A book review of “Wine Folly: Magnum edition”

by  |  21-01-2019

In the later part of 2018, a new printing of the Wine Folly series by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack came to market but instead of being the self-published affair that was the previous book, this time Avery Books (an imprint of Penguin) took on the book, giving it a more elaborate cover and allowing the authors the opportunity to heavily revise, update, and expand their text for what has been a very popular product for those looking to get started in learning about wine. Thus, “Wine Folly: Magnum Edition” was released.

It’s no secret I’ve had my misgivings about the first Wine Folly book as well as the website, due to the information in them being questionable at best and often flat-out wrong and misleading at worst. The writing style doesn’t suit me either but clearly that’s highly subjective and thus, I wanted to read through this new, revised book and see if the opportunity to work with a publisher (and theoretically, editors) would have them up their game.

The main selling point of the Wine Folly book initially was that it was small and thus, approachable. Now, at 320 pages, it’s no longer small and honestly, if you want a slim, easy-to-digest book to get started in wine, I can’t recommend enough to pick up “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” by Jancis Robinson instead. If looking for a more definitive tome, go with The World Atlas of Wine or the Wine Bible. In short, “Wine Folly: Magnum Edition” remains riddled with oversimplifications and ill-conceived concepts about the world of wine.

The 17th Edition?

It would seem this book is something akin to a “2nd Edition” of the original Wine Folly book. In truth, it’s actually unknown as to what edition this is as the Wine Folly team very quietly released revisions to the original book over time without letting anyone know. Madeline even stated in a discussion forum, “Right now, we’re on the third printing and as far as I can tell”. How that’s not something you’d know for sure is beyond me unless you’re really not wanting to admit to how many micro-revisions you’ve put out to an unknowing public.

For those who have a lengthy career in wine, you’ll know that both the website and the book are littered with countless errors from simple typos to massive misunderstandings of regions and wine types. The problem is that you really don’t know what printing you have of the original book, so you may have one of the early ones with more errors or one of the later ones with other errors such as “Vintage Champagne must be aged a minimum of 36 years“.

Let the errors commence

This Magnum Edition seemed the moment to clean all of this up and present a proper wine book to the public with the approachable graphical style that seemed to catch people’s attention originally. They definitely have the name recognition, so why not use it to promote a superior product? Sadly, this didn’t happen. Besides minor issues such as weird pronunciation tips “Veraison (‘vair-ray-shun’)”, there are some surprisingly botched sections. Read what happened to Sherry which required Ruben of Sherry Notes to write up an article about it as it’s just so incredibly wrong.

Here are some strange bits from Spain: “Catalonia has two notable specialties: Cava and Spanish GSM / Rhône blends. You must try a red from Priorat at least once in your life.” Ridiculous, as the “M” in GSM is for Monastrell/Mourvèdre which isn’t even allowed in Priorat. But I’m sure people will just get on me for nitpicking when it’s the “intent” that’s the more important part. How about that the Gran Reserva aging requirements for Rioja are off in the book despite the change in regulations having happened a year before the book went to print?

I could fill multiple pages with all of the errors which simply shouldn’t exist this far into a revision history but yet they do as there’s an inherently-dangerous sloppiness to this book which then results in entire sections such as this:

“Orange” Wines. This colloquial term describes a subset of natural wines made with white grapes. Wines are fermented with their skins like red wines. The result is a wine that’s dyed orange from the lignin in the seeds. Orange wines have tannin and body much like red wines. Orange winemaking originated in Northeast Italy and Slovenia, where you can find great examples made with Pinot Grigio, Ribolla Gialla, and Malvasia grapes.

I’m not going to go over everything that’s wrong in there because it’s basically all wrong or half-truths. But what’s so insidious about this is that someone new to wine will read this and think, “Okay, sounds good” when in fact it isn’t. This is a core issue of the book(s) in that it simply wallows in “truthiness”.

Talking up, talking down, but not talking right

What was constantly sold as the pitch behind Wine Folly was the fact that it was immediately approachable for the “wine beginner” whereas the reason for buying the new book is that it’s aimed more at the wine professional. But here’s the main flaw in this premise: the authors aren’t wine professionals and haven’t put in the years of knowledge needed to attain a wine expert. It’s why people like Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson are held in such high regard as they do know wine backwards and forwards but at the same time are able to talk about it in such a way that people from many different levels can find it approachable. That’s no small feat and it’s one that Wine Folly, in any and every incarnation of their writing, consistently fails at.

