Best New Reads for Wine Lovers

Harvey Steiman, Thomas Matthews, Jack Bettridge, Owen Dugan
Issue: December 31, 2010

The Australian Wine Encyclopedia

By James Halliday (Hardie Grant Books, 372 pages, $44.95)

Nobody knows more about wine in Australia than James Halliday. He reviews thousands of wines annually, and for more than 40 years has written articles, newspaper columns, websites and books about Australian wine. With Hugh Johnson he co-wrote The Art and Science of Wine, a definitive summation of winegrowing knowledge first published in 1992. He also founded two wineries.

This book distills his accumulated information into thousands of digestible bites, covering important wineries, regions, grapes, personages and snippets of wine-speak. It occasionally expands into engaging narrative for historical figures such as Max Schubert (of Grange) and important wines such as Henschke Hill of Grace, but for the most part the book hews to a concise form, with an occasional seasoning of snarky opinion.
Only about half the entries refer to Australia per se. Many define tasting descriptors such as firm, fleshy and flabby, winemaking processes such as punch-downs and micro-oxygenation, and wine geek words such as microclimate and canopy management. These apply worldwide.

Some of the information is out of date, such as a reference to Two Hands owning no vineyards when in fact it has several. Entries on winemaking terms sometimes fail to indicate exactly what the practice accomplishes in the finished wine. But you will be hard-pressed to find so much useful information about wine in general, and Australia specifically, in a friendlier format. -Harvey Steiman

Wine Myths and Reality

By Benjamin Lewin (Vendange Press, available through Wine Appreciation Guild, 636 pages, $50)

Benjamin Lewin's first wine book, What Price Bordeaux?, was a well-researched look at the history and economics of France's most important wine region, spiced with a strong dose of personal opinion. Now he takes on the whole world of wine, but while the breadth of his knowledge is impressive, the book's value is compromised by his preference for grinding axes over answering complex questions.

For example, a chapter on terroir begins with the truism, "Nothing in the world of wine is more controversial than terroir." So is it myth or reality? Lewin limps to the conclusion that "other things being equal, different plots of land will give different wines." Then he veers off to criticize Bordeaux's "garage wines," writing that "most garage wines do not come from great terroir," and "the jury is still out on whether they can acquire the complexity with age that used to typify Bordeaux, but personally I am doubtful."

Multitudes of charts and graphs give the book a scientific veneer, but many are overly simplistic and others are simply wrong. For example, a chart of "Top Regions and Varieties in the New World" lists Casablanca Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon for Chile (wrong region), and Mendoza and Cabernet Sauvignon for Argentina (wrong grape variety).

Even more disturbing to me than the errors, Lewin's offhand remarks betray disdain for actual wine drinkers. On Australia's Yellow Tail: "On the principle that 20 million lemmings can't be wrong, [owner] Casella can afford to laugh at the critics." On New Zealand Chardonnay: "Personally I'm with French enologist Émile Peynaud who famously said, ‘If I want to drink fruit juice, I'll drink orange juice,' but some people like the style."

There is some interesting history in this book, and a good deal of contentious opinion. Readers well-versed in the wine controversies of the day may find it provocative. But for Lewin, it appears, "reality" is an argument he supports and "myth" a belief he denies. I hope new readers will not pick this up believing it to be an adequate replacement for truly comprehensive and authoritative books, such as The Oxford Companion to Wine or World Atlas of Wine. -Thomas Matthews

The World Atlas of Whisky

By Dave Broom (Mitchell Beazley, 320 pages, $34.99)

It is worrisome when the words whiskey, world and atlas all wind up on the same title page. Has the writer poured out more than he can swallow? In this case, no.

The book manages an admirably comprehensive take on a complex and far-flung subject. The task would be Herculean enough if limited to Scotch malts. But Broom has seemingly whisked through every country and continent that makes the stuff. He not only covers other familiar brown goods-Bourbon, Canadian, Irish, rye, blends-but also surveys England, Wales, Spain, Scandinavia, Australia, Asia and the subcontinent. Who knew South Africa had two whiskeys? Broom also delivers thoughtful commentary on the burgeoning craft-whiskey movement in America.

