When Colonel Agoston Haraszthy, the descendant of a noble Hungarian winemaking family, joined the mid-19th century Californian gold rush, he stumbled upon something that would have excited him even more than flecks of shiny metal panned from a stream.
Haraszthy feasted his eyes on Sonoma County, a place he immediately recognized as prime wine growing terroir.
In 1861, the man who would later be called the father of California viticulture, recrossed the Atlantic to scour the great wine regions of Europe. He collected 100,000 cuttings of 1400 varieties to take back to America. One of the vines he planted stateside was zinfandel, now recognized as California’s signature variety.
A rare 1862 first edition of the book Haraszthy wrote upon his return, “Grape Culture, Wines, & Winemaking: With Notes Upon Agriculture & Horticulture,” can today be found in a cabinet at the back of one of Hong Kong’s hidden gems — a small shop tucked away from the chaos of the Lan Kwai Fong shopping district.
Lok Man Rare Books is an Old World-style outpost in a small lane that backs on to what was Hong Kong’s first prison.
The Haraszthy work — which is as much a tale of gambling, train travel and his jaunts through the gardens of Bordeaux as it is about winemaking — is one of about 50 seminal volumes on wine and winemaking that make up a meticulously sourced collection of rare tomes put together by the shop’s proprietor, Lorence Johnston.
Its companions include a first edition of Henry Vizetelly’s 1882 “A History of Champagne with notes on the other sparkling wines of France,” which traverses 1,800 years of the making of bubbly.
Johnston stocks his shop with rare books on all topics from around the world. He does not sell on the internet or ship internationally, because he believes spending time in the shop is as important as whichever book you might walk out with.
He is a lover of literature and writing, exuding equal enthusiasm for a first edition of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” as he does for a 1514 copy of one of the earliest and most important collections of texts on wine, the “Libri de re Rustica,” which he found in Paris.
The shop has hosted the likes of celebrity winemaker Michel Rolland and historian Niall Ferguson, and Johnston indulges a select group of regular clients with the odd tasting of Krug. His most significant contribution to Hong Kong’s wine culture, however, is likely to be this collection that he is cataloging amid “lots and lots of interest” from around the world.
Johnston, an erudite Brit whose energy is contagious, has given talks on the collection, presenting it to wealthy families and private bankers locally.
“The idea is to sell it in Hong Kong. That’s really important,” he explains one morning just before opening. “Hong Kong has become a center for the wine trade for Asia, so there are incredible collections of wine here … but there is no one who has an in-depth library of [historical texts] about wine.”
The “Libri de re Rustica” is a collection of writings about Roman agriculture, including a guide to viticulture and winemaking. There is advice on planting, pruning, grafting and dealing with agricultural pests.
“The important thing is that there are texts here on varietals,” says Johnston. “Different grapes, how they should be grown. Soils, temperatures and the making of wine. It’s all here already, written down, and this is 500 years old.”
The original manuscripts, which were first published as one volume 50 years before Johnston's copy went to press, were written by ancient Romans. Johnston's 1514 “Libri de re Rustica” is valued at approximately $5000.
For curious shoppers who are just looking for a book or two, Lok Man Rare Books’ shelves hold some 40 other wine titles, as well as rare works on cocktails and whisky. Johnston suggests a guest attending an upscale dinner should consider bringing a rare book as a gift, rather than the typical bottle of wine.
“This is André Simon’s ‘The Nobel Grapes and The Great Wines of France,’ from the 1960s. It’s beautifully bound,” says Johnston, gingerly pulling the volume from a shelf. The rare wine books start at about $800.
And then there are the expensive ones: "Here on this shelf, well, [the prices are] comparable to a lovely bottle of wine — you could say that.”