Anthony J. Hawkins and the Wine Grape Glossary

The Wine Grape Glossary, perhaps the most important wine reference tool on the Internet, was compiled by someone who did it to learn how to use a computer and to teach himself basic programming.

Thank you, Anthony J. Hawkins.

“That’s one reason why it’s so simple,” says the 83-year-old Hawkins, retired from the ceramics department at Alfred University in western New York state. “I didn’t want to put in any bells and whistles because I didn’t want it to be too complicated.”

It’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of Hawkins’ work. The site lists thousands of grapes (not even Hawkins knows how many), cross-referenced by parentage and the grape’s name in different regions and countries, along with growing and winemaking notes. All of this is annotated with academic sources and references.

Not sure what monastrell is? A couple of clicks and you’ll see that it’s a Spanish red grape that isn’t related to the French mouvedre, as is commonly thought. Surprised to see symphony listed as a grape on some California white blends? Click through and you’ll find that it’s a cross devised in 1948 at the University of California-Davis to blend with sweet wines.

And it’s free and incredibly easy to use. By comparison, Jancis Robinson’s new book, “Wine Grapes,” which has been released to critical raves, runs almost 1,300 pages and costs $175.

Is it any wonder I check the glossary (hosted by Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers Page) at least a couple of times day? Or that it’s reference material at many wine competitions that I judge?

Even more amazing is that Hawkins wasn’t all that interested in wine when he started work on it in early 1990s (though, he says with a laugh, he has a nice cellar now). He knew a home winemaker, and wanted to learn more about what that involved, as well as to understand what grapes were being grown in upstate New York 20 years ago. His goal, he said, was to grow a couple of vines so he could pluck grapes from his bedroom window. Besides figure out computers.

And, in those almost pre-Internet days, there weren’t many places to look. “Jancis Robinson ?s Guide to Wine Grapes,” her first grape book, wasn’t published until 1996 and only had 800 entries, an abridged version of a more expensive book that was almost impossible to find. Hawkins was on his own.

“The sources were hard to come by, though I did eventually get decent references from Cornell,” he says. “And the first versions were a little inaccurate, and I got some comments on that. It was like working in the dark. But then it started to grow like topsy.”

Until 2007, when Hawkins had to stop work on the glossary. He has had some health problems, he says, including heart surgery. But that doesn’t mean he wants to see it fade away.

“Yes, I’d like to see someone take it over and improve it,” Hawkins says, knowing that it’s time for an update that he can’t do. For one thing, diamond, one of my favorite New York state hybrids, is missing. Anyone who is interested can send him an email at hawkins at alfred dot edu (forgive that format, but I want to spare him any spam).

As for me, I want to double check the difference between ruby cabernet and cabernet sauvignon. Excuse me while I click.