A new approach to wine history

Fancy seeing your wine estate written up by some of the world’s most authoritative wine writers, turned into a book that people will want to read, and bound between beautiful covers? Adam Lechmere reports on a new enterprise that is making it happen.
 

John Stimpfig, publisher
John Stimpfig, publisher

The best ideas are often both simple and obvious. There’s nothing particularly new about First Press Editions, a publisher of bespoke wine books (people have been publishing books for centuries, after all) but you wonder why no one had thought of it before.

Everyone is familiar with the classic winery biography – glossy, photograph-heavy, the text either poorly translated or written in the neutered language of marketing departments the world over. What First Press’s founders, John Stimpfig and Ian Mitchell, are offering is a book written by a specialist in their field, with the highest production values. A book, in short, that you would actually want to read, rather than leaf through in a desultory fashion as you wait in the winery’s reception area.

Books are forever

The first book to roll off the press is on Château Haut-Bailly in the Graves region of Bordeaux, and it’s written by Jane Anson, an international authority on Bordeaux. In an example of another vital component of success in new ventures – luck – the book landed on Stimpfig’s doorstep almost by chance. Véronique Sanders, Haut-Bailly’s managing director, had already commissioned research into its history, with a view to publishing a book to mark a period of expansion at the château. “Véronique came to us,” he says. “They had asked a professional historian to look into the background and she had unearthed a mass of material that they knew nothing about – that it went back to the mid-14th century for example.”

Sanders already knew Stimpfig, a former Financial Times wine correspondent and content director of Decanter with a 25-year career in wine journalism. For her it was a natural fit. “We had this incredible amount of material and we thought we had to do something with it. John could put it all together and find the right balance,” she told Meininger’s. Anson had already started work on the book, and Stimpfig was able to step in to manage the whole publication process, from tweaking the chapter order to finding the right printer (publishing, he says, is 99% efficient project management).

First Press Editions is barely a year old – it launched in January 2020 – and it has a staff of two. Stimpfig provides the wine knowledge and the contacts, while the publishing know-how comes from Mitchell, former publishing operations director at Pan Macmillan. Mitchell has had responsibility for multi-million-selling authors as diverse as Jeffrey Archer, Cormac McCarthy and Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo). Mitchell is “100 per cent commercial” as he puts it himself, knows just about every printer from Beijing to Basingstoke, and also has an address book full of designers, proof-readers and sub-editors. “We’re the dream team,” he likes to say.

The reality of publishing

He is bracingly frank about the wine publishing business. “It’s incredibly niche – only a tiny, tiny fraction of wine books are successful.” There is “only one wine person in the world that is worth publishing on a viable commercial level in the UK market and that’s Jancis Robinson.” Haut-Bailly, albeit one of the best-loved châteaux in Bordeaux, with an amazing story to tell, is emphatically not a commercial proposition. “There is no publisher (and I know all of them) who would pay someone to write, and do all the marketing, promotion and distribution, on a book about Haut-Bailly.” The bespoke model though is different. “We go to them and say, ‘Yes, this is a big slice of your budget, but it’s a beautiful piece of PR and it’s your legacy you’re putting into print’.”

There are other important differences to conventional publishing. The client holds all copyright for example, which is immensely valuable, and also has total control over the process – they get approval at every stage.

First Press’s USP is the quality of the design and the writing. “These are beautiful bespoke publications,” Stimpfig says. Both he and Mitchell stress this. Haut-Bailly is designed by Lizzie Ballantyne, whose CV includes many wine and food publications – Noble Rot magazine, World of Fine Wine, Berry Bros & Rudd books, Robuchon – and stylish work on the likes of Biba and Bob Dylan for the Victoria & Albert museum and the National Portrait Gallery, private press books on Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden and much else besides. Mitchell has many other award-winning designers he can call on. 

First Press is aiming between the two main styles of wine book that dominate the market. “There are coffee-table books and there are staid, old-fashioned, text-heavy books. We’re pitching right in the middle,” Mitchell says. In practice this means, “a serious but beautiful book.” Haut Bailly is generously illustrated with some 100 colour plates by 18 different photographers, but getting the right author is paramount (having an internationally recognised name like Anson for the Haut-Bailly book is a coup). “It’s fundamental,” Stimpfig says. “A good writer validates the project, and almost always the client will know the writer as well, so there’s the element of rapport and trust.”

Trust is a vital element in all this; great store is set by transparency at every stage. Costs will vary between £60,000 ($81,393) and £85,000 for the entire package including an average £10,000 writer’s fee, which is paid directly by the client, again to ensure transparency. 

Print runs are small – Haut-Bailly will be 2,000 copies – because reprints, with corrections if necessary, are very straightforward. The whole process is geared for maximum efficiency: Haut-Bailly will be printed in French and English, the narrative pages simply being substituted on the presses while the illustrations remain the same. At present the books are printed in the UK but Stimpfig does not rule out moving it to China – or elsewhere – if they find they can satisfy their sustainability objectives.

Flexible model

After Haut-Bailly, which comes out in March, the next project is for the Chilean producer Errazuriz (slated for June), which has been authored in-house and is a much simpler proposition. The model is infinitely flexible: Stimpfig makes clear the focus is on beautiful bespoke books, but if it’s to do with words, then they can take it on. “If someone comes to us with an idea – it might be a brochure, or it might even be digital – and we think we can do a great job, then we would consider it.”

These are early days – First Press Editions’ website lists only those two projects at the moment. But the market is large. “When John told me how many wine producers there are, just in one region, I was astonished,” Mitchell says. Then there is that issue of serendipity again. One of the unforeseen effects of Covid has been a renewed focus on personal history and legacy – ghost-writing agencies have reported a boom in 2020; one, StoryTerrace, said it has doubled its staff to cope with demand. People want to tell their story.

“This is about giving something beautiful, and tangible, that lasts,” Mitchell says. He points out that yes, the outlay is a large chunk of any marketing budget but compare that with the cost of mounting a party “which is over in a couple of hours”.

Above all, both Stimpfig and Mitchell are having fun. “We’re two middle-aged blokes,” the former says. “We’ve worked for other people all our lives and now we’re really enjoying ourselves.”

Adam Lechmere
 

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