By Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (Mitchell Beazley, 400 pages, $55)
Few wine books are as revered as this one. Having sold 4.5 million copies in 15 languages, previous editions line the library shelves of serious wine professionals and avid amateurs. And for good reason: Since its introduction in 1971, the tome's collection of maps has defined the wine world through the lens of geography.
The book contains brief essays on basics such as viticulture and winemaking, winery design and how to taste. The pages devoted to each winegrowing region describe the lay of the land in texts and the occasional photograph, note which grape varieties are grown locally, and discuss general trends in local winemaking. Sidebar boxes summarize average temperatures, rainfall and other details. Curiously, these articles make very little effort to connect the geography with the actual taste and texture of the wines that come from it.
Each succeeding edition has added maps to reflect regions that are coming into their own and further explore places previously included. This edition has 25 new maps, including Ningxia, China, but also more practical additions, such as Australia's Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania, Virginia, and Washington's Columbia Valley. Another new map details divisions in the famed Burgundy grand cru of Richebourg. Several maps from earlier editions are gone, such as France's Vins de Pays and the one covering North Africa.
A gazetteer—15 pages of fine print—alphabetically lists each winery, vineyard and appellation shown on any map, with page numbers and map coordinates to help pinpoint them.
Dazzled though one might be by this comprehensiveness, and the conscientiousness of updating, it's fair to ask just how well the maps function.
The basic format remains unchanged since the first edition. Maps showing whole countries and regions outline the shape and size of the subregions, and use shading to suggest general topography. More detailed maps, such as portions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, Napa Valley and Tuscany, vary in vineyard details, and only a few (Italy's Maremma, for example) do a good job of indicating mountains, hills and ridges with colored shadings. Most indicate topography with hard-to-interpret elevation lines.
The format could do better with details such as the boundary lines of subregions. Overlapping multicolored squiggles on the map of central Italy pose a formidable challenge to interpret.
Small black squares, however, precisely indicate winery locations. Telling patterns can emerge; wineries in Columbia Valley tend to cluster along major roads, while those in Willamette Valley array themselves over the landscape. Some maps are so dense with wineries it looks as if someone ground pepper over them. This makes the Chianti Classico map virtually unreadable. And, although the text for Chianti Classico notes that Panzano, a subregion of Greve, has a distinctive arc-shaped ridge that makes the vineyards within it special, the map doesn't come close to making that clear.
Despite these shortcomings, no other reference book collects such a wealth of thoroughly researched information on wine geography. It's also the first major wine reference to become available as an interactive iBook for iPad users ($19.99 on iTunes). Though the material is a bit slow to load and navigation isn't as intuitive as it should be, the iBook contains all of the information in the book, the maps and photos vividly rendered and expandable at a touch. You can also carry it with you.
The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States
By Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy (University of California Press, 278 pages, $50)
Jancis Robinson has written and edited some important wine reference books, including The Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine (see review of the seventh edition above). Her latest, coauthored with Linda Murphy, is another ambitious reference book. American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States may not be an "ultimate" companion, but it does give a solid overview of more than 7,000 wine producers in the United States, from Alaska to Rhode Island.
For a survey of the American wine industry, the book covers the basics well. Every state has at least a paragraph written on it, and the coverage is distributed fairly—127 pages devoted to California lines up well with the six pages for Texas and five paragraphs for Indiana. There's at least a brief rundown of each state's wine history, appellations and producers mentioned. Larger winegrowing regions get a "snapshot" of vineyard acres and a list of most-planted varieties, and there are plenty of maps, accompanied by many vivid photographs and images of wine labels.
In any book that attempts to cover such a broad topic, there will be some head-scratching choices—concerning which wineries, vineyards and personalities are included as well as who is left out. In mentioning as many producers as the authors do, at times the book reads as simply a roll call of which person owns which winery. American Wine is most successful when it stops reciting facts, slows down and goes more in-depth, as it does with some of the information boxes and miniprofiles.
It's an impressive collection and organization of facts and figures, but the book shies away from insight or criticism, not even discerning between wines made from peaches and berries to more serious bottlings. Given Robinson and Murphy's experience as wine writers and critics, it would have been more interesting to see them give more analysis to the challenges faced by wineries and wine regions—both emerging and established.
A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste
By Jon Bonné (Ten Speed Press, 304 pages, $35)
Jon Bonné insists he doesn't dislike all California wine, but he's hardly enamored with much of it. He makes that point clear in his new book.
