Bergli, an English language publisher in Basel, has two new books out that are relevant here: Gardens Switzerland and The Landscape of Swiss Wine. The first, about large public and private gardens, is a gem. The wine book has good points but is significantly flawed.
Gardens Switzerland is a perfect gift book
First, the joyful news. Gardens Switzerland is a jewel of a book, in English, French and German. Multilingual books often don’t work well, but this one does. The two books covered here, plus another called Wild Swim, feature a new design from Bergli that I very much like – they are attractively laid out and visually easy to read.
Gardens Switzerland is by garden expert Hester MacDonald from the Geneva area, who for 16 years has had an excellent and popular radio show called “Dig it”. She is a trained horticulturist who designs gardens and runs a garden school; she regularly interviews professional Swiss gardeners on her show. Despite her rich credentials, the author doesn’t insert herself into the short texts on each garden, although large number of the photos are hers. She helps us understand why we might want to visit a different garden around the country each week of the year if we “are lucky enough”, as she puts it.
I found myself wishing she could accompany me.
The well-illustrated book would make a wonderful gift for any gardener or fan of walks in beautiful public gardens. I consider myself both, and I know several of these gardens, but I discovered there are far more that I don’t yet know – a wonderful surprise. They range, as she points out, from urban to country to alpine gardens. I especially like it that she includes only gardens that you can reach by public transport.
Thanks to the book, I’ll be off to Bex in Vaud soon to check out the Hobbit Garden, run on biodynamic principles. Switzerland, we learn from the book, is richly endowed with curious and beautiful gardens. CHF29.90
Swiss wine book: false promises
Bergli’s new wine book, The Landscape of Swiss Wine by food (notably cheese) writer Sue Style, sells for CHF34.90.
The points in its favour: the concept of a wine tourism book is good and we need a guide to Swiss wines in English; attractive landscape photos from wineries; a readable text – Style, for those who are familiar with her early books, here confirms her switch to the brisk and breezy wine magazine writing style popularized in Britain by Jancis Robinson.
It dismays me to write this next part, for my policy with wine reviews has always been that if a wine is not good I simply don’t review it. My approach to other people’s writing is the same; if it’s good, I share it with you (in my newsletter, for example) and if it isn’t or there is a problem, I won’t share it but I might try privately to help the writer in other ways. Writing is a tough job, badly paid, and our hard work often goes under-appreciated, so most writers I know try to be supportive of each other. I’ve helped Sue Style out a few times when she has turned to me with questions about Swiss wine.
I’ve been tempted to say nothing about the book, but ultimately, this makes me complicit, and I’m unwilling to be silent when I see something wrong. The Landscape of Swiss Wine has two significant flaws: the first is that it is not what it purports to be. I realize that publishing pays less today than in the past, but I am disappointed to see an experienced writer take shortcuts that significantly undermine her credibility.
The second is that the marketing for this book is a house of cards. I’m disappointed to find that a publishing house with good writers is this keen for a commercial shoe-in success – for Swiss wine is much in the news this year and it’s no accident that the Fête des Vignerons features in ads for the book. Bergli shows itself willing to abuse the goodwill of many reliable professionals whose help was sought to launch the book. The publisher owes it to its other writers to be more believable when promoting their work.
The writer’s shortcuts
At first sight, The Landscape of Swiss Wine appears to have fairly complete information about the wineries, underpinned by the implication that the author has a rich experience of them. Sue Style is central to the story, implying on virtually every page that she knows the people. First names are used for all the producers. We’re meant to understand that she is at home in their wineries, which she has visited, presumably recently.
This is misleading.
The author is not known (see below for details) to several of the 50 wineries included in what is described on the cover as “a wine-lover’s tour of Switzerland” and it appears unlikely that she can have tasted many of the wines mentioned, which raises serious questions about her reliability as a source of information and her claim to be an expert on Swiss wine.
And Style is indeed described by Bergli as an expert. “Sue Style [sic] knowledge and authority on wine is undisputed.”
Sorry, it is disputed.
The claim to have expertise matters if you believe that research should be current in a field such as Swiss wine that is rapidly and continually changing, that researchers should do their own legwork to be credible and that books should recount a story honestly.
There is, for me, a moral credibility issue here as well: an author who can’t be bothered to visit wineries yet writes a book to encourage readers to do exactly that? Why should they, if she hasn’t seen fit to do so?
Sue Style has not lived in Switzerland for several years, the writing she has done on Swiss wines in the past 20 years is very limited, mainly a handful of advertorials for Decanter and one or two mentions in How to Spend it articles for the Financial Times. She is very, very rarely seen at events where Swiss wines are presented and tasted and discussed – I have seen her at only a handful of events during the seven years I’ve known her, and I take part in dozens a year.
She could have compensated for these shortcomings by taking her own tour, the one laid out in the book, and by spending time with the people who make these wines. In publishing parlance it’s called helicoptering into a destination, and plenty of good guidebooks are written this way. She could have verified her presence with photos in the book; she has just three, landscapes, two of them relatively close to her home in France.
The writer/reader implied contract
Writers and their publishers have an implied contract with their readers about “the nature of the work, its contents, and its methods” (for more on this, see the journalism site Poynter, “Coming clean: notes on becoming an honest writer” by Roy Peter Clark). If your method lacks credence, you have nothing but hot air for content. Publishers owe it to readers to do fact-checking.
