Hearkening back to the post on essential cookbooks, I wanted to share a list of the books I’ve found most helpful in learning about wine, and elicit reader suggestions in the comments. To my mind, there are a couple of different levels of the knowledge base that anyone interested in wine will want to amass.
First, there’s the absolute basics, call it Tier 1: how wine is made, its characteristics (tannins, acidity, color, scent, flavors), wine-making terminology, an awareness of a handful of the dominant varietals (grapes!). Tier 2 would be knowledge of the world’s major grape-growing and wine-making regions, the typical varietals grown and wines made in those regions, some idea of how those “major” wines look, smell, and taste (or are supposed to look, smell, and taste), and an understanding of the trends in wine production over the past 100 years or so. Tier 3 is snob territory – learning the intricacies of classification and labeling systems in different countries, understanding vintages, memorizing the châteaux of Bordeaux and the villages of Burgundy, learning about more obscure varietals, and generally being knowledgeable about at least a sliver of the 10,000 vintners out there.
No need to venture into Tier 3 if you don’t want to – it generally requires lots of money, time, and homemade flashcards. Tier 2 will get you just about as far in life as you’d care to go, if you just care about enjoying and appreciating wine.
That said, here’s my list:
– The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil – All 3 tiers in one giant book! Obviously, this is the standard if you’re looking for basic information about wine and more specific overviews of different regions and varietals. My recommendation for those starting out is to read all of the introductory chapters (ch X-Y), and then delve into region-specific chapters on an ad hoc basis. Every time you pick up a bottle of wine that’s new to you, go look up the appropriate chapter and read up on your wine’s region. Spit and repeat. Just kidding. You should never spit out wine, you wastrel.
– Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly — This book essentially crams the content of the Wine