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Wine Tip: New Book Reviews

Wine Spectator editors weigh in on new titles

Note: This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in the December 31, 2013 issue of Wine Spectator.

The World Atlas of Wine: 7th Edition
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.

—Harvey Steiman

American Wine: 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.

—MaryAnn Worobiec

The New California Wine: 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.

—James Laube

The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide To Becoming A Wine Expert
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.

—James Molesworth

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