On Books

“The Vintner’s Art” Hugh Johnson and James Halliday: Here’s the real nuts and bolts of winemaking, presented by someone with experience and expertise (Halliday) and put together by a skilled writer and observer who really knows the world of wine (Johnson). The team dissects the sort of choices that winemakers have, lays out the consequences and trade-offs, and clears away some of the intellectual garbage strewn about by famous idiot critics, lifestyle magazines, and wine-shop cowboys. It’s not a textbook for someone who wants to make wine, but a terrific guide for the wine-drinker who wants to understand HOW it’s made and what the jargon really means. Highly recommended.

“The Wines of the Rhône” John Livingstone-Learmonth: The Third Edition is the one book to have on the Rhône if you’re only having one. L-L’s strength is accurate and detailed accounts of vineyards, growers, and grapes. If you want to be held by the hand and told what to buy, this will not satisfy you. But it will give you a good overall knowledge of what the various Rhône appellations are all about and a good overall sense of what leading producers (both large and small) do in the vineyard and the winery. Though the tasting notes are well done, they’re a bit musty now (the book was written in ’92)- it’s time to get a new edition out, Johnny-boy. Highly Recommended.

“Rhône Renaissance” Remington Norman: Are you a back-of-the-baseball-card sorta guy/gal? You’ve come to the right place – Norman has meticulous data on holdings, soil, vinifications, varieties, geography… the contour maps with vineyard outlines are alone worth the price of the book. He spends most of his pages on France, but does great coverage of Australia and California, too. The tasting notes in the back of the book are from Mars. Recommended.

“Burgundy” Anthony Hanson: The good news is that Hanson’s book is very comprehensive (growers, holdings, and other ultra-geeky stuff you have to know about when you’re navigating the arcane world of Burgundy) and detailed. The bad news is that he spends a lot of ink bashing other writers, is sloppy in disclosing his business connections with many of the domaines he writes about, and seems to have an inordinate lack of skepticism regarding controversial vineyard practices. His wine preferences are often mysterious to me- I can’t think of anyone else, for example, who considers Michel Niellon a mediocre producer. Hanson’s style is Veddy-Genteel Member of the Wine Trade Upper Class. I haven’t spent enough time with Remington Norman’s book yet, but it looks like a better bet than Hanson if you’re just buying one. Mildly Recommended.

“Making Sense of Burgundy” Matt Kramer: If you want to know about Burgundy vineyards and holdings on an Encyclopedia of Baseball level, Kramer delivers a fine data set. He also delivers crisp writing, a profound love of the wines of the region, and argues forcefully for signature-free winemaking. I find it curious, then, that he loves Leroy and Dujac, two excellent producers with VERY strong winemaking styles. Ah well, hobgoblin of small minds, that. Recommended.

“Vintage: The Story of Wine” Hugh Johnson: Elegantly crafted prose by the King of the Veddy-Genteel Member of the Wine Trade Upper Class style. Johnson writes compellingly about the interaction of the history of wine with culture and politics. Superbly researched with a fascinating eye for detail, a piece of scholarship which is real brain candy. Highly Recommended.

“On Wine”, “Vineyard Tales” Gerald Asher: Mr. Asher is an exemplar of my number one rule for wine writers- write well and interestingly. These two books have the same concept and structure; they’re collections of essays, each of which focuses on a single region or a highly unifying theme. His prose style seems to be that of a Veddy-Genteel yadda-yadda-yadda turned slightly naughty, the latter being more pronounced in his California essays. I can live with that. Highly Recommended.

“Adventures on the Wine Route” Kermit Lynch: Start out with the understanding that this book is a PR piece for Lynch’s retail and importing business. OK, now leave that aside; Lynch writes an authentically passionate book about people and wines of Europe he loves. The character studies are priceless. As someone who has made these same journeys (albeit for education rather than direct commerce), I can tell you that he captures the real truths of these experiences. But one has to be tolerant of the streaks of Berkeley Culture that run through so much of this and not take his judgements on winemaking practices as conclusive or even objective. One of the best books on wine I’ve ever read. Highly Recommended.

“The Right Wine” Tom Maresca: Just in case you’re even geekier about wine-food pairings than the TheStupids are. If you take this book on a superficial level, you’ll do well; Maresca gets through the basic points of different ways that wine-food matches can work. There’s enough meat here to make a nice article in “Gourmet”. There’s enough filler to make up 344 pages. But at least it’s well-written, if somewhat neurotic, filler. Mildly Recommended.

“The Vines of San Lorenzo” Edward Steinberg: If you’re into Barbaresco, or any Italian wine for that matter, then this is a book you need to own. Narrowly focused, the wine tells about the making of the ’89 Gaja “San Lorenzo” Barbaresco. Along the way, it also tells you about the man, Angelo Gaja, who raised the bar on the Italian wine making scene and his quest to make great Barbaresco. It also introduces you to the farmers, winemakers, coopers and cellar rats who actually get the wine from the vineyard to the bottle. Recommended.

“Yquem” Richard Olney: The great Sauterne and one of the great Bordeaux. This book is visually beautiful and full of the history behind the wine. As with “The Vines of San Lorenzo,” the book also talks about the soil, the climate and, just as important, the people who actually make the wine. Historical menus from dinners past to food matches and a review of the vintages of Yquem back to 1753. The recipes could be better written but, after all, this is a wine book. Mildly recommended.

“Wine Snobbery” Andrew Barr: Barr reminds us in this book that the wine business is a business. Whether it’s wineries pumping up something ordinary into something “special”, the hype machine of the wine press, or the pretensions of collectors, no balloon escapes Barr’s pinpricks. One can take issue with some of his indignation or some of the conclusions, but overall he does a better job of consumer advocacy than any of the self-styled vinous Ralph Naders. Recommended

“The Wild Bunch” Patrick Matthews: This is an entertaining run through wacky, weird, and idiosynchratic wines, winemakers, and wine philosophy. Don’t expect even-handedness here; Matthews advocacy for his agendas is as forceful and direct as some of the wines he writes about. The sections on Jean-Paul Brun (a terrific winemaker in Beaujolais) alone are worth the price of the book. Highly Recommended