Rare Wine Books Collecting


With the explosion in Bordeaux and Burgundy prices in the auction circuit over recent years, a more obscure section of the wine market is starting to pick up steam – antique wine books and monographs.

Large collections of rare and first edition wine books have typically been amassed by wine estates, such as Dinastia Vivanco in Rioja, which has over 8,000 wine-related books and documents in its library, or more recently Chateau Haut-Brion in Bordeaux, which is building up a similarly extensive collection. Equally, academic institutions have taken an interest, such as the major research library at the Library of Congress, which has an extensive collection of gastronomy titles, some from Jefferson’s own library, or Cornell University, which has since 1998 established the Eastern Wine and Grape Archive to document the history of the production and consumption of wine in the United States, or the State Library of South Australia, which has one of the best public collections of wine literature in the world, almost entirely 19th century onwards.

But wealthy individuals and passionate oenophiles are becoming more active. Rare and first edition books is a niche but healthy market – collectors have spent more than US$350 million on books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s alone in the past five years. According to a recent survey of 150,000 collectors in 160 countries around the world, book collecting was voted the eigth most popular area of collecting in 2011, with wine at 34th.

Although there are few figures on the global worth of the market, evaluation expert Adrian Roose of Paul Fraser Collectibles estimates it to be around £60 million (stripping out the occasional sale of a rarity like a Shakespeare First Folio at US$2.36m or a James Audubon 'Birds of America' at US$11.5m), with gastronomy-related titles accounting for less than one per cent of the total sales (‘but the market is growing as wine auctions catch the attention of wealthy collectors, especially in the Far East,’ says Roose).

Ben Kinmont is one of the leading specialists in this field in the US, and puts its growth within a relatively recent context. ‘The first section to really upswing was gastronomy,’ says Kinmont, ‘and early monographs on cookery and gastronomy conintue to lead the field. At the turn of the 20th century, right up to the 1950s, collecting food and wine books was not considered important. But there has been a sharp upswing in prices over the last few decades, mirroring the explosion of interest in food and wine in our wider culture. Bartolomeo Plantina, the first printed cookbook from the late 15C, exchanged hands recently for US$30,000’.

‘For a genre of books to become collectable, bibliographies need to be written, libraries need to start taking an interest,’ says Kinmont. ‘These are all things that allow readers to understand which books are available, and begin to grade them. As collections grow, more people contribute to the field, and what we believe to be valuable can evolve. And you don’t have to have a lot of money to get going. For example, if one wanted to focus on the whole debate around Phylloxera, you could make a great collection with average of US$100 per book. Ampelography would be more like US$4000 per book.’ Kinmont suggests considering the time frame of publication, the information within, and the condition of the book - a 15C book with a whole chapter on wine is rare, but a 19C one with just a single chapter on wine needs to be distinctive. ‘And remember, buying for content is great for interest, but if you are buying for making money, the condition of the binding and cover is paramount.’

For decades, the rare book trade has been centred in London and New York but inevitably, as with so much in the wine world, the interest is spreading eastwards. The Hong Kong Antiquarian Book Fair has been held since 2007 – the first Western-style fair with dealers coming from all over the world.

‘As more and more people in Hong Kong and mainland China have large wine collections,’ says Lorence Johnston at Lokman Books, just set back from the traditional art dealer’s centre of Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, ‘the serious, long-term collectors begin to want to differentiate themselves further, to show their knowledge extends beyond collecting the fashionable labels. Collecting rare wine books can be a way of doing this.’

Johnston specialises in pre-20th century books, starting with a 1514 First Aldine Edition of Libri de re Rustica (Book of Country Affairs), which includes works by some of the first people to write on wine – Columella, Cato, Varro and Palladius. ‘As far as I am aware, despite the large number of incredible private wine cellars in Hong Kong and China, there are no private wine libraries or collections of books and manuscripts of scale. This market is just taking off in China. The growth potential is real.’

Areas To Collect/Maximising your Investment
English-language books hold their value and are sought-after more than other languages (followed by French)
If collecting for profit, try to mirror the areas that reach high prices in wine itself collections surrounding the classified wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy are always sought after, as are books on the early years of the Californian wine industry.

Any early printed books (15C/16C) – either strictly about how to make wine, or on the culture surrounding wine - are very rare.
Buy first editions wherever possible – and be vigilant about the condition of the spine, cover and inside pages.
Illustrations are always sought after – look for good quality colour plates.
Just like wine, provenance matters.

Buy according to your interest, and think depth not breadth.

Important Early Works
Cyrus Redding, A History and Description of Modern Wines – (1860) the first book in the English language dealing with wines all over the world. First editions of Redding’s works are generally prized.

Paulo Mini, Discorso délla natura del vino – (1596), one of earliest books on wine. Tries to analyse tasting notes and how we actually taste wine from different regions around Italy.

Documents from Junipero Serra (known as the Father of California) on the founding of California vineyards  (1778) – very rare, only eight examples on auction circuit over past 45 years.


W Franck Traité sur Les Vins du Medoc – (1824). There are several re-printings of this, but a first edition, with one of the earliest examples of what would become the 1855 classification, is highly sought after.

Modern Classics – Future Collectibles
A J Liebling’s ‘Between Meals’ – eating in Paris between the wars, by legendary New Yorker correspondent (1962)
First editions of André Simon, including The History of the Wine Trade in England from Roman Times to the End of the 17th Century, and In Vino Veritas (he wrote over 100 books on wine between 1905 and 1973. He also wrote one of the first bibliographies on wine with his Bibliotheca Vinaria in 1919).Jordan Rudolf, A Manual for Progressive Winemakers in California (1911)

Further Information
Omnivore Books, San Francisco, www.omnivorebooks.com
Ben Kinmont - www.kinmont.com
Lokman Books, www.lokmanbooks.com
Sean Thackrey – www.wine-maker.net
Pacific Book Auction – www.pbagalleries.com
Sophie Schneideman – www.ssrbooks.com
Dan Lindgren www.rabelaisbooks.com/
Paul Fraser Collectibles www.paulfrasercollectibles.com