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Reading Between the Wines

Columnist Lettie Teague critiques the latest vintage of wine books and finds 10 well worth opening.
The second most frequent question I field (right after "Can you recommend a good $10 wine?") would probably be, "What wine book should I read?" Believe it or not, the second question is the more difficult of the two. It isn't, however, due to a lack of options. In fact, the opposite is true: While the number of wine drinkers in America is declining, the number of wine books is on the rise.

Does this mean we've become armchair oenophiles—people who'd rather read about Bordeaux than open a bottle? If so, I'd argue that the books we buy had better be good: not just instructional but well written; educational, yes, but also entertaining. Now, if you had read as many new wine books as I have recently (over 50 in the past few weeks alone), you'd realize how tall an order this is. 

The largest category seems to be reference—hardcover books with many hundreds of pages. That, apparently, is where the (relatively) big money is made. Not, mind you, by the writers—big money and wine writing are pretty much mutually exclusive—but by the publishers, who pay for one book and reprint it each year, calling it new by adding a chapter or updating vintage notes. This to me just doesn't seem fair, especially to the owners of last year's old "new" book, a big fancy volume that's suddenly outdated. I think that the owners of these books should get some sort of discount, or perhaps even a separate set of updates, so they aren't forced to fork over $50 or more for a new edition. That said, my favorite new reference work, Wine, is authentically new. Written (mostly) by a German with the French-sounding name André Dominé, at 928 pages it's also the biggest debut of the year. But its pages aren't mere padding: They contain a wealth of information—think Gray's Anatomy with much prettier pictures. 

Another major category for wine books this year is tasting guides. Of those that I read, my favorite by far is from Jancis Robinson, the British wine superstar. Her book, How to Taste, is unpretentious and breezy (she describes one wine as having a "whack of acidity that will crinkle the edges of your tongue") and contains plenty of exercises for training your senses—although tasters on tight budgets might wish that fewer required purchasing multiple bottles. How to Taste, by the way, is a U.S. remake of 1983's U.K.-published Masterglass (a title the Brits must have thought would intimidate Americans). 

I'm not sure why it took another Brit to pen the perfect grape-centric guide for Americans—after all, we're the ones who think of wines as Chardonnay and Cabernet, not Burgundy and Bordeaux. But writer Oz Clarke, in his Encyclopedia of Grapes, makes learning the names of even the most obscure varietals and blends seem sensible, if not fun. This isn't just a dictionary but also a varietal-driven compendium that includes wine recommendations and information about regions and winemakers known for specific varietals (i.e., Olivier Humbrecht and Pinot Gris in Alsace). 

While Rod Phillips isn't quite as jolly as Jancis or Oz (he's Canadian), he's set himself a loftier goal: "to explain the story of wine as a product, a commodity and an icon" in under 400 pages. The fact that he succeeds in doing so might be reason enough to read A Short History of Wine. But the book is also a great source of cocktail party conversation, with stories about Frenchwomen in the Middle Ages who kept wine from going bad by adding cardamom, hot boiled corn and even sand to barrels, and about Parisian tavern keepers who gave away wine on the streets—sometimes beating the container with a stick as an attention-getting device. (A precursor, I wonder, to today's ubiquitous, much touted Cruvinets?) 

The Wines of the South of France shares an imprint with one of my favorite poets, T. S. Eliot. Both are published in the United Kingdom by Faber and Faber, though the American printing of WSF is distributed here by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Author Rosemary George has, however, managed to write a work more word-dense than The Waste Land. But before concluding that I'm just a sucker for (dead) poets and (living) academics, consider that George (who isn't a professor, as far as I know) makes a 700-page book on the south of France seem relevant, if not necessary. Rigorously researched and intelligently written, it's full of details on the wine and people of a region that is on the verge of some very important and exciting developments. 

Another new book that I was impressed by focuses on a different part of France, which just goes to show that even if the French no longer make all the world's greatest wines, they still tell some of its best stories, one of the most intriguing of which is the story of Bordeaux. Anyone who was seduced into spending big money on 2000 Bordeaux futures will want to read Bordeaux: People, Power and Politics. On the other hand, once they do, they might not be happy. As author Stephen Brook describes the way wine is made—and, more importantly, sold—in Bordeaux, it becomes clear that the power structure there pretty much ensures the consumer gets screwed. How else, for example, to explain the way the Bordelais are able to make certain that even wines from a poor vintage like 1997 can still cost so much money? Oliver Stone might call it a conspiracy, but as Brook explains it, it just comes down to greed. 

As a rule, I'm rarely intrigued by wine-column collections. They tend to sound dated by the time they're bound into a book. Decantations is a rare exception. But then, its author, Frank Prial, is the wine columnist for the New York Times, which means he's written about practically every Big Moment in Wine—at least for the past 30 years or so. In one column, Prial shares this thoughts about the much ballyhooed 1976 Paris wine tasting that pitted California against France and found California superior. But it's Prial's take on smaller events that, to me, makes for the book's more memorable moments—like when he sends back a bottle of wine in a restaurant or pokes fun at people who practice pretentious winespeak. 

I actually found myself longing for a little pretension while wading through some of this year's particularly fatuous "beginner" wine books. Why is it that people who probably function quite well in other parts of their lives are assumed to be morons when faced with a wine list? I mean, it's wine, not particle physics. So it was with no small relief that I read Max Allen's Red and White, a text for tyros that actually credits its readers with intelligence, if not attitude. For example, a typical Allen analogy: "If grapes had emotions, Cabernet Franc would be eternally frustrated." The only downside I found to this book is that since it was written by an Aussie, some of its references can be obscure. What, for example, is a wine that tastes like "a Mills and Boon romance?" 

Karen MacNeil is less manic and more straightforward than Allen, plus she's an American, which means her book, The Wine Bible, is easier to read. She crams a lot of useful information into this guide, although I had a certain déjà vu about the book's design. (It looks a lot like the other "bibles" from Workman). Still, there's a nice picture on the cover of MacNeil looking serene—just as you'd expect from someone who wrote a book called the Bible. 

My final new favorite isn't a wine book at all, but a text on that crucial accoutrement, the corkscrew. Frédérique Crestin-Billet's paperback, Collectible Corkscrews, features hundreds of photographs and several centuries' worth of corkscrews, as well as plenty of obscure corkscrew lore. Who knew, for example, that 200 years before the Screwpull was invented, there were mechanical corkscrews that did pretty much the same thing? While I normally swear by my simple waiter's corkscrew, this book had me hankering for a "de Gaulle," the model named for France's dour former president, who, it seems, had a habit of holding both arms over his head at the end of his speeches.

Published January 2002
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