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Wine Reading

A sampling of new books for enophiles, beginners and everyone in between

Harvey Steiman
Posted: January 3, 2001

  The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America  
  Great Wine Made Simple  
  The River Café Wine Primer  
  Wine Memories: Great Writers on the Pleasures of Wine  
  The Magic of Wine  
  Tuscany and its Wines  
  The Wine Regions of Australia  
  A Traveller's Guide to France: New Edition  
  More Wine Book Reviews:  
  Critical Accounts  
  Book Reviews: 1998  
  Divine Comedy  
  New from Wine Spectator Press  
Wine Reading

A sampling of new books for enophiles, beginners and everyone in between

By Harvey Steiman

The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America, Bruce Cass, editor; Jancis Robinson, consulting editor (Oxford University Press, 2000, $45, 320 pages, hardcover)

Like its great-uncle, the 800-page Oxford Companion to Wine, this is an encyclopedic tome. It's dense with scholarly articles on wineries, regions, people, terms and grape varieties specific to the United States, Canada and Mexico. Nothing from the earlier book is duplicated; rather, references to past articles are denoted with an asterisk.

The entries start with "active dry yeast" and end with "Ziraldo, Donald," who made the first post-Prohibition wines in Canada's Niagara Peninsula. Ziraldo gets two paragraphs, while in a more general wine book you would be lucky to find even a casual reference to him. The yeast discussion runs more than a column, then refers the reader to another article on microbiology.

For readers in the wine business, there are detailed entries about the demographics of American consumers, the U.S. wine distribution system and Internet wine sales, all written by experts in these areas.

Editor Bruce Cass, who teaches wine courses at Stanford University, also co-founded the Society of Wine Educators and worked with James Halliday on his excellent (if now outdated) Wine Atlas of California. Cass' contributors aren't media stars; they're people who have been working in the wine world for a considerable amount of time.

As scholarly as this book is, it's not lacking in opinion. Contributors evaluate the wineries, the regions and the accomplishments of the people they write about. They editorialize judiciously, however, and maintain a generally positive tone. Maps are a bigger problem. They appear in black and white only and, mysteriously, contain no references to actual wine regions or vineyards; only states, cities and mountain ranges are identified.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall, this is a solid, admirable reference book that belongs on the shelf of anyone who is serious about wine.

Great Wine Made Simple, by Andrea Immer (Broadway, 2000, $25, 288 pages, hardcover)

The author, who holds a Master Sommelier degree, could win over any new wine consumer with her bubbly personality alone, but she goes a few steps beyond simple encouragement to provide a step-by-step program for eager novices. This is not so much a basic wine book as it is a Wine 101 course, revolving around a series of tastings designed to demonstrate key points.

Immer's first tasting simply lines up six wines made from the most often-encountered grape varieties: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The object is to get a feel for what each type has to offer. The next tasting pairs off dry vs. sweet Rieslings; crisp vs. low-acid Sauvignon Blancs; oaky vs. non-oaky Chardonnays; and low-tannin vs. high-tannin Pinot Noirs. Another tasting focuses on character descriptions you're likely to find on a wine label.

Before she assumed her current position as beverage director for Starwood Hotels, Immer was sommelier at Windows on the World, the New York restaurant where Kevin Zraly developed a pioneering wine program and a popular wine school. Where Zraly's Windows on the World Wine Course, a perennial best-seller, takes a geographical approach, Immer begins with taste, then relates it to grape varieties and regional styles. Along the way, she strips wine conversation of its pretense and gets down to what you need to know to find the wines you like.

The River Café Wine Primer, by Joseph DeLissio (Little, Brown, 2000, $25.95, 271 pages, hardcover)

River Café patrons know how good a sommelier Joey DeLissio is. He can always pinpoint just the right wine from the restaurant's formidable list, which is also a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner. He can make a table full of wine neophytes feel like they scored big with the wines they've chosen to have with dinner. Unfortunately, his ease and savvy are not so much in evidence in this book.

It's not a bad effort, just an undistinguished one. DeLissio covers the bases, launching right into how to taste; he then explains vineyards and winemaking, delineates the important grape varieties and touches upon the important wine regions of the world. He seems content to repeat the same information one finds in virtually every other basic wine book. What's lacking is the insight that allows him to home in on just the right wine for his customers when he's on the job.

There are a few unfortunate inaccuracies -- he defines terroir as "soil," for instance -- and the chapter on restaurant wine lists feels curiously uninspired.

Wine Memories: Great Writers on the Pleasures of Wine, Sara Nicklès, editor (Chronicle, 2000, $16.95, 142 pages, hardcover)

This stocking-stuffer for the literary enophile is a collection of excerpts from the previously published works of some famous authors, including Isak Dinesen, Spalding Gray, A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer and Evelyn Waugh. Didn't know they were wine connoisseurs? Well, they aren't, necessarily. But they address wine from wildly different perspectives, and, being wordsmiths, they've crafted some highly entertaining prose to describe our favorite beverage.

