The spine on my worn copy of the Wine Bible is cracked and its pages are dog-eared, even though I think the book has several notable shortcomings. As I write this, I find myself in the unusual position of criticizing the thick volume even though I turn to it for information on a regular basis.
My biggest complaint is that I feel the book doesn't really know what it wants to be. On the one hand, it is a comprehensive reference book that in many areas goes into more depth than other general wine books. But it falls short as a reference book because it lacks the scope of books like The World Atlas of Wine or The Global Encyclopedia of Wine, which cover more up-and-coming wine producing countries, more specific producers and, especially in the case of The World Atlas of Wine, are enhanced by beautiful photographs and maps. Though the Wine Bible is substantial (it weighs in at a hefty 910 pages) its design is more compact than the other books I mentioned, and so might make a better travel companion for someone visiting multiple wine producing regions in a single trip. But the lack of good maps makes a supplemental book necessary.
Additionally, the book can feel like a disjointed collection of articles that ought to have been better integrated before publication. Often, the same information (referring to multiple or confusing names for grape varieties or regions, or quality standards in specific countries) is referred to parenthetically several times, often in quick succession -- something unnecessary, especially given the book's excellent glossary.
But despite these criticisms, I find myself referring to the book repeatedly. Part of the reason for that is author Karen MacNeil's pleasing and unpretentious writing style, which somehow manages to please wine lovers of many different levels of knowledge. Ms. MacNeil's passion for wine comes through in the text and her knowledge of the subject is extremely impressive, with her descriptions often compensating for a lack of quality photos. And though I would like to see more wine producing areas covered by the book, the regions she does address are covered extremely comprehensively. The quality of information is also very even: before travels to these areas I have read the book's sections on South Africa, the Mosel, Loire, Ribera del Duero, Languedoc, as well as everything on my adopted home country, and could not detect any ebb in Ms. Mac Neil's enthusiasm or knowledge.
After some thought, I settled on four stars for this review, despite the complaints I have. The book is just too useful and too skillfully written for fewer stars. The next addition, I feel sure, will earn five on my improvised scale.
Once you have moved beyond the most basic level in wine knowledge, this is an important book to have. If you can buy only one book on the subject, this is not the one I would suggest -- The World Atlas of Wine gets my vote for that honor -- but if you were to limit your collection to two books, then I think this is a serious candidate for that second position. Once you've got that much covered, I'd lean toward a book that focuses on your favorite wine producing region or another specific aspect of the subject, like tasting or wine production.