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mixed case: opinion and advice

What Are the Best Wine Books for a Starter Library?

Make your top picks for essential reading
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: Aug 28, 2012 1:00pm ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

One of the best things about working at Wine Spectator is that we get advance copies of most of the wine books that come out each year. I can tell you this much: A serious amount of words are spilled on the topic per annum. Come every fall, it's tough for the editors to choose which ones make it into the book review roundup for the Dec. 15 issue.

But when it comes to the books I recommend privately to friends who want to "get more into wine," I have a very short list of all-time favorites. Maybe it's a matter of which books I read first myself or a bias toward older books, but most of my picks have been around for a while.

Making a starter library is like making a mixtape: You need a balance of upbeat and down-tempo, of familiarity and surprise. Unless someone really wants to get academic, I generally steer clear of recommending intro-to-wine books. It's like including music scales on your 60s garage-rock mixtape; I'd rather learn from the songs themselves.

I'll share four of my favorites below, but I'm curious: Which books would you choose for a starter library? There are many worthy classics widely relied on, and I'm sure I've missed some others—I'm still sifting through many of the older books myself. Leave your picks in the comments.

The Wine Lover's Starter Library

The memoir: Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch

Kermit Lynch is a well-established name in wine now, but his account of how he got started as an importer of French wine makes for off-the-charts good reading. This book, above all others, makes me want to drink wine and get out and see vineyards and live a good life. Which is what a wine book should make you want to do, right?

The essays: Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer

When I first started working at Wine Spectator, executive editor Thomas Matthews gave me this book when I asked what I should be reading. Perhaps I have a home-team bias here (Kramer is a longtime columnist for Wine Spectator), but there's much to appreciate in his wide-ranging essays that touch not just on wine itself, but how wine fits (and should fit) into our lives. Plus, you'll get a sense of just how long current "controversies" have been brewing in the wine-o-sphere.

The reference: Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson

Yes, it's a hefty doorstop of a reference book. But if you are remotely curious about wine, you'll have to look stuff up eventually and you would do well to look it up here. Robinson's elegant and straightforward prose makes even the most technical definitions accessible and easy to understand.

The wild-card: Perfumes: the A to Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

OK, this book is not about wine. It's about perfume, but it's seriously great for tasting note inspiration. The format is simple: Perfume expert Turin (who also wrote the excellent Science of Scent) and Sanchez tackle reviews for all the perfumes they can get their hands on. While the takedowns are brutally hilarious ("Disproves the notion that citrus notes make you cheerful," for Polo Blue by Ralph Lauren), it's their odes to the best bottles that are most inspiring. The corollaries for wine criticism are many, but perhaps the most important take-away is this: The best criticism is born from fandom.

Reggie Mcconnell
Indiana —  August 28, 2012 3:10pm ET
Well done, Miss Fiedler.
The book that started me on my wine adventure was "The Signet Guide to Wine," by E. Frank Henriques, published circa. 1972. Long since out of print, this book remains the best I've read on this subject, and I've read a great many.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 28, 2012 3:21pm ET
Jennifer,

I always recommended "Windows on the World Guide to Wine" for beginners wanting to learn about the world of wine. And "Plain Talk About Fine Wine" by the late Justin Meyer to learn about winemaking.

I've got a couple of favorite wild-card books, one of which is Robert Benson's 1977 book C"Great Winemakers of California." Fascinating to read interviews with winemakers 35 years ago and see how they made wine (and what things have and haven't changed).

Thanks!

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  August 28, 2012 4:11pm ET
I highly recommend "Reading between the Wines" by Terry Theise. It is the best book on wine appreciation I have ever read! It focuses on the aesthetic as opposed to the analytical. This book explains how wine can stir the soul. If wine books were wines, this one would be a DRC.
Jennifer Fiedler
New York, NY —  August 28, 2012 4:52pm ET
Reggie, Adam, Michael: Thanks for the great suggestions! My to-read list keeps getting longer and longer. A good thing, I think!

Jennifer Fiedler
Wine Spectator
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  August 28, 2012 5:57pm ET
Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for the very kind mention of "Making Sense of Wine". I'm most grateful.

May I suggest that "The World Atlas of Wine" be added to your list? I cannot think of a single more useful wine book that this one, The maps, to this day, remain incomparable.

Fine wine is, after all, liquid geography. No book captures this better.
Jennifer Fiedler
New York, NY —  August 29, 2012 9:11am ET
Matt: Thanks for stopping by! And World Atlas of Wine is a great suggestion for this list. I love looking at wine maps (and then even more, seeing the map come to life when you visit a region in person).

Jennifer Fiedler
Wine Spectator
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  August 29, 2012 11:55am ET
I agree with Matt that the Atlas is a must-have. Be sure to get the most recent edition.

