What Are the Best Wine Books for a Starter Library?

Make your top picks for essential reading
Aug 28, 2012

One of the best things about working at Wine Spectator is that we get advance copies of most of the wine books that come out each year. I can tell you this much: A serious amount of words are spilled on the topic per annum. Come every fall, it's tough for the editors to choose which ones make it into the book review roundup for the Dec. 15 issue.

But when it comes to the books I recommend privately to friends who want to "get more into wine," I have a very short list of all-time favorites. Maybe it's a matter of which books I read first myself or a bias toward older books, but most of my picks have been around for a while.

Making a starter library is like making a mixtape: You need a balance of upbeat and down-tempo, of familiarity and surprise. Unless someone really wants to get academic, I generally steer clear of recommending intro-to-wine books. It's like including music scales on your 60s garage-rock mixtape; I'd rather learn from the songs themselves.

I'll share four of my favorites below, but I'm curious: Which books would you choose for a starter library? There are many worthy classics widely relied on, and I'm sure I've missed some others—I'm still sifting through many of the older books myself. Leave your picks in the comments.

The Wine Lover's Starter Library

The memoir: Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch

Kermit Lynch is a well-established name in wine now, but his account of how he got started as an importer of French wine makes for off-the-charts good reading. This book, above all others, makes me want to drink wine and get out and see vineyards and live a good life. Which is what a wine book should make you want to do, right?

The essays: Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer

When I first started working at Wine Spectator, executive editor Thomas Matthews gave me this book when I asked what I should be reading. Perhaps I have a home-team bias here (Kramer is a longtime columnist for Wine Spectator), but there's much to appreciate in his wide-ranging essays that touch not just on wine itself, but how wine fits (and should fit) into our lives. Plus, you'll get a sense of just how long current "controversies" have been brewing in the wine-o-sphere.

The reference: Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson

Yes, it's a hefty doorstop of a reference book. But if you are remotely curious about wine, you'll have to look stuff up eventually and you would do well to look it up here. Robinson's elegant and straightforward prose makes even the most technical definitions accessible and easy to understand.

The wild-card: Perfumes: the A to Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

OK, this book is not about wine. It's about perfume, but it's seriously great for tasting note inspiration. The format is simple: Perfume expert Turin (who also wrote the excellent Science of Scent) and Sanchez tackle reviews for all the perfumes they can get their hands on. While the takedowns are brutally hilarious ("Disproves the notion that citrus notes make you cheerful," for Polo Blue by Ralph Lauren), it's their odes to the best bottles that are most inspiring. The corollaries for wine criticism are many, but perhaps the most important take-away is this: The best criticism is born from fandom.

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