The University of California Press has released William A. Ausmus’ “Wines & Wineries of California’s Central Coast,” one of six wine books the Berkeley-based academic press will publish this year and the 23rd wine-focused book released by the press in the past five years.
The paperback guide is more ambitious than it looks at first glance, and publishing the wine guide to the region spotlighted by the movie “Sideways” is a bigger gamble than it might seem.
UC Press is gearing up its wine division just as commercial publishers are dropping back from the category, worried that competition for space on bookstore shelves is too intense.
The ebb and flow of the market is irrelevant to Blake Edgar, the UC Press acquisitions editor tapped five years ago to revive the wine category. The press has a mandate to publish books relevant to California and the western United States, and releasing new wine-related books is central to its mission. Regardless of the commercial potential, there are wine regions that have yet to be authoritatively documented and aspects of winemaking that demand fresh analysis because of new science.
“So much of this is timing. We’ve stepped in (to wine books) when there is a place for us,” says Sheila Levine, associate director and publisher of UC Press. “We’re building on our region but taking a global approach.”
The largest and oldest university press west of the Mississippi River, UC Press publishes a minimum of 180 books a year. In 2003, it began to rebuild its reputation in the wine category – after long ceding the scholarly end of the market to London-based publishers Mitchell Beazley and Oxford University Press – by publishing serious fare for wine lovers.
This current list, which clearly reflects the choices made possible by the press’s non-profit status, is “a broad exploration of wine,” Edgar says, for an “audience that is educated and curious.”
When Edgar heard Ausmus’ story of arriving to teach communications at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and discovering vineyards outside his office window but no guide to help him navigate the local wine region, he quickly greenlighted the book proposal.
Edgar was already negotiating with Wine Enthusiast contributing editor and Seattle Times columnist Paul Gregutt to write a critical evaluation of Washington state wines. That book, “Washington Wines & Wineries,” was released in October. The first printing of 5,000 copies sold out in a month, Gregutt says. The book is now in its fourth printing.
“It’s a good example of why UC Press will succeed,” he says. “They saw a gaping hole. There was no definitive book on Washington wine. And they filled it.”
Books delineating western U.S. wine regions are just a part of the territory. UC Press has published authoritative volumes on American wine including Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America,” and John Haeger’s “North American Pinot Noir,” for which a follow-up edition is due out later this year. Clive Coates’ “The Wines of Burgundy,” considered among the best books written on that region, is another 2008 release.
But Edgar hasn’t forgotten the more casual wine lover. Last year, UC Press released Steve Heimoff’s “New Classic Winemakers of California,” a collection of question-and-answer sessions with some of America’s leading winemakers. Although the profiles can touch on esoteric winemaking issues, it’s a breezy read.
And the backlist title, “Perfect Pairings,” a guide to matching wines with meals by Evan Goldstein, is among the press’s most successful releases, having sold 27,000 copies since its release in 2006.
Most of these titles would never be released by a commercial publisher. Even mainstream houses that have had wine-book hits such as Gotham Books recently had with Julia Flynn Siler’s “The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty” – which sold 100,000 hardcover and paperback copies – are reluctant to publish additional books about wine or winemakers.
“A big run for a wine title is 10,000 copies – too small to turn much of a profit,” says Bill Shinker, Gotham president and publisher. “There have been some big food books, but I don’t see the same trend with wine.”
True, most wine books don’t make money. But when one works, says Ten Speed Press acquisitions editor Aaron Wehner, it sells forever. Kermit Lynch’s “Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France,” for instance, he says, is in its 15th printing. Books by Jancis Robinson, Robert M. Parker and Karen MacNeil are evergreen. In the hunt for those magic titles, Wehner says he publishes one or two new wine books a year.