Throughout this entire “Magnum Edition”, there was a constant feeling that the authors were struggling to properly explain the information presented in the book. There’s this scrambling and flailing while not ever really conveying information; #skindeep would apply to nearly every page. The Wine Faults section is an extremely abbreviated, uninformative read–if you actually want to know about this topic, read “Flawless” by Jamie Goode instead. The section on natural wines shouldn’t even exist as they state, “No enzymes or additives except for up to 50 ppm sulfites, if any.” This doesn’t summarize the arguments of natural wine in the slightest and this is something that needs more coverage than trying to convince me that Chardonnay is the heaviest white grape in terms of body, while Zinfandel the heaviest red grape–I’m not making this up, that’s direct from the book.

There was the claim by Puckette in a Guildsomm forum post that Advanced Sommelier and WSET Diploma holders proofread the text. I can only assume that this is a flat-out lie or they were people doing this solely as a favor and without close reading as there is simply no way these non-factual and ill-conceived premises would ever have been given the green light by people who hold these extremely high-level qualifications in wine as they go against all the education you put in to attain either of them. It’s interesting to note that no Master Sommeliers or Masters of Wine were apparently consulted, or at least admitted to being consulted…

Wine Schmapes

One of the biggest sections they’re touting is the new one on wine grapes. It’s clear this makes heavy use of the most incredible “Wine Grapes” book by Jancis Robinson (again, yes), Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz. It’s no secret that there appears to be essentially no original research in the Wine Folly book as seen by the maps being basically traced from the Wine Atlas and many sections cobbled together from Wikipedia entries. But, if you’re going to be “inspired” by the Wine Grapes book and use its information, don’t cock it up so badly.

I’m at a loss as to why grapes, styles, and regions are all lumped together into this section. This is immensely confusing even for somebody with an extensive amount of wine education. For example, Vinho Verde has multiple grapes used that are also used in other wines – including for instance Albariño, but they’re both listed as “varieties”. Or then the suggestion that, if you like Carignan, try Grenache or Sangiovese. Really? They have nothing in common other than being red wines. Bobal and Carignan have Medium tannins? Well, I suppose I just learned something… and I’m surprised they don’t say that Riesling is Medium acidity as well while at it.

The whole chart is wonky and it seems they based it upon their own ideas from a couple of wines and not industry standards. This goes to show again their inexperience and lack of knowledge to be taking on such a book as this.

Also, as a lover of fine Cava, I’d just like to emphatically state that it does not pair with red bean chili and is just one of the many food comparisons designed to splash and get attention, but never, ever actually work. Again, form over function and bluster over fact.

Church of Folly

For the longest time, I thought that it was simply that the authors were sloppy which is why the Wine Folly book and website were so bad. They focused only on the visuals and left all those “fact-y things” to be of lesser importance. Then I realized that the books simply aren’t getting any better despite this new edition that again, had the possibility to right all the wrongs yet absolutely does not. I’m starting to think that all of this sloshing about in terms of bad information and organization is actually intentional. They are working to create a constantly confused fan base who have no choice but to keep returning to their text for the answers but are presented in such a way as to keep them obfuscated so that they keep coming back for more. What they’ve done in fact is to create a religion of bad wine knowledge of which, Wine Folly is the keeper of “knowledge”.

I realize this sounds far-fetched but I’ve had to stop pointing out errors found in Wine Folly on social media as there are rabid fans who will always attack those who do as “haters” or even as sexists because they’re so invested in the Wine Folly adoration as groupies. You carefully explain to these fans how Wine Folly is wrong in what it states and they don’t want to believe you or they try to minimize very single example or explain it away with the classic “whataboutism” technique.

These are not readers, they are worshippers. All I can say is, don’t let this happen to you or your loved ones. Stay away from this book. Don’t give it to anyone (give them some good wine instead or the previously-mentioned books.) And most importantly, be wary of anyone who cites it as an actual source.

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