"From the moment I arrived," in 2006, writes Bonné, the wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, "I had to confront my own deep skepticism about California's winemaking reality. Again and again I was disappointed by what I found to be the shortfalls of California wine: a ubiquity of oaky, uninspired bottles and a presumption that bigger was indeed better."
Bonné tracks the history of California wine from the 1960s, and sees twin tales of financial success and spiritual decline. He criticizes what he sees as a largely complacent industry producing cookie-cutter wines.
"Technological manipulation had become pervasive not only for cheap table wines but also for expensive ones. And there was little doubt that this was the right path forward. By the time I arrived in California, a sense of entitlement pervaded the industry. Question California's path? Question the hard-fought victories of Big Flavor? Blasphemy."
But today, Bonné contends, Golden State wines are in a state of much-needed "revolution," undergoing sweeping changes, from the mindsets of vintners to grape variety preferences. He identifies a new generation of winemakers who are rewriting the rules of contemporary winemaking.
To find the cutting edge, Bonné turns to an eclectic mix of vintners—some old, some new—and wines—some mainstream, others outliers. Among the approximately 125 names, you'll likely recognize some (Ridge, Hanzell, Littorai, Calera, Continuum and Turley, for example), but more are offbeat, under-the-radar and esoteric. They may be the darlings of certain big-city sommeliers, but you'll be hard-pressed to find them in your local wineshop.
The vintners leading Bonné's revival are willing to seek out new grapes and sites, encouraged by what he sees as a small but growing fan base disillusioned with modern, riper styles and fascinated with the likes of Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano and old-vine Colombard. The fulcrum in Bonné's lever is often centered on alcohol, not flavor, with 14 percent being the general line of demarcation. Bonné seems to be more infatuated with the stories behind the wines, and the respective passions and visions of the vintners, than with the wines themselves.
To support his arguments, Bonné picks and chooses information, omitting inconvenient counterevidence. For example, those leading his revolution are fervent in their belief in terroir, as if that's something new in California. Bonné minimizes the accomplishments of the California wine industry over the past 30 years, and marginalizes the good faith and strong sales of the riper wine styles he claims are undermining it. If he wants to make the case that wines of restraint are the future for California, he must explain why it's for their own good that people should be weaned from what they like.
To Bonné, the pendulum has swung and a new generation is about to rearrange California's wine landscape. Yet for now, he's identified more of a small grass-roots movement than an upheaval. How deep and wide that movement will go remains to be seen.
By Charles L. Sullivan (Wine Appreciation Guild, 360 pages, $34.95)
In his latest book, wine historian and author Charles L. Sullivan takes a look at Sonoma wine through the story of Buena Vista. In many ways, the idea is compelling. Buena Vista is the oldest commercial winery in all of California, and was founded by Agoston Haraszthy, a colorful and important figure in California wine. As in his previous books, Sullivan is a meticulous historian, piecing together many different documents and accounts.
Haraszthy founded Buena Vista in 1856. He was the first to import from Europe many of the grape varieties California is now known for. Financial pressures led to his ousting in 1867, and by 1878 Buena Vista had filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its assets.
While Buena Vista was on hiatus, the rest of the Sonoma wine industry was just getting started, and that is when it begins to feel like a stretch for Sullivan to use Buena Vista as the main subject. He gives an overview of the changes and challenges in Sonoma outside of Buena Vista, successfully framing how what was happening in the country—the establishment of the transcontinental railroad, the 1906 earthquake, Prohibition, its repeal, the Depression, war—affected the wine industry. He also gives a good overview of the ways in which complications of phylloxera provided a steep learning curve for vintners.
Buena Vista's story doesn't really pick up again until the 1940s, when Frank Bartholomew took over. The winery's modern history begins in 1979, when it was purchased by the West German wine and spirits company A. Racke, which started to turn the neglected vineyards around. After A. Racke, Buena Vista passed through six different owners before Jean-Charles Boisset purchased it in 2011.
In the book's introduction, Sullivan explains that Boisset asked him to write a book about the history of Buena Vista, which Sullivan agreed to do, as long as he could broaden the scope to Sonoma's wine history. The good news is that Sullivan is a thorough historian who brings plenty of details to any topic he's writing about, even if the premise doesn't always work.—M.W.
Tradition and Revolution
By Tim James (University of California Press, 344 pages, $39.95)
As South Africa steadily becomes an important wine category in the United States, the dearth of books on this country's wine industry has become equally noticeable. This tome, from one of South Africa's more prominent resident wine writers, is a welcome addition for those who like a shelf full of handy references.