One more: Taste Buds and Molecules, by François Chartier. Best explanation of why food-and-wine matches work. It's technical, but the affinity charts are revelatory.
Jennifer Fiedler
New York, NY —  August 29, 2012 5:12pm ET
Harvey: Thanks for adding another great suggestion! I've enjoyed the blog posts you've written on Chartier as well.

Jennifer Fiedler
Wine Spectator
Peter J Gatti
Austin, —  August 29, 2012 10:58pm ET
Jennifer, on a narrower front, Matt Kramer's 'Making Sense of Burgundy', long out of print and expensive as h*** to buy if you find a copy, remains one of the 3 or 4 finest works on Burgundy ever written. Some of the ownership info is a bit out of date after all this time; nevertheless, if you want to understand the gravitational pull of great Burgundian pinot noir rather than read a purely analytic exposition you can hardly do better. Matt, where do I pick up my check? :)

For a different perspective, from a lost time of great drinking and cellaring, George Saintsbury's 'Notes on a Cellar Book' and Maurice Healy's 'Stay me with Flagons' make lovely reading.
Jennifer Fiedler
New York, NY —  August 30, 2012 10:33am ET
Peter: I don't think I've come across those last two, thanks! Lovely reading is exactly what I'm looking for.

Jennifer Fiedler
Wine Spectator
Conrad Heede
Fort Worth, TX —  August 31, 2012 6:09am ET
Thank you for your reading list suggestions and those of others. I write a monthly newsletter for the Rotarian's Wine Appreciation Fellowship and will include them in my next reference list. I always recommend Kevin Zraly's "Windows On The World Complete Wine Course" and "Wine For Dummies" by Ed McCarthy & Mary Ewing-Mulligan. Easy to read, perfect for beginners and others and they get updated. "Great Wine Made Simple" by Andrea Immer Robinson is also excellent.
Jeffrey Matchen
New Jersey —  September 1, 2012 10:26pm ET
For the real "newbie" it's hard to beat George Taber's 'Judgment of Paris'. It got me interested enough to start really caring about wine and to visit Napa (and keep visiting!).
Ray Ondrejech
San Luis Obispo, CA —  September 4, 2012 5:18pm ET
I use the "Wine Bible" as a reference, but for people that are just trying to learn the basics, I agree with Conrad above -- "Wine for Dummies" would give you all the knowledge you need for a level-one wine exam, and it's not pretentious and very to the point in layman's terms. All you need is to do some tasting as you read. And "French Wine for Dummies" is a great follow up...
Andrew Dennis
Berkeley, CA —  September 6, 2012 2:54pm ET
Another must-have reference book for any wine consumer is "What to Drink with What You Eat" by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. This easy to use guide will put you on the path to pure sensory bliss.

Andrew Dennis
The Wine Appreciation Guild
Hisham Aboulhosn
Beirut, Lebanon —  September 6, 2012 3:38pm ET
For "short stories" on wine that inform and entertain, it's hard to beat Jay McInerney's books. "A Hedonist in the Cellar" or "Bacchus and Me" make for very insightful reading with the flare of a novelist. No one else would compare Lafite and Mouton to Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Or Dom Perignon rose to Julianne Moore.
Rod Biebrich
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada —  September 7, 2012 7:55pm ET
Hi Jennifer,
I really liked Red, White & Drunk All Over by Natelie MacLean. It covers a lot of different ground from visiting a cellar in Burgundy, working as a sommelier in a restaurant, working in a high-end wine shop & meeting several notible cahracters like Randall Grahm. Humerous as well.
Todd Grandominico
Atlanta, GA —  September 8, 2012 8:18am ET
For a lighter, and fun, book on wine I really enjoyed "Educating Peter" by Lettie Teague. I also just finished "The Vineyard at the End of the World" by Ian Mount, which goes into the history of wine in Argentina. It focuses heavily on Nicolas Catena, so it comes off more as a history of his winery, but overall it was a pretty good read.
Kati Olson
Kennebunk, ME —  September 12, 2012 10:14am ET
"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics" by Tara Q. Thomas is a great beginner's book, well-written and organized and easy to read. It also makes a good quick reference guide for someone with a little more wine knowledge. Ms. Thomas' unpretentious attitude toward wine is refreshing. Her writing style is extremely approachable. And the book is inexpensive.
Tom
Laguna Beach, California —  September 14, 2012 8:30am ET
Nice piece! Much appreciated. Now reading Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine by Gerald Asher. He's has a confident command of knowing wines, and also of how to write well. His essay on Minervois inspired my upcoming trip to the Languedoc.
Again, thanks! T. Mullen
Lyle Kumasaka
Arlington, VA —  September 18, 2012 12:16am ET
A nice reference piece is Oz Clarke's "Grapes & Wine." Thumbnail descriptions of hundreds of varietals and multi-page expositions on the usual suspects. I just looked up Counoise, which was mentioned in another blog post.

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