A number of red flags began to go up for me about this book after I heard about it this winter. The first was the title; I contacted publisher Richard Harvell to ask his position on this, noting:
As the author of the only book on Swiss wine in English published in the past 20 years, I am, of course, interested in what anyone else writes on the subject. I’m very supportive of a couple of other highly qualified people preparing Swiss wine books in English as I am happy to see efforts to expand what the public knows.
I find it surprising, however, that the title of your upcoming book is the phrase I have used regularly – and continue and will continue to use – to market my book on Swiss wines, Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines, which continues to sell well. I would expect an established imprint like Bergli to have checked on use of the phrases, “the landscape of Swiss wine” and “Swiss wine landscape”. Borrowing a phrase used extensively to market the only other current book on Swiss wine, a book that covers much of the same territory as the one you intend to publish, is likely to provoke confusion or worse…
His response assured me that similarities were purely coincidental, that the Swiss landscape is the most well-known feature of the country, and that after Sue spoke with winemakers she and her publisher concluded that the landscape is the most compelling challenge of these winemakers.
I was annoyed, but shrugged it off because you can’t protect a tagline. That’s business. I did think the title choice showed a lack of creativity.
Harvell’s suggestion that Swiss winemakers would say the landscape is their most compelling challenge intrigued me, because it’s hard to see how, unless they have steep vines in Valais or ones near the forest in Ticino. Terroir, yes, that mix of soil and climate and sunshine – but this is the challenge every good grower/producer everywhere faces, so it’s hardly a new topic. “Landscape” lets you use more beautiful photos, so while I could appreciate the choice, I had some doubts winemakers were asked the question.
And then I noticed in the author’s introduction that she has decided landscape and terroir are interchangeable. Better for selling books, but not helpful to anyone really interested in learning about wine. Try this word swap for sense: Swiss terroir is the most well-known feature of the country.
In Switzerland, the challenges I hear wine producers talking about are moving to organic or biodynamic growing and the shrinking market for their wines, changing tastes, and the financial burden for small wineries who now need to take part in so many more wine events to remain viable. Not to mention how best to hand things on to the next generation. To hear this, however, you have to spend time with them.
I visited a lot of Swiss wineries this winter and joined more than 20 wine events all over the country from January to May, so I took advantage of this time with winemakers to ask directly about these compelling landscape challenges. I got puzzled looks. I also began to inquire about Sue Style’s visits, after two of them mentioned the book to me because they had been asked to supply photos for a book by someone they didn’t know, which they found odd. So did I.
I’ve now asked 14 wineries, when our paths crossed: only three of them have seen the author in the past two years and one of those for just 15 minutes. Several wineries told me they have never heard of the author, including people who are quoted, others heard of her only when they were asked for photos, and even then they say that they have not met her, nor can they imagine when or where she might have tasted their wines since she hasn’t taken part in wine events and their wines are not always available elsewhere. Other producers tell me they met her once but say it was many years ago.
In short, this makes the gushing acknowledgments section at the end of the book seem ingenuous: “a special debt of gratitude to all the winemakers in this book, who took time out from their work in the vineyards and the cellar to receive me”. The words ring hollow.
The book’s marketing: a second problem
Here’s how you build a house of cards to market a book: you ask a well-known person to write the foreword before the book is written; you use his name to seek funding and you use the funder’s name in the book to imply credibility. You then create an inflated catalogue description and ask for upbeat quotes for the book from professionals whose reputations are above question – and who therefore would never dream of questioning if the work that is suggested by the text was actually done.
Several luminaries in the Swiss wine field are quoted in a press release as praising the book. Stephan Reinhardt of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, François Murisier, who has held key wine industry and education posts (former Changins professor and former president of Vinea) and DNA specialist José Vouillamoz who wrote the foreword for the book: these are all highly respected and serious researchers who assume the best of others. Who themselves would never take shortcuts. All have been generous in their praise. Stephan Reinhardt confirmed to me that he had seen the book before adding his praise and that he was looking forward to having the book in his hands. I dearly hope, given the scale of his influence, that he does not rely on the quicksand information in this book.
Swiss Wine, the industry’s promotion arm, republished the praiseful press release in its news section, as an article, presumably unaware of the mistake.
The Landscape of Swiss Wine was pitched in early spring to bookstores as a guide by an “authoritative voice”, “the most comprehensive guide to Swiss wines and vineyards available in any language”. That startling line undoubtedly helped advance sales. I would argue it is, frankly, offensive to the authors of the many good and thorough guides in French and German. The press release on the Swiss Wine web site (where French and German wine writers might see it) was shortened to “a comprehensive guide”.
The wineries in the book are largely members of the regularly praised Mémoire des Vins Suisses group, a sure bet for a list of quality wineries. A few have been added who are mostly rising young GaultMillau selections, another sure bet. These wineries appear in virtually every guide to Swiss wines, of which there are several excellent ones in French and German. Details are thus easy to find online and in print. Of course they are good wineries: they were selected originally by people who know them well and continually taste and re-taste their wines.
So it does seem a shame the writer didn’t find them all worth a good, long visit.