The book starts with a historical background introduction, which does a good job of laying out the recent post-apartheid growth of South Africa's industry. Post-apartheid history comes first, followed by a recap of South Africa's long colonial-era wine industry, thus preventing the book from opening too academically.
From there, formatted sections detail South Africa's wine regions, backed by informational listings of the key wineries in each. James does a good job of highlighting what South Africa does best, focusing on blended reds and whites in both the Bordeaux and Rhône models. The lack of a vintage chart is a little disappointing. The absence of photos, when South Africa is one of the most visually stunning wine regions of the world, constitutes a serious miscalculation.
The winery listings are good, with some solid data, though more often than not they skirt around concrete opinions about quality. When James does take a firm stand, I often disagree. With Vergelegen, he allows reputation to win out over reality, stating that "Vergelegen is firmly reestablished among the finest producers of the ‘new' South Africa," even though it has not kept pace with the country's cutting-edge wineries. Then he head-scratchingly pans Anthonij Rupert wines as not matching the quality of their vineyards, when their wines have been consistently outstanding.
In addition, James' writing style is a bit baroque and overly wordy, which might make it slightly tiresome for some readers to move through easily—this is not a book you sit down to read cover to cover, but rather a book to digest in smaller chunks. Overall, though, the formatting of the book makes it easy to navigate and the hole it fills in the current repository of wine books makes it a worthwhile buy.
By Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino (University of California Press, 320 pages, $34.95)
Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino dig deep into the soils, culture and history of wine production on Italy's largest island in this year's The World of Sicilian Wine. The book's greatest success is the detailed, almost exhaustive, research that is exhibited throughout, and the authors organize their labors well. The result is a reference that is accessible where others might become cumbersome.
In the first three chapters alone, the history of Sicilian wine is covered, from mentions in Homer's epic Odyssey through the new millennium, with an insightful portrayal of the emergence from a cooperative-dominated industry to that of privately- and family-owned estates in the past 50 years. The next section details geography, grape varieties, viticulture and enology in Sicily. Each topic is geared to Sicilian wine and punctuated with specific examples from the island's producers, and the information is thorough and well-explained. It's a primer for beginners and will allow a well-informed reader to begin making useful comparisons to other wine regions.
After cataloguing these technical aspects of Sicilian wine, the book moves to a terroir-driven discussion, focusing on the three primary wine-producing areas on the island. Each chapter outlines an area's subzones, going into great detail about geography and soils, grape varieties that excel, typical viticulture and vinification techniques, and notable producers. It's a comprehensive guide that could only be compiled with hours of driving in each area and innumerable vineyard visits.
Finally, the book includes three vignettes that convey the romance of the island. Each vignette highlights a winegrower who epitomizes some aspect of the Sicilian spirit, and though there's a memoirlike, Under the Tuscan Sun feel to them, each story is nonetheless full of small details related to Sicilian wine that makes each an interesting read in its own right.
When it comes to Italian wine, the number of well-organized and fully researched reference materials are few, with most straying quickly into romanticized "la dolce vita" territory. The World of Sicilian Wine finds a bridge between the two approaches, with enough emphasis on the details to make this an essential starting point for anyone interested in the island's wines or Italian wine in general.
By Neal Martin (Wine-Journal Publishing, www.pomerolbook.com, 592 pages, $80 plus shipping)
This heavy (very heavy) and outsize book is lavishly illustrated, with full-page black-and-white photography that casts all its subjects in a flattering light. The text pops with ambitious captioning: "The Candle That Almost Blew Out," for an entry on Château La Croix de Gay, as well as an electric orange color for headings. There's also an enormous amount of wasted space on every page of text, with the left and right margins cutting one-third of the way into the page. Martin also injects himself personally through the book, writing in first person throughout.
The effect of all this is to make Pomerol seem more like a vanity press, coffee-table conversation starter from the Pomerol producers syndicate than a serious book. The subject, Bordeaux's smallest appellation, home to such exalted labels as Pétrus and châteaus Trotanoy, Lafleur and more, is clearly a labor of love for Martin, a London-based wine writer who covers Bordeaux and other regions. While on the surface it seems like a lot more sizzle than steak, there is some serious meat to chew on here.
There's good historical background on the growth of the appellation and how its internal structure differs from the Left Bank's formal, nearly unchanged 1855 classification and neighboring St.-Émilion's continually rearranged classification. There are facts and figures for every prominent Pomerol château, and exhaustive quotes from owners and vintners. Even less-prominent estates get a listing in the index, making this a useful reference guide. The vintage guide runs from 1945 through 2011 and there's a handy glossary as well.
