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New Standards and Revamped Mainstays

Original books and reissues for every wine library

Harvey Steiman
Posted: February 15, 2002

  The Global Encyclopedia of Wine  
  Oz Clarke's Encyclopedia of Grapes  
  The Wine Bible  
  On Wine: A Master Sommelier and Master of Wine Tells All  
  The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia: Revised and Updated Edition  
  Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: 2002 Edition  
  Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel  
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  Wine Reading
A sampling of books for enophiles, beginners and everyone in between

The Global Encyclopedia of Wine, Peter Forrestal, editor (The Wine Appreciation Guild, 2001, $75, 912 pages, hardcover, including accompanying CD-ROM)

This latest entry in the big wine book derby takes a standard geographical approach, using regional writers for each section. They do a fine job of delineating each region's history, landscape, grape types, vineyard practices and winemaking, with generally engaging writing and notable attention to detail.

Unlike many wine encyclopedias, this book includes profiles of leading producers. Though the writers add welcome color to these thumbnail sketches, they often leave out key wineries. How can a section on Napa Valley, for example, omit Beringer and Caymus? As a result, the reader can't be sure that the choices are all that authoritative. There is also an element of inconsistency for such a serious work. Throughout the book, some writers describe individual wine styles well, while others don't even try.

Given that this was originally published in Australia, it's not surprising that the best sections are on Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the well-traveled portions of France.

The graphic design is not user-friendly. Wineries and regions are not rated with stars or numbers, although critical assessments are slipped into long essays. This makes for good armchair reading, but not for looking up specific information.

Photographs are a strength. Not only are they beautiful and plentiful, but they often perfectly illustrate a key point about wine. A grape cut in half shows the skin, pulp and seeds graphically, and the captions note each element's effect on wine. Pictures clearly demonstrate soil types and other factors of terroir. Vineyard shots highlight different vine-growing techniques artistically. Maps are clear, although they don't show any topography.

This represents a huge effort. In a crowded market of big wine books, it's better than most.

Oz Clarke's Encyclopedia of Grapes, by Oz Clarke (Harcourt, 2001, $40, 320 pages, hardcover)

It has been 15 years since Jancis Robinson wrote Vines, Grapes and Wines, the first book to explore the wine world through the grapes that make the stuff. It was a revolutionary book for the time, but Clarke has now done it better.

The A-to-Z format of the new book is more useful, and Clarke's writing style packs in more color and contemporary information. He takes thoroughness to an impressive level. In fact, Clarke explores so many aspects of grape varieties that he makes a strong case for this being the best way to approach wine, better than the usual, geographic model. Ironically, rather than minimizing the importance of terroir, or regional identity, this approach clarifies what geography means to wine by demonstrating how the same grape makes such dramatically different wines depending on where it's grown.

After a brief introduction and summary of winegrowing around the world, the bulk of the book lists more than 300 varieties, each entry ranging from a few lines to a dozen pages. Each grape given the big treatment gets a full-page essay on what makes it special; separate articles on history and geography, viticulture and vinification; and a tour of those regions that have success with the variety. Finally, a section called "Enjoying" explores wines made from the grape, what they have in common, plus notes on aging, food affinities and a list of recommended producers, region by region.

Preeminent varieties are covered extensively, while secondary grapes are covered on concise two-page spreads. Valuable cross-indexes at the back include "Which Grapes Make Which Wines."

Clarke, one of the great wordsmiths of wine, writes delightful articles on the major varieties. The book is also chock-full of useful sidebars, among them "The Bordeaux Blend," "Oak and Aroma Questions" and "The Cabernisation of Pinot Noir." This is an exhilarating book; every page explores an unexpected angle, another point of view or a fresh controversy. No serious wine lover's library is complete without it.

The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil (Workman, 2001, $19.95, 910 pages, paperback)

On a page-per-dollar basis, this has to be the wine book bargain of the year. It's a remarkable price for such an encyclopedic book, and the paperback format keeps it from feeling like a tome. The author, who heads the wine program at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, has a personable approach. She worked on this book for a decade, which has consequences both good and bad. The coverage is thorough, but some of the information is already dated.