Balance is the key to this book's success. Easy-to-follow diagrams explain different production methods. Regions are thoughtfully divided, and the maps include the all-important topography. Broom also draws a chart of flavor camps, and with his tasting notes suggests similar whiskeys. In all, the author visits 150 distilleries and provides tasting notes on 350 whiskeys.

While you get a sense of the personality of each distillery covered, The World Atlas of Whisky is not a travel atlas, long on colorful descriptions of the little still in the glen by the kirk and the cunning croft (you'll get enough of that from the gorgeous photos.) It is, however, Caledonia-centric. Three-fifths of the producers reviewed are in Scotland-fair enough, considering that that is, after all, where most whisky distilleries are. But Broom generates affection and no contempt toward all the provincial whiskeys. -Jack Bettridge

Reading Between the Wines

By Terry Theise (University of California Press, 200 pages, $24.95)

Terry Theise is an importer of German and Austrian wines and grower of Champagnes. As such, he has made a place for himself selling somewhat unfashionable stuff, surely through great effort. In this book, part memoir, part profile of winemakers and part manifesto, he shares what he has learned.

He is by turns passionate, humble, erudite and down to earth, and his intelligent writing nimbly includes disparate cultural touchstones such as jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and German artist of the downtrodden Käthe Kollwitz. He favors a spiritual approach to life and wine, so if that makes you roll your eyes, tread carefully here.

"If you want to experience wine with your whole self-not only your mind and senses-the wine has to be authentic," he writes. Authentic wines, according to Theise, come from family producers, preferably several generations in the business, from a place that has wine in the soil, the air and the culture. It's a nice idea, and the portraits of European winemakers are intimate and moving, but practical application of the argument shows its shortcomings. He applies the usual stereotypes to the New World, from strip malls to white stretch limos at wineries, while applying fine powers of observation and delicacy to describe the Old. Acknowledging that great wines can be soul-stirring, he also says, "It can grow tedious, you know, to encounter a ‘great' wine that spends the whole evening talking about itself."

It can also grow tedious spending a couple hundred pages being hectored for not dividing the wine world into sheep and goats, authentic and inauthentic, ditto the people who appreciate them. The best parts of Reading Between the Wines are the profiles and the glimpses of autobiography. For example, I defy you to make it through the amazing story of Theise finding his biological father without your eyes moistening. But the political and spiritual stuff is just confused. Or maybe that is my agnosticism showing. -Owen Dugan

Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines

By Joseph Bastianich (Clarkson Potter, 304 pages, $24.99)

Joseph Bastianich, a restaurateur, importer, vintner and retailer in a number of projects with his mother, Lidia, and business partner Mario Batali, makes no generalizations about the validity of the wines in his book. They are included, as the subtitle implies, because he thinks they're great.

Each entry places the wine within its region, culturally and historically, details work in the vineyard and winery (in many cases giving personal notes about the people involved) and ends with a characterization of the wine. Keep an eye out for the brief reminiscences Bastianich drops in, too, like the one where his skis are stolen from the top of his car while he is stopped at a red light in Naples.

Brunello is a good example of the circumspect inclusiveness at work in this book. Of the four included, one, Biondi-Santi, represents the traditional style; another, Cerbaiola, he calls "neither modern nor completely traditional"; and a third, Casanova di Neri, is perhaps the most aggressively modern in the area, to the point that it came under scrutiny during Brunellogate, a recent scandal that Bastianich explains succinctly.

Tuscany and Piedmont account for nearly half of the entries, and though I might quibble with a couple of inclusions and wish a few others were covered, that's unavoidable. If southern Italy seems underserved, it is nice to see Sicily and Sardinia get a good number of pages. In the end, readers get a well-written and very informative book with a discriminating, intelligent view of Italian wine today, in all its variety. -O.D.

Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey

By Robert V. Camuto (University of Nebraska Press, 312 pages, $24.95)

Robert Camuto's first wine book, Corkscrewed, focused on France and the "neo-peasant winegrowers [who make] natural, if rustic wines." This follow-up takes him to Sicily, where winemaking is even more natural and the vintners even more rustic.

