There can be no dispute that Michael Cooper is this country’s most acclaimed wine writer, with 37 publications under his belt and several important literary awards as well as New Year’s honours for his services for his wine writing. Of his books, the Wine Atlas of New Zealand is his magnum opus, and the Buyer’s Guide the best-selling. These are indeed his essential works and must have and must browse respectively.
The Buyers Guide now enters its 21st year of publication with this 2013 edition, and it follows a time proven formula. It delivers practically all the information a wine enthusiast would need to have on hand if they wanted to buy wine, whether in the supermarket, at the cellar door, or online. The book caters for all New Zealand wine-interest people, whether novices, or those who have been buying seriously for years. It’s because the book is so comprehensive. Very few people, even those who judge and review wine professionally, taste and record as much as Michael does. I can only think of Bob Campbell MW who may do more.
The heart of the book is Michael’s reviews of 3,260 wines. The reviews are full enough to get a good sense of what the wine tastes like. Some reviews are obviously more successful than others, the lesser ones a bit formulaic and seemingly repeating what was written previously for the same wine. It’s the extra information around the review that provides the value. All of the wines are rated on a 5-star system, and if they fit into his rating system which acknowledges the best wines, they are noted as ‘Super Classic’, ‘Classic’ or ‘Potential Classic’. Each wine is also listed or rated for their sweetness level, price and value-for-money. Wines with a history of vintages have additional information, with vintages noted, along with a ‘Winery Rating’ of that year, and a ‘Drink’ window. The book groups the wines according to style, the varieties in alphabetical order, so that the whites start with Albarino and finish with Wurzer, and the reds from Barbera to Zweigelt. This section runs from page 29 to 661, in a book with 672 pages.
There is more to the Buyer’s Guide than just reviews. The book’s preface is usually a ‘state of the nation’ comment. Michael works through all of the growing regions of the country with a report on the 2012 vintage for each district. His ‘Best Buys of the Year’ are also anticipated, and Michael, as well as the wineries awarded make the most of promoting them in the market, which adds return kudos to the book. This year, the wines are Spy Valley Marlborough Chardonnay 2011 for the white, and Bannock Brae Estate ‘Goldfields’ Central Otago Pinot Noir 2010. Michael also lists his ‘Super Classics’, Classics’ and ‘Potential Classics’, and notes the movement up (or demotion if necessary?) in each category. And there is material on cellaring. I find the index is the best way to locate the review of a particular wine.
It is clear that this is a blockbuster of a book in terms of size. I have heard it described as a “doorstop” by one reviewer, and it certainly has grown in size over the years. The sheer physical size and number of pages makes it a handful, but those who wish to use the book will still find it manageable. I think that New Zealanders – and Michael Cooper – are lucky, as the New Zealand wine industry is not as large, say as Australia, where a book such as this would not be possible. The Australian versions, by James Halliday, Robin Bradley and Rob Geddes, have had to either omit many wineries, or abbreviate their wine descriptions. and use only numerical or star ratings without any text. This may be a possible path for Michael to follow if things grow to make his Buyer’s Guide too unwieldy.
However, it seems Michael has planned for the contingency where the whole exercise just gets too big, by establishing a website. This is the way of the future, and already, reports of his website’s usefulness and comprehensiveness are very positive. As with any work by wine writers, there’s got to be a way of return for the writer, and here, the viewer and reader pay for the privilege of accessing his work, very much as buying the book. This is the journalists’ way. As it is, it is about as comprehensive as any such book can be. It is impossible to be truly comprehensive, as Michael doesn’t taste every single wine made in the country. And it’s out of date the moment it was published. There are many new releases of notable wines he lists that are not covered. These points aside, it’s a great book for browsing. One can easily see what Michael thought of wines you have already tried, and wines you’d like to try. And he’s pretty much spot-on with his assessments, at least according to my taste, and he’s in-line with most of the results from wine judging competitions.