As interest in wine continues to blossom in this country, so does the annual crop of books on the subject. "How to" manuals have been popular for years, but recently there has been a spate of books that take a more intellectual approach to the subject, as well as those that reveal the personal stories behind the labels. Here is a taste of both.
A Moveable Thirst: Tales and Tastes from a Season in Napa Wine Country, with Reviews of 141 Napa Tasting Rooms,
by Rick Kushman and Hank Beal (2007, Wiley, $18.95).
Read this book backward. I'm serious, for that's where the most interesting and useful information is. The narrative, which occupies the first three-quarters of the book, is a takeoff on the grapey cult flick
. Two guys, one a savvy wine professional, the other a self-professed neophyte prone to asking dumb questions - the Smothers Brothers do Napa - embark on a nine-month road trip with the goal of visiting all 141 public tasting rooms in the valley.
Not much out of the ordinary happens. You'll find some Napa history, a little winemaking education, tasting tips and such. But if you turn to the back, you'll find a comprehensive insider's guide to all the tasting rooms they sipped in.
Wine Across America, A Photographic Road Trip, by Charles O'Rear (2007, Ten Speed Press, $35).
If you are looking for a stunning cocktail table book, this is a fine choice,
by O'Rear, a former National Geographic lensman, and his journalist wife, Daphne Larkin. The awesome pictures capture the diversity and irrepressible spirit of winemakers in America's mushrooming wine industry.
The couple traveled from Sakonnet Vineyards in Rhode Island to Il Santo Cellars in Los Alamos, N.M., and Denali Winery in Anchorage, Alaska (the grapes come from California), and the book reflects their passion for the subject. This is not an educational tome. The scant text stands in the wings and yields center stage to the pictures.
Windows on the World Complete Wine Course
(2008, Sterling, $24.95).
Kevin Zraly is the Emeril Lagasse of the wine world, an irrepressible showman with a middle-class sensibility and an unpretentious delivery. His book, in its 21st edition, has been expanded and now includes a 16-page insert on how to taste wine. Written in a breezy and accessible style, it employs a question-and-answer format and is organized by countries, with good maps and informative boxes.
Educating Peter, How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference between Cabernet and Merlot or How Anybody Can Become an
(Almost) Instant Wine Expert
, by Lettie Teague (2007, Scribner, $25).
This cheerful book might well be called "Wines for Dummies with a Smart Guy." The premise: A professional wine writer sets out to educate a friend who is a chardonnay-quaffing novice. The professional is Lettie Teague, the upbeat and unpretentious wine columnist for Food and Wine magazine; the rookie is Peter Travers, film critic of Rolling Stone magazine.
They start with the basics - how to swirl wine in a glass, how to spit into a bucket - and progress to the point where Travers swaggers into a wine shop and asks for a little-known boutique merlot from Washington state; he also attends a wine auction with the intention of buying a case of Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, a top-drawer white Burgundy, for $1,250. (He is outbid).
Rather than talking to the reader like most books, Teague converses with her cinematic pupil. Not surprisingly, movie similes fill the pages: "Riesling is like a filmmaker who has to depend on a good story and good character development instead of big names or theatrical flourishes," notes Travers.
The House of Mondavi,
by Julia Flynn Siler (2007, Gotham Books, $28).
Part immigrant-makes-good saga, part chronicle of the California wine industry, and part cautionary tale about big dreams and small-mindedness in an iconic American family, this tome is a compelling read on several fronts. For more than a quarter of a century the name Robert Mondavi has symbolized the world-class aspirations of California's better wineries, specifically in the Napa Valley. In meticulous detail, Siler, a veteran Wall Street Journal writer, recounts how the Mondavi clan self-immolated - twice - in a decades-long brawl worthy of a Greek tragedy.
The author conducted hundreds of interviews and slogged through thousands of pages of legal transcripts to get to the heart of this tempest in a barrel. While much of the disputatious tale transpires in lawyers' offices and courtrooms, she keeps the narrative flowing with colorful portrayals of the leading players and a whodunit approach that at times resembles fiction.
Portable wine guides
Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2008: 31st Edition
(2008, Octopus Publishing Group, $14.95)
Oz Clarke, Pocket Wine Guide
(2008, Harcourt Books, $15)
Wine Lover's Companion, Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler Herbst (2007, Barron's Educational Series, $14.99)
Portable wines guides are invaluable both in wine shops and restaurants and make great stocking-stuffers. The best of them offer instant information and concise advice. These are ones I can recommend for their clarity and comprehensiveness.
For the pocket guides, I prefer Hugh Johnson's because it is organized by country, whereas the
book is alphabetical.
Wine Lover's Companion
is an attractive and thorough wine dictionary that will come in handy for snobby wine bets - even if it really won't fit in your pocket.