Frank Cornelissen tends vineyards high on Mt. Etna. Over a hearty meal of caponata, pasta and biscotti-Camuto seems always to be eating-Cornelissen says, "I prefer to make an authentic product that is a little rough in its presence than to make a more refined product that needs help to be refined." Camuto approvingly says of Cornelissen's white, called MunJebel Bianco, "It was the wine of someone who had left the trail and wandered off on his own."

Camuto admires those solitary explorers, and follows them to every corner of this small, diverse island. He brings them to life with vivid descriptions and lively quotations. He also weaves in history and cultural analysis, which gives context to the characters. He predictably favors "tradition" over anything too modern or international. But his affection for Sicily and its citizens is heartfelt, and his skill and enthusiasm combine to create a captivating portrait of a singular culture. -T.M.

Vino Argentino: An Insider's Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina

By Laura Catena (Chronicle Books, 240 pages, $27.50)

Argentine wine is a hot category these days, thanks to Americans' growing love for Malbec. But it still has a long way to go to match the devotion we have to, say, Italian wine, which is largely driven by Americans' love of Italy and its cuisine. At this point, Americans don't know Argentina nearly as well. Laura Catena would like to change that.

Vino Argentino is a travel guide with a focus on wine. Though it fills a gaping hole in wine literature, it is more love letter than scholarly reference manual. It offers a broadly written history of the Argentine wine industry, with chapters on the major wine regions, important grapes, significant players and more. The stylish, casual layout allows you to read from start to finish or jump in anywhere for a section or two.

Catena's family owns the country's most important wine company, and this position frequently shapes the book's contents. She recommends La Rural art museum, which is owned by her father, Nicolás Catena (and is a great place to visit). Nicolás is also prominently praised at the beginning of the book. So is Catena's head winemaker and the architecture of the flagship Bodega Catena Zapata facility in Mendoza. Other wineries mentioned in the book, such as Bodegas Escorihuela, are also part of the Catena empire.

But equal time is given to all of Argentina's major players, from homegrown stars to international consultants and foreign owners, all of whom are helping to shape Argentine wine.

Patagonia and Salta, the sometimes overlooked wine regions to the south and north of Mendoza (the country's dominant winegrowing region), respectively, are also given their due. However, Vino Argentino suffers the curse of all wine books-some of it is already out of date. Alejandro Sejanovich is mentioned as viticulturist at Bodega Catena Zapata, but he has left to pursue other interests.

Beyond wine, Catena focuses on the aromas, flavors and colors of Argentina. There are recipes for Argentine favorites such as ojo de bife with chimichurri (rib-eye steak with an herbal sauce) and dulce de leche (a caramel "jam"). There are suggested itineraries for visiting Argentina's wine country, with tips on where to dine. Evocative photography by Sara Remington brings the country and its culture to life (insiders will recognize photos of Catena family members and employees subtly placed throughout).

As a wine book, Vino Argentino has minor blemishes, but as a travel guide it is a well-written and sorely needed resource. Americans still have much to learn about Argentina's wine and food culture, and Vino Argentino is a big step in that process. It will make you want to buy a plane ticket to Argentina, or at least open a bottle of Malbec. -James Molesworth

Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition

By Miles Lambert-Gócs (Ambeli Press, available through Wine Appreciation Guild, 270 pages, $27.95)

History has not been kind to Hungary in the past century. On the losing side of World War I, on the wrong side of World War II, and under the boot of a vicious communist dictatorship for most of the postwar period, Hungary saw itself dismembered and isolated, its once-grand culture almost forgotten.

The same could be said for Hungary's unique and mysterious wine-Tokaji, also known historically as Tokay. Commercialized initially by Polish and then Greek traders, with winemaking roots that extend back to the ancient world and multiethnic influences that include Serbs, Jews, Italians and Germans, the lusciously sweet wines of Tokaji had become among the most sought-after in the world by the 17th century.

