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Malcolm Jolley: The best Christmas gift for the wine lover in your life

Commentary

“Sometimes the old ways are the best,” says an aging James Bond in Skyfall. If there ever was an audience for this message, it must be the wino crowd, particularly those of us contemplating Bondian middle-aged obsolescence. We can be a cranky bunch, suspicious of newfangled things, in pursuit of tastes and flavours from long-dead grapes that take years to slowly evolve.

And yet it’s difficult to imagine an area of human endeavour that has taken more advantage of the digital information revolution than the wine world. If one buys the most obscure bottle of wine made by a single row of vines that are only indigenous to a particular hillside in a former Soviet republic, there is still a very good chance that some byte of information will be brought forward by entering its name into a search engine.

That search result might be found at one of the great centres of the accumulation of digital wine knowledge over the last two decades or so. First called the Purple Pages it’s now named after its founder, jancisrobinson.com. There, Jancis Robinson OBE MW has assembled an elite team of oenological information gatherers that includes, for the better part of two decades, a fellow master of wine in senior editor Julia Harding.

From this virtual hive of vinous information has sprung a number of important works, made very much in the old bookish way, not least is the just published fifth and physical edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine. At just over a million words, this edition is by far the biggest yet, with over 4,498 entries (272 of which are new) from 267 contributors.

The Oxford Companion to Wine is a relative newcomer to the Oxford University Press stable of reference books. Robinson compiled and edited the first edition in 1994. That’s one hundred and ten years after the first Oxford English Dictionary, for instance. There’s some irony that it was launched just as the internet began to take off, though, given the Robinson media team’s proficiency at both old and new media, it probably makes a lot of sense.

In some circles (mine) ownership of an up-to-date OCW is an essential credential to being a serious wino. There are few topics undertaken for this column that are not referenced first in the OCW before being taken to Google. Likewise, a quick look-up in the big book is an essential pre-event ritual for any tasting or interview. What The Oxford Companion to Wine holds is authority. (Often also wit: it’s actually fun to read.)

The push for the fifth edition began in earnest two years ago during the dark days of the pandemic. Robinson handed over the reins of lead editorship and the brunt of the work to Harding. Robinson stayed as a titled editor and they recruited North American expert Tara Q Thomas as assistant editor. When I spoke to Julia Harding MW from her office in London over Zoom, she explained that the lead role chiefly meant ownership of the master spreadsheet of entries. 

Harding told me the new edition of the OCW begins the day the finished one goes to the printer and the filing of notes into the possible updates begins.Harding also told me that a new, second edition of Wine Grapes (2012), which she wrote with Robinson and ampelographer José Vouillamoz, is “overdue” and being planned. The work of amassing as much of the world’s wine knowledge as possible into three kilograms (six pounds) of paper and cardboard reaches its frenzy in the twenty-four months before publication.

Anyone who’s ever had to work within a word count knows that a lot of hard work in editing is deciding what gets left out. Harding told me the OUP had given her a firm limit of no more than 65,000 more words in the fifth than in the fourth. Some things, she explained, were easy to take out to make room for new entries, like appellations that are no longer in use. They also tried to tighten up existing entries as much as possible. But a few, like “Coffeehouses”, were deemed no longer relevant enough to remain.

I asked Harding if she was often solicited by people who wanted whatever they did in the wine world put into The Oxford Companion to Wine. “Not really”, she answered, “it’s more that we get complaints about things left out.”

Harding explained that a “huge logistical challenge” of putting together the book, once the entries were decided, was less the selection of entries and more the management of the 267 expert contributors spread across the world. During the intense production period, she describes the editors’ work as “like being in a giant post office, with things coming and going constantly…it’s a massive booking in and booking out operation.”

The contributors to the OCW include wine writers and journalists, but also academics, winemakers, and trades who contribute as much out of a love for their field as anything. The problem is often, Harding explained sympathetically, that they know so much it’s difficult to pair down their entry to a word count appropriate for the reference book.

When I suggested that it was a mark of honour to be listed as a contributor to the book, and keen readers like me would go through the list to see who we recognized, she said she hoped that was the case. Harding added that it was certainly an honour to work with them.

Holiday shoppers should take note that the new edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine is an ideal present for those curious about wine, including one’s self. They might also take note that it costs eighty Canadian dollars, or maybe less if you find a deal. If the next edition is another eight years away, that’s like a ten-dollar-a-year subscription, or about two cents an entry, or about one one-hundredth of a cent per word. This is, to borrow a concept from wine criticism, a high price-to-quality ratio.

Rory Gilfillan: Who killed Canadian history? We did

Commentary

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the history that we teach is the history that we deserve. Twenty-five years ago, historian Jack Granatstein called it. Writing about the dearth of history in provincial curriculums, Granatstein’s seminal work, Who Killed Canadian History? wasn’t so much a critique as it was a prophecy. 