The book is clearly pro-producer rather than pro-consumer, however, so take it with a grain of salt. And make sure your biceps are in shape before picking it up.
By Richard Betts (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 22 pages, $19.99)
The first step in teaching novices about wine is to have them relax, not worry about standard wine jargon, and learn quickly how to appreciate the differences between basic wine components. This irreverent book from master sommelier and vintner Richard Betts does just that, giving a simple, fun, breezy approach to learning a few wine basics without coming off as silly or patronizing.
"Wine is a grocery, not a luxury," Betts begins his book, before he leads readers quickly through the spectrum of red and black fruit, earth and wood aromas, all with the engaging scratch-and-sniff method many will remember from childhood reading. The 14 smellable aromas don't always leap off the page, but they're effective enough. Some, including the butter and leather entries, are spot-on. The only noticeable omission is the aromas of flaws such as cork taint or mold, which are discussed, but not given their own scratchable aroma.
The watercolor illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton have a friendly feel, and there's also a convenient pull-out aroma wheel. Unlike some entry-level books, such as Wine For Dummies, this doesn't attempt to be a dumbed-down textbook, but rather a fun way to pull a newbie into the conversation the rest of us like to have over a bottle. It's the rare wine gadget you'll actually leave out and use once in a while.
By Donald A. Bull and Joseph C. Paradi (Schiffer, 336 pages, $79.99)
In Wine Antiques & Collectibles, authors Donald A. Bull and Joseph C. Paradi showcase some 2,100 meticulously organized images of wine tools, accessories, art and memorabilia.
Though by sheer volume the book has the potential to overwhelm, it's surprisingly accessible, thanks in large part to the authors' casual but informative musings on the objects in question. "We liked them, so we put them in," they write in the midst of a chapter on tastevins (small silver cups used in the 17th century to taste and evaluate wine).
That's not to say that the collection here isn't expertly curated; chapters are detailed and well-researched, and the objects themselves are varied, ranging from conventional to ornate. Alongside a selection of matchboxes and postcards, you'll find an assortment of elaborately carved ivory corkscrews, delicate papier-mâché coasters and 19th-century carafes, including a deep green claret jug designed to resemble a hawk.
Bull and Paradi explain at the outset that the work is designed to provide a sampling of what's available in the world of wine collectibles. It certainly succeeds in that. Wine lovers with a historical or collecting bent will get lost in this book.
Readers who prefer a narrower but deeper treatment might prefer Donald Minzenmayer's Screwpull: Creation & History of a High-Tech Corkscrew (Schiffer, 176 pages, $59.99). Minzenmayer's in-depth look at the Screwpull and its inventor, Herbert Allen, showcases prototypes, patents and photographs, and tracks the evolution of the device over the past several decades.
The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken
By Norman Van Aken (Taylor Trade Publishing, 352 pages, $24.95)
In the 1980s, the worlds of food and wine witnessed the beginning of an amazing growth spurt in the United States. This era brought an unprecedented expansion of culinary horizons, as the French monopoly of haute cuisine and grands crus gave way to an exploration of flavors sourced from all over the world.
Chef Norman Van Aken was one of the leading lights of this pan-cultural movement, and his memoir gives us a front-row seat to a spectacle that was a rollicking mix of back-breaking work, hard-partying good times and exhilarating discovery. It traces the journey of an aimless young man who in 1972 answered a help-wanted ad for a short-order cook, "no experience necessary," which began a long and often tortuous apprenticeship that finally brought him to the status of celebrity chef.
Much of the action takes place in Key West, where Van Aken found the inspiration for the fusion of Caribbean, Spanish and American flavors that became the keynote of his cuisine. He writes of a morning in the mid-1980s when he was reading cookbooks and watching a sailboat drift southward.
"Just like that, I realized that it was time for me to put away my books on the dishes of other people's places. Key West was ‘my' place now. [...] As much as I had drawn from the wisdom and artistry of hundreds of years of European cuisine, it was now time for me to express where and what I was living, and that was Florida."
Like most inspirations, Van Aken's vision was born of hard experience, deep thought and ferocious passion, all of which are beautifully expressed in this well-crafted memoir. He shares the credit with many—both great chefs and humble dishwashers—as he describes a voyage that had setbacks as well as triumphs. In the end, he learns that success is never the ultimate goal, but rather living as honestly, creatively and joyfully as he can. No Experience Necessary is not in any sense a wine book, but its lessons are relevant to anyone who loves wine, food and life.