Staying Home: Essential Wine Books to Read Now

Our editors pick their favorite memoirs, histories and reference books that helped them get a better understanding of wine over the years

Staying Home: Essential Wine Books to Read Now
Take advantage of time alone to deep dive into an aspect of wine new to you. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Apr 10, 2020

Stuck at home these days, like us, you are probably looking for good books to read when you're not catching up on your movie and TV viewing. Why not put that time to good use and boost your wine knowledge? Whether you’re fairly new to wine and want a better understanding of how to taste or what to pair with it, or you’re a hard-core wine geek who enjoys deep dives into geography, geology and terroir, our editors have something for you. For history buffs and those just wanting an entertaining read, we’ve got a dramatic family saga, a wine region soap opera, the tale of how ingenuity stopped a global vine plague, the journey of a man from a 1970s musician to modern wine influencer and much more.

(Many of the older books are now available as paperbacks, reprints or used books; we have not listed prices as they vary by source from the hardcover list price.)


Memoir

Adventures on the Wine Route
By Kermit Lynch

After reading informative primers and reference-y books early on in my love of wine, this is the book that really gave it a human face. Retailer and importer Kermit Lynch tells his story of transitioning from hippie to fledgling businessman, all while bumping around France in the 1970s and ’80s. With warm recollections of visits with winemakers in cold caves and long lunches on sun-dappled terraces in Provence, he expounds on what makes a wine great and also makes it personal through his portraits of the people without whom some of our favorites would not exist. An awful lot of the producers were little known when the book came out in 1988 but are now considered leaders. The Domaine Tempier section is especially evocative.—Owen Dugan


Explainers: Tasting and Terroir

Beyond Flavour: The Indispensable Handbook to Blind Wine Tasting
By Nick Jackson (independently published, 180 pages, $20)

This new release is quietly the best wine book to come out in recent memory. Nick Jackson, a Master of Wine, offers a different angle on blind tasting and how to understand wines, one that happens to be very similar to my approach to tasting. He shows how to use terroir and structure markers (I look for limestone acidity or schist tannins, for example) rather than focusing merely on the immediate impact of fruit. It’s a geeky take on tasting, but it’s also done in a clear, succinct and clarifying manner. You can read through it in an afternoon and be inspired for your next blind tasting.—James Molesworth

The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley
By Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell

Shortly after taking over the California Cabernet beat in 2018, I kept getting one bit of advice over and over from winemakers: Read The Winemaker’s Dance. This book tackles the nebulous topic of terroir and manages to wrestle it into layman’s terms, setting the subject against the backdrop of the geological forces that created Napa Valley’s landscapes and soils and the effect those have on grapegrowing and winemaking today. Though some of the winemaker and winery info has gone a little out of date since it was published in 2004, this remains a thoroughly relevant tome.—J.M.


History

Cover of the book The Botanist and the Vintner

The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World
By Christy Campbell

Beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, an almost-microscopic root louse known as phylloxera devastated vineyards throughout the world. Though the global wine industry ultimately recovered from this agricultural plague, the means by which it did so echo to the present day. The Botanist and the Vintner, a 2005 book by British journalist Christy Campbell, recounts the onslaught of and response to phylloxera in exquisite detail. This generally well-written and laboriously researched book also shows how durable human folly can be, how far science has advanced and how much remains to be done. It serves as a fascinating extended case study of an ecological disaster that helped pave the way for the wine world that we know today.—Kim Marcus

Cover of the book The House of Mondavi

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
By Julia Flynn Siler

For anyone new to wine (and anyone old to wine and hankering for a juicy stroll down memory lane), journalist Julia Flynn Siler’s page-turning exploration of the Mondavi family’s journey from hard-scrabble Italian immigrants to California wine titans—and the eventual collapse and sale of the Robert Mondavi Winery empire—is the perfect diversion for those eagerly awaiting season 3 of Succession. And yes, the book covers the infamous mink coat dispute that partially led Robert Mondavi to leave his family’s business at Charles Krug and start his own winery in 1965.

Published in 2007, the book culminates in the Mondavi family’s ouster from the powerhouse wine corporation it had built over the previous four decades, but their story doesn’t end with the publication of the book; interested readers will want to follow up on the family’s successful reinvention over the past decade (watch our videos with Tim Mondavi and Michael Mondavi and their children), as well as the ongoing disputes over the renowned To Kalon Vineyard and trademark now owned by the company that took over Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004.—Robert Taylor

Napa: The Story of an American Eden
James Conaway

This book, which ended up being the first in a trilogy about Napa by Conaway, was released in 1990. I first read it about a decade later, after I started working at Wine Spectator and an editor mentioned it. Back then, it was a useful introduction to the history of the pioneers of Napa Valley. Twenty years later, it’s been fascinating to pick it up again. Now that I’ve met many of the people in the book, some parts seem extra gossipy and soap opera-y, but it’s still an entertaining way to get some context for the players and forces in play when Napa was in its early stages. It’s also been interesting to check this book against my own memories and understanding of how the region began.—MaryAnn Worobiec

