a book titled “The Impossible Collection of Wine: The 100 Most Exceptional Vintages of the Twentieth Century,” an Assouline Ultimate Collection publication by Enrico Bernardo. And the book would blow the mind of the woodcutter Hans Schäufelein. First, it weighs in at over 10 pounds.

But more importantly it is filled with gorgeous sensual images taken over the past century of all things to do with wine.

Each page is hand-bound using traditional techniques, with color plates hand-tipped on art-quality paper, and is truly a joy to peruse. In this case, the artisanship is in the curation of a concept, images and quotes, and the production process.

Bernardo, once named Best Sommelier in the World (2004), has audaciously selected 100 wines that he feels would make the perfect cellar and then written extensively about each. The book comes in a wooden crate, much like the wines he presented, and, when it was released in 2016, had a price of $995.

The wines are the names one would expect, including Cheval Blanc, Chateau d’Yquem, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Penfold’s Grange from Australia. But the book is such a beautiful work that everything in it feels both fresh and timeless at the same time. It is a remarkable achievement.

The point? Yes, we live in an age where we can acquire so much wine information (or is it TMI) at the touch of a keyboard. But as these two books, produced centuries apart show, there is still value to words, and pictures, on paper.



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