For the most part, these are tidbits which rarely exceed a few paragraphs or a couple of pages. Among the gems is Truman Capote's description of Roederer Cristal Champagne: " ... a chilled fire of such prickly dryness that, swallowed, seems not to have been swallowed at all, but instead to have been turned to vapours on the tongue, and burned there to one sweet ash."

One of the best things about having this little collection is that it may motivate you to trace these excerpts back to the works from which they sprang. Do that, and you'll discover such wonders as Dinesen's novel, Babette's Feast, or Liebling's memoir, Between Meals.

The Magic of Wine, Jacqueline Quillen and George H. Boynton Sr., editors (Taylor, 2000, $16.95, 132 pages, hardcover)

Books of wine quotations pop up periodically over the years. This one does not rate with the best. There's little here you won't find in Bartlett's or at several free Internet sites that specialize in quotations (such as www.bartleby.com). Little books like this make no sense as reference works, and the few gems hidden among the rubble of so-so quotations do not make this as fun a read as it could be.

Tuscany and Its Wines, by Hugh Johnson, with photographs by Andy Katz (Chronicle, 2000, $24.95, 144 pages, hardcover)

The photographs make this book. Andy Katz proves that Tuscany is more photogenic than Napa, Sonoma or Burgundy, subjects of his previous books in this series. Tuscany offers as much history as Burgundy, and it has even more picturesque rolling hills than does California. Katz's photos (as well as those of Max Alexander, who is not credited on the cover) capture the color, the grace and the feel of the place. My favorite image isn't even a wine shot. It shows a stand of tall cypresses huddled on green and gold rolling hills against a pink sunrise.

Johnson packs in a lot of information with his usual graceful prose, but the style of the book, which simply wraps his running text around the pictures, doesn't make things easy to find. There is no index, so good luck trying to find a reference.

The Wine Regions of Australia, by John Beeston (Allen & Unwin, 2000, $50, 526 pages, hardcover)

As Australia becomes increasingly important for American wine drinkers, we can use a good reference that explains the geography and sort of wine one can expect from the various regions Down Under. And there are a lot of regions, all of which are currently being codified into a unified system of appellations.

Beeston uses these government appellations as a framework. The system covers everything, as is the case in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Unlike the United States, where the appellation system is coming together piecemeal, Australians decided to do theirs in one swoop.

This is as good a guidebook to Australian wine geography as you're likely to find in print. Beeston, who also authored A Concise History of Australian Wine, covers the ground with authority. The book is loaded with data, including exhaustive climatic information for each region. Unfortunately, you practically have to be a scientist to understand all the abbreviations. Vineyard sizes are given in hectares rather than in acres, and winery production is quantified in terms of tons of grapes crushed, which is not so easy to convert to cases of wine. Those sorts of things make this book better for those in the trade than for consumers, who may find it takes too much effort to get to the information they want.

A Traveller's Wine Guide to France: New Edition, by Christopher Fielden (Interlink, 1999, $19.95, 144 pages, paperback)

This sketchy travel guide has a handy, if short, list of vignerons who promise to open their doors to visitors, not a minor consideration in planning a visit to French wine regions. Although the book is clearly aimed at a British audience, many of the wineries on the list are familiar to American consumers and Wine Spectator readers. The maps lack detail, and the book offers no advice about dining or accommodations. Still, it's worth a look if you're planning a trip to France.

New From Wine Spectator Press

Wine Spectator's Ultimate Guide to Buying Wine, Seventh Edition, (Wine Spectator Press, 2000, $30, 1,152 pages, paperback)

It's all here -- a compilation of 40,000 Wine Spectator ratings and tasting notes for 20,000 wines, completely up-to-date and freshly organized for easy access. You'll find a hefty chapter on great wine values, another on top-rated current releases. For collectors, there's a section devoted to recent outstanding vintages of the world's most prestigious wine types. Wines are also listed by country and producer, and there's a comprehensive, invaluable winery index. Our senior editors weigh in with advice on wine buying, and explain the magazine's tasting and scoring system.

Order the Ultimate Guide to Buying Wine

Wine Spectator's Essentials of Wine: A Guide to the Basics, by Harvey Steiman (Wine Spectator Press, 2000, $24.95, 240 pages, hardcover)

Editor at large Harvey Steiman covers all the fundamentals in this compact, highly readable new book. Beginners will appreciate his friendly, no-nonsense approach to what can seem arcane and daunting: how to taste effectively, how to match wine with food, how to choose the right stemware, how to store and how to decant. When should red wine be given time to "breathe," and when is it acceptable to reject a bottle at a restaurant? Steiman describes grape varieties, decodes labels and explains appellation systems and the importance of terroir. He also offers tips to aspiring collectors. The glossary, which packs in a huge amount of information in just nine pages, is a useful resource in itself. Inviting color photos and user-friendly maps and charts appear throughout. Although there's plenty of detail here, it's never mind-numbing. This is an ideal choice for those who want a simple, but not simplistic, introduction to wine.

Order Wine Spectator's Essentials of Wine

For the print article, please see the Dec. 31, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 103.

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