Cover of the book Summer in a Glass

Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes
By Evan Dawson

I went to college in Ithaca, N.Y., so the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York holds a special place in my heart. The many wineries who call this bucolic place home are passionate about putting the Finger Lakes on the world wine map, and their work has even caught the eye of European winemakers who have started projects in this off-the-beaten path area. An upstate New York reporter and radio personality, Evan Dawson captured the enthusiasm and dedication of the region’s many talented individuals, from wineries like Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hermann J. Wiemer, Heart & Hands and Fox Run. Reading this 2011 book is likely to inspire you to pick up a glass of Finger Lakes Riesling or even, once we can all travel again, to visit the region and experience it for yourself.—Gillian Sciaretta


Reference Guides

Cover of the book Barolo MGA

Atlas des Grands Vignobles de Bourgogne
By Sylvain Pitiot & Pierre Poupon (The original 1985 edition and the 1999 Nouvel edition can be found used online and at specialty book shops; for an easier-to-find alternative, try the 2016 edition of The Climats and Lieux-Dits of the Great Vineyards of Burgundy, by Marie-Hélène Landrieu-Lussigny and Sylvain Pitiot.)

Barolo MGA Vol. 1: The Barolo Great Vineyards Encyclopedia (second edition)
Barolo MGA Vol. 2: Harvests, Recent History, Rarities & Much More
By Alessandro Masnaghetti (Enogea)

While some books about wine are thoroughly entertaining, the books (and their companion apps) that I find myself always reaching for are reference works. I taste wine pretty much every day, whether critically evaluating a flight for Wine Spectator or enjoying a glass at home afterward. For me, that often entails wines from Burgundy, Barolo and Barbaresco, three regions that focus on the differences among and distinctive characteristics of individual vineyards.

That means, when I’m at home or in the office, I’m usually consulting Pitiot and Poupon’s Atlas des Grands Vignobles de Bourgogne or the detailed books in Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Enogea series on Italian regions. (The Barbaresco MGA volume is also excellent, if you can find it.) In the tasting room or at a restaurant, I check the companion apps—Sylvain Pitiot’s ClimaVinea ($26) or Enogea’s Barolo 2.5 ($9) and Barbaresco 2.5 ($8)—available for Android or iPhone.

The maps are the most detailed available of each region. These alone are worth the price of admission and what I consult most often. With Pitiot’s ClimaVinea maps, you can toggle between the climats and the lieux-dits, or place names within the vineyards. For example, Echézeaux is one climat, made up of nine different lieux-dits, such as En Orveaux and Echézeaux du Dessus. The Enogea books’ individual maps of the Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive (added markers that delineate smaller areas within an appellation) provide a guide to the ownership of different Barolo holdings.

However, the books also provide plenty of background information about the different regions, appellations, history and significant dates, like the creation of the Barolo D.O.C. and when it was elevated to D.O.C.G. In the first volume of Barolo MGA (2015; the second edition is updated to 2018), Masnaghetti delimited the MGAs in Barolo, which are now enshrined in the D.O.C.G. regulations. In Vol. 2, he examined generally accepted anecdotes and testimony about the region to see if they hold up to scientific analysis, delved further into the recent history of the Barolo zone and chronicled vintages from 2000 to 2017, all in an easily digestible format.

This is really geeky stuff, but if you want in-depth knowledge of these complex regions, the books and apps are indispensable tools.—Bruce Sanderson

The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th Edition
Edited by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding

This monster reference book covers wine internationally, but with good, frequently placed maps, charts and illustrations and elegant, even blithe writing, the weight of its authority goes down easy. It has every bit of information a wine lover could want. Origin of the name Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Check. History of the Gallo winery? Yep. Number of acres planted to Rkatsiteli? You bet (and it’s shockingly high). My only critique is that I go to look something up and, 20 minutes later, realize that that led to looking something else up and so on and now my leg’s asleep.—O.D.

What to Drink with What You Eat
By Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

What better time to experiment with food and beverage pairings than under shelter-in-place orders? You won't spend hours cozied up on the couch with this hefty 368-page hardcover, but it's perfect for grazing. The heart of the book is the comprehensive set of lists—which wines (or other beverages) to pair with dishes and ingredients, as well as the reverse, which foods to serve with specific wines—that serve as cheat sheets for novices and well-seasoned cooks and enophiles alike. As there is rarely only one ideal match, good pairings are simply printed as an option, better pairings are bolded, and the best pairings are in all caps and bolded. The suggestions cover everything from grilled striped bass and steak au poivre to pork rinds and a McDonald's Big Mac.

The opening chapters offer a detailed look into the science of pairing food and beverages—covering texture, temperature, acidity and more—along with simple tools and rules to remember ("if it grows together, it goes together") and advice sprinkled throughout from top sommeliers and chefs. Also included are plenty of recipes, with ultimate pairings, from some of America's best restaurants.

I often channel my anxieties by keeping busy in the kitchen. In the time before kids, when I would try to create the perfect meal for a particular bottle, this book was an early guide for me as I navigated new wines or ingredients. Lately, it's been a dependable resource as my fridge and pantry are stocked more with essentials than the finer ingredients. Whether you're wondering what to make with a special bottle or you're staring down the barrel of what to do with another can of beans, this is a fun book to explore.— Aaron Romano

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