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Vintage Editions

The best wine books of the year, for experts and dummies, for giving and keeping

Choosing the right wine book can be as hard as picking the right wine. Actually, it's harder, since the former can directly determine the latter. Nevertheless, I've found five books I'd definitely recommend buying this season--and one I'd go a long way to avoid.

Most of us who bought The Oxford Companion to Wine ($65; Oxford University Press) by Jancis Robinson five years ago thought it would easily see us through to the next millennium. But with 500 new entries (from Asia to Zymase) and revisions to most of the existing 3,000, the 1999 version leaves the first edition behind. Though Robinson still gets star billing, the book is produced, once again, by a Cecil B. deMille-size cast of experts. It's a great gift for oenophiles who think they know it all (but don't) or for the novice.

For a more practical (and portable) selection, I recommend Overstreet's New Wine Guide ($40; Clarkson Potter) by Dennis Overstreet. A California wine retailer for 25 years, Overstreet has been at the front line long enough to understand exactly what consumers want to know. His book offers sharp assessments and opinions, tips about buying, storing and drinking wine and great anecdotes. For example, a hilarious story about Mick Jagger ordering 10 cases of Cristal for a backstage bash and having to buy 100 cases of Roederer's cheap stuff in order to get it perfectly illustrates today's ridiculous allocations policies.

Equally comic (though much darker) moments fill Nicholas Faith's excellent updated version of The Winemasters of Bordeaux ($29.95; Trafalgar Square Publishing). Faith's journalistic snooping about the plush properties of the Gironde Estuary has resulted in a fascinating account of the characters behind the labels and the historical highs and lows of this most famous of French wine regions. There aren't many wine books around that are impossible to put down, but this is definitely one.

If you haven't already stashed away something to celebrate the Y2K meltdown, Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine ($50; Wine Appreciation Guild) by Tom Stevenson is a comprehensive guide to buying bubbly whatever your budget. It's also the first book that doesn't treat the world's sparkling wines as second-rate alternatives to the kind made in northern France.

James Wilson's Terroir ($50; Wine Appreciation Guild/University of California Press) is an admittedly dry but nonetheless important reference work on terroir, undoubtedly one of the best French marketing tools ever invented. If you want to understand the links between chalk and fine bubbles or cap-rock scarps and beautiful Pinot Noir, this book is for you.

Meanwhile, in the love it or hate it department, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine ($25; Broadway Books) by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher leaves me firmly in the hate brigade. Organized in a strange jumble of chapters, this book crosses the line from chatty laid-back chum to downright-annoying party bore who won't shut up. I could find endless reasons not to buy it, but the following (ridiculous) generalization will do: "The wines of Australia tend to be powerful and big, a little like the wines of California in the 1970s."

Richard Neill is the wine correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.

Published December 1999
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