Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the wine. Whatever sparked it, the inspiration arrived over lunch in 2018. Steven Spurrier and Hugh Johnson were talking about wine writing, and agreed that not enough great wine writing was being published any more.
Spurrier and Johnson decided to tackle the problem — and Académie du Vin Library was born. In less than five years, the London-based publisher has become renowned for its high-quality wine books. And despite the common view that wine writing doesn’t have much of an audience, they’re doing so well that they are expanding their catalogue.
Birth of a publisher
The name comes from the business that Spurrier had during his time in France, when he published course books under the Académie du Vin name.
Next, they turned to Simon McMurtrie, the Chairman of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), whose impressive CV includes a stint as the Non-Executive Director of the Folio Society, a publisher specializing in re-issuing literary classics in beautifully crafted illustrated hardbacks. He agreed to work on the project in his spare time, and also brought in Susan Keevil, a former editor of Decanter magazine. It was, says Hermione Ireland, managing director at Académie du Vin Library, McMurtrie’s idea to sell the books direct-to-consumer via the website.
The group successfully raised some initial investment, and the new publishing house was up and running. The first book, a new edition of Michael Broadbent’s 1968 book Wine Tasting, came out in April 2019, complete with new introductions by Gerard Basset MW MS OBE and Jancis Robinson MW, as well as Spurrier and Johnson.
“They wanted to start with something that was a really important wine book. Michael Broadbent was the person who sort of formalised wine education and thinking about wine tasting as a discipline,” says Ireland.
That same year, they also published Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! by Ben Hawkins. Another was Fiona Morrison’s 10 Great Wine Families. “And then the last book was In Vino Veritas, intended to be an anthology of lovely writing,” says Ireland.
The intention behind every book, she goes on, is to “publish books for people who love wine, to help them understand more about the wine they love, but by telling them stories about the people and the places, and by doing it with really high-quality writing. “
Ireland, who joined the company in 2020, had previously worked in classic trade publishing, with roles as Hachette, Harper Collins and Dorling Kindersley, publisher of many important wine books, such as Robert Joseph’s French Wines.
“At Dorling Kindersley, my passion had always been finding niche audience and communicating with them and building communities,” she says. “And I believe very strongly in selling direct to consumers. I managed the Dorling Kindersley website, and it was a mid-size retail account, but pretty much all profit.”
Editorial decision making
After two years, it became apparent that publishing four books a year was too much. “It nearly killed Susan,” says Ireland. “And I don’t want to kill Susan because she’s an editorial genius. So we’re only publishing two books this year, and we’ll do the same next year.”
There are several strands to the publication schedule, she says, including memoirs and existing classics. “We are looking for stories that have resonance beyond just an individual’s own winemaking theoretically,” she says. “Then we have these beautiful anthologies that are really Susan’s gift. So we are publishing On Burgundy this Autumn.”
“I’ve worked in big trade publishers , and once a book is a year old, books are lost very, very quickly,” says Ireland. “We plan to build classics. A lot of the people who want our books love the quality of them, and the collectability.” These are all books that will never be allowed to go out of print.
As for who is reading the books, Ireland says the biggest audience is 50-plus. “They skew male because I think wine collectors, by definition skew male. They’re also readers.” Wine students buy them too.
To expand reach, Academie du Vin is considering releasing paperback versions with funkier designs, to make the books accessible to a younger audience. The company is also beginning to distribute other wine books, such as Wink Lorch’s Jura Wine and Wines of the French Alps.
“It’s a win-win,” says Ireland. “These amazing people — like Wink Lorch and Amanda Barnes — are all self-published, but they didn’t want to be distributing the books. But they’ve produced these beautiful books and we’ve got an audience and the distribution operations.”
As to what the company will publish next, Ireland says they’re beginning to seek out writers in regions they’re not yet connected with, such as Italy.
They’ve also done a “Penguin Classics type series,” of books from the past. Ireland says that, surprisingly, they didn’t find as many old wine books worth republishing as they thought they would.
“A lot of those books are very whimsical and they’re written just for the sake of writing. Writing for writing’s sake almost,” says Ireland. “And I don’t think there’s that much appetite for that type of writing.” The bestseller of the four books in the series is In the Vine Country by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross. “It’s their account of them going to the Bordeaux harvest in something like 1903. It is just a funny, gorgeous book.”
Given that the company has proved that wine books sell, the question is whether other trade publishers will see an opportunity. Ireland thinks not. “It’s not hugely commercial,” except in wine education.
For all that, she says the “big books” like the World Atlas of Wine and the Oxford Companion to Wine, show no signs of slowing down. “I don’t see it being a growth area, but we see it as stable into the future.”
Ireland is very positive, not just about the future of Académie du Vin Library, but also of publishing in general. “Publishing has had the most fantastic ten years,” she says.
With more great years to come. FC