The most pernicious aspect of our selective memory isn’t what’s redacted but what never sees the light of the day. If you haven’t heard of Captain Gilday and the Black Devils Brigade, or Canada’s first female lawyer, Clara Brett Martin, you’re not alone. It’s a consequence of choices that have persisted and even accelerated since Granatstein issued his prophetic warning a quarter century ago. As he wrote then: “The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.” 

Second World War soldier Tommy Gilday, who was one of those people, likely didn’t carry stickers that said “the worst is yet to come,” helpfully translated into German. But it’s plausible.  

Stuck on the helmets of the enemy his unit killed in the night, the idea was effectively this: become a folktale. Operating first in the Aleutians, then behind the lines in Italy, and finally in Southern France, the First Special Service Force was a new innovation in the art of war. The idea was as simple as it was brutal. Recruit lumberjacks, hunters, skiers, and forest rangers from both sides of the Canadian border. Teach them to leap from airplanes, scale mountains, and fight in close quarters. Teach them to be ruthless and then unleash them on the enemy. A journal taken from a captured German officer gave them the moniker that stuck: The Black Devils.

Gilday grew up in a Canada that most of us would hardly recognize. In the 1920s he taught himself how to ski when ski hills barely existed and equipment was primitive. Later on, he climbed mountains suspended by hemp rope, steel pitons, and guile. Gilday was part of a vanished generation of Canadians who prided themselves on being rugged and self-reliant. When the war came, like most men his age, he enlisted, did his duty without fanfare, was decorated for valour, and went on to live a productive life. He would not have seen his service as extraordinary and in many ways, it wasn’t. This is just what you did.  

Canadians going overseas in the first half of the 20th century would be all but unrecognizable to us now. They weren’t the caricature of Dudley Do-Right. They weren’t self-deprecating and apologetic. Many were inveterate gamblers, some like Gilday were adventurers, others were heavy drinkers prone to brawling, and most of them were not only irreverent but also downright hostile to rigid British class structures. But they were tolerated and welcomed because despite being rough around the edges, Canadians were just the kind of people you could count on. Men good in a fight. Men who wouldn’t back down and above all, men who showed up and stayed for the duration.  

It’s unlikely that Canada was born on the bloody slopes of Vimy Ridge or in the cockpit of a Halifax bomber flying straight and level through flak bursts at twenty thousand feet, but I suspect that Granatstein was right: the stories we tell matter, and the ones we teach to our students (and certainly the ones we don’t) at best generate indifference and at worse encourage self-loathing. 

The decay of the ruddy Canadian that people like Gilday represented is the result not so much of the lack of Canadian history that is taught today but the content which reads more like a 16th-century morality tale rather than a balanced and relentless search for objective truth. The consequences of this ideology are now being reaped. We have repeatedly told a generation that, unlike their great grandparents, they can’t handle anything—and then have recoiled in disgust when it turns out they can’t. We have insisted that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, our country is bad and then lament the fact that most people can’t be bothered to vote anymore. We’ve been left with what Granatstein characterized (citing the famous 20th-century political scientist Gad Horowitz) as “the masochistic celebration of Canadian nothingness.” 

We hold historical figures to standards that either weren’t available at the time or were part of a worldview that is no longer valid and then judge them to be lacking. Ironically, Clara Brett Martin’s antisemitism may not be so distant after all. I often wonder, what people 150 years in the future will think of our trigger warnings and safe spaces. 

Where Canadians served and sacrificed at home and on the front lines, today we have decided to leave the heavy lifting to others; a notion that would have been repugnant to Gilday’s generation. In the absence of duty to others and the conviction that citizenship comes with obligations, we have chosen to venerate a health-care system that is neither free nor accessible, forsaken a military alliance where we don’t pull our weight, and outfitted our armed forces with sidearms so antiquated that they aren’t merely the same models but literally the same pistols that our forefathers would have carried in the 1930s. It is not without some poetic justice that we now have an identity synonymous with an American-owned franchise that peddles tepid coffee and a multinational corporation that sells watery beer.

I have spent my career telling stories about men like Tommy Gilday, the Canadians who flew the Dam Busters Raids, and the women who worked in the factories and then fought for the vote. These stories reveal intrinsic truths about the human condition and also define what it means to be a Canadian citizen. Canadian history reminds us that people have endured far worse, and squandered much better, and that sometimes in the darkest hour ordinary people are called to do extraordinary things and face impossible odds. Outside of my class, these are not stories that are often told anymore, and as classical scholar Richard Livingston put it: “One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.” 

The ideals we have instilled over the last forty years have bred complacency and indifference. Where our grandparents responded to evil with action, we deny its existence, wear rubber bracelets, post on Twitter, mouth platitudes from great a distance, and then wait for others to take our place on the sharp end. Consequently, we have the country that we deserve.

Every fall, I show my students the picture of the man in the crowd; the one man at the Nazi rally who is not saluting. I ask them what would it take to be that man. We all think that we will be the one who will stand up to tyranny. We all think that we will join the resistance and swim against the tide. We all think we will be the hero of the story. And yet, history tells us that most of us will not. 

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” In Canada, we have cut our giants down and, in the process, answered Granatstein’s question: who killed Canadian history?

We did.