One strength is MacNeil's flair for the apt analogy in her explanations of some details of wine appreciation. For example, she likens Syrah to a boot-wearing guy dressed in a tuxedo, and compares fining agents to Velcro fastening onto impurities to remove them from the wine.

Organized geographically, the book addresses each region with "what you need to know" sections and a selection of representative wines. There are no references to specific vintages and no ratings. Plenty of sidebars keep things graphically lively (despite the absence of color typography) and make the information pop out.

Sometimes she oversimplifies, as in the Burgundy section, where she notes that village wines are usually hyphenated (e.g., Gevrey-Chambertin), but grands crus wines are not (e.g., Le Montrachet), which ignores Bâtard-Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne and the like.

In her introduction, MacNeil says that readers should be able to dip into any section and get what they need without cross-referencing. That makes sense, except that identical phrases reappear, creating a sense of déjà vu. She mentions George Saintsbury's characterization of Hermitage as "the manliest" wine at least three times, and describes Sauvignon Blanc as "cat pee" at least six times, on each occasion as if it were the first.

Despite those shortcomings, this is a lively, approachable and exhaustive introduction to wine. For the price, it's worth a look.

On Wine: A Master Sommelier and Master of Wine Tells All, by Doug Frost (Rizzoli, 2001, $40, 144 pages, hardcover)

The title suggests a revealing, behind-the-scenes look at wine, but instead we get a once-over-lightly on the wine world. The Kansas CityÐbased author has a knowledgeable voice and definite points of view on all manner of topics. The result might strike someone just getting into wine as too complex and didactic, while experienced wine drinkers will likely want more.

The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia: Revised and Updated Edition, by Tom Stevenson (DK, 2001, $50, 600 pages, hardcover)

The strengths of previous editions remain, having set the standard for general wine encyclopedias that take a geographical approach. A glib writer, Stevenson homes in on what makes each region special. The book's design makes the information jump off the page, dresses it up with wonderful photos, and strikes just the right balance between text and illustration.

The introductory section on wine appreciation, vineyard practices and winemaking tops everything available with its detailed content and apt illustrations. Where else will you find color plates of the various types of oak, matching the grains with the regions that most commonly use them?

That said, the information in this edition hasn't quite caught up with all the wine world's developments since the previous edition, in 1997 -- at least not as well as that version did for its time. As before, those who agree with Wine Spectator's wine ratings may find Stevenson's choices idiosyncratic, but his lists of "Author's Choice" wines at the end of each chapter do focus on wines with distinct personalities.

Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: 2002 Edition, by Kevin Zraly (Sterling, 2001, $24.95, 224 pages, hardcover)

Though the title can't help but evoke the horrifying events of Sept. 11 (Windows on the World was at the top of the World Trade Center), the newest edition of this perennial offers as stylish an introduction to wine as ever. The question-and-answer format approaches the subject region by region, accurately and with snappy writing.

The 16-page addendum, new to this edition, makes good reading. A litany of the author's "bests," mostly Zraly's personal opinions, slips in plenty of pertinent wine talk that doesn't easily fit in other parts of the book's format.

Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel, by David Darlington (Da Capo Press, 2001, $16, 288 pages, paperback)

Darlington's 1991 book Angels' Visits is still a good read in this retitled edition. The only new material is an epilogue that brings us up to date on some of the people and wines covered in the original book. Too bad Darlington decided to stand pat with the story, which focuses on Ravenswood, then a small, quirky producer, now a 400,000-case-per-year juggernaut. Like Ravenswood, the story of Zinfandel in California took some giant steps in the 1990s. If you missed it the first time, read it as a moment in history. It has the specific flavor of the times.

This article appears in the Dec. 31, 2001 - Jan. 15, 2002, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 156. (Subscribe today)

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