Best Wine Books of 2015 (and Who to Give Them To)

© Yale University Press

By Carson Demmond Posted December 18, 2015

F&W's picks for the five most notable wine books published this year. 

Each year, wine publishing sees a slew of new entries, intended for readers of varied wine backgrounds and interests. This year was no different. But what it did produce that's unusual is not one but two epic rereleases of iconic wine reference books—one from Britain’s grande dame of wine writing, Jancis Robinson, and the other from America’s “Missionary of the Vine," Karen MacNeil. The former published the fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine more than 20 years after the original; the latter, a fresh second edition of The Wine Bible, updated from when the title first hit shelves in 2001. Both got serious makeovers to acknowledge winemaking techniques that weren't widely practiced until recent yearslike fermenting in cement eggs (as opposed to more conventional tanks). They also expand upon sections about regions and grape varieties that have grown in both notoriety and availability.

Additional highlights include Kelli A. White’s Napa Valley Then & Now, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle's A Natural History of Wine, and a sleuth-like account of one of the California wine industry’s most costly crimes.

Here, five giftable wine books of 2015:

For the Beginner

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

A concise reference to the world of wine that's both easy-to-absorb and engaging. Although the bulk of the book is dedicated to encyclopedic entries organized by country and region, it somehow comes across as personal—a feat of voice on MacNeil's part that carried over from the first edition. Her pages are filled with “cheat sheets” about classifications and notes on what to look for in stemware, but she also gets into serious detail on the styles and production methods of Sherry and the French terms to know in Burgundian winemaking.

For the Academic

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding

“Companion” is a little bit of a misnomer here, since the only place it’s likely to accompany you is from the shelf to the desk (it weighs in at over 6 pounds), but this book is the most relevant text for folks in the tradeor for anyone else seeking a complete account of wine topics. It also manages to feel more contemporary than the Bible despite its scholarly, matter-of-fact tone (Robinson, for instance, mentions Vittoria and the recently famous wines of Occhipinti and their amphorae-aged brethren at COS in her Sicily entry, whereas MacNeil skips the local frapatto grape altogether). It’s worth gifting, even to someone who already has a previous edition, as this one is a stately and serviceable guide.

For the Crime Novel Junkie

Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California by Frances Dinkelspiel

Dinkelspiel’s narrative centers on a case of arson at what had been one of the state’s most secure wine storage facilities, following a group of premier Napa winemakers as they learn of the incident and assess the damages (and their losses). The author also interweaves details on the federal prosecution of the infamous wine counterfeiter Rudi Kurniawan, takes readers back in California history to the origin of her own family legacy bottles that were lost in the fire, and gets face to face with the man convicted.

For the California Collector

Napa Valley Then & Now by Kelli A. White

The sheer mass of White’s book might intimidate a casual reader; it’s over twice the size of Robinson’s impressive volume. Inspired by years on the floor at PRESS Restaurant in St. Helena (many of its tasting notes were drawn up in that very cellar), this book is among the most detailed chronicles of the region’s producers to date—from the storied first-generation estates to avant-garde operations like Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project. White lines her pages with beautiful photographs that provide an insider’s look at everything from vineyard work to blending sessions.

For the Science Geek

A Natural History of Wine by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle

Unlike many exploratory books of its kind, written by wine industry pros dabbling in science, A Natural History is authored by two science guys (a molecular biologist and an anthropologist) who just happen to love wine. The two American Museum of Natural History colleagues take readers on a journey that starts at the world’s oldest winery, goes deep inside the beverage to the molecular level and explains the phenomenon of drunkenness, busting myths along the way. Despite the presence of a lot of stick-and-ball models of acids and aldehydes, the book succeeds in explaining complex processes in a tone not dissimilar to late-night political satire.

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