But by the end of the communist era, Tokay was for all intents unknown to most wine lovers. The complicated and fascinating story of Tokay, and why it fell so far from the collective consciousness, can be found in many bits and pieces in this self-published encyclopedic reference by Hungarian-American Miles Lambert-Gócs.

Lambert-Gócs goes to primary Hungarian-language sources in historical archives and winemaking records to construct what must be considered the most comprehensive reference book on Tokaji available in the English language.

Yet this is not a book about individual wines or producers, or the quality thereof. The emphasis is on history and its outcomes. Lambert-Gócs uses an A-to-Z format to organize listings in each of four sections: the people, the geography, the vineyards and the winemaking. His style is dry and analytic. There are no grand pronouncements nor florid prose, and little personal opinion.

Lambert-Gócs saves the best for last with the winemaking section, which details not only the complex aszú process, but also the region's many grape varieties, including red grapes, and the conditions under which botrytis spreads, which occurs in about three out of every 10 vintages.

Since the fall of communism, the region has seen a burst of energy and investment. The privatization of land and estates is almost complete. Vineyards are being planted higher up on the sloping terrain after being abandoned during the scourge of phylloxera more than a century ago. Lambert-Gócs doesn't conjecture what the future may hold; instead he helps reconstruct a long-lost enological treasure. -Kim Marcus

Fine Wines: The Best Vintages Since 1900

By Michel Dovaz (Assouline, 431 pages, $40)

A vintage is a year sealed inside a bottle. In 1945, Bordeaux suffered a horrible frost in early May that wiped out more than half of the buds on vines. But a hot summer nourished those that survived, delivering one of the 20th century's best vintages. Simultaneously, Allied armies raced across France, giving liberated winemakers more to celebrate than a great harvest.

Michel Dovaz's book on great vintages of the 20th century is a collection of such moments. Dovaz, a veteran French wine writer and collector, has picked 38 wines from 28 vintages that he believes are the best of the century. For each wine, he introduces the producer and the growing season, but also highlights the history of that year. Readers may find new magic in great vintages, knowing that Bollinger's classic 1911 was produced the same year growers rioted throughout Champagne, or that while John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stared each other down over missiles in Cuba, Penfold's was fermenting the Grange that would put Australian wine on the map.

The book is also a fantastic tool for starting an argument. Dovaz is an unapologetic Francophile, and his picks are dominated by Bordeaux and Burgundy. He found just one American wine worthy of inclusion in the 20th century, plus one more in his appendix of great wines from 2000 to 2008. Dovaz's opening section-a brief tour of wine regions and an analysis of what makes a great vintage-is largely useless. But for a wine lover who's also a history buff, this is a fun coffee-table book with great historical photos. Guests can pick it up, explore a few years and start a heated discussion over a bottle of wine. -M.F.

Dead in the Dregs: A Babe Stern Mystery

By Peter Lewis (Counterpoint, 288 pages, $25)

There have been wine country mysteries before, but few show immersion in the field as well as Dead in the Dregs. Author Peter Lewis is a former restaurateur from Seattle, so he comes by it honestly. Babe Stern, our hero, is a former Seattle sommelier. He has relocated to an Airstream trailer in Napa to be closer to his son, custody of whom Stern shares with his ex-wife.

These days he runs one of the last unpretentious bars in Napa. One morning he is visited by his old friend and tasting buddy Richard Wilson, who also happens to be his ex-brother-in-law and a hugely influential wine critic through his newsletter, The Wine Maven. Wilson disappears, then is found dead in a fermenting vat, and before you know it Stern is sniffing around to find out what happened.

The path to discovery leads through Burgundy, with a lot of twists along the way. There are the requisite molls, the longing for the one that got away, and other hard-boiled touchstones. But when is the last time you read a mystery with offhand references to Alexis Lichine, Michael Broadbent and Kermit Lynch in the first 10 pages? Or had a hero who goes to the winery where his ex-brother-in-law was last seen and whose nose tells him they might have a brett problem? Of course it turns out the tank is tainted with far worse than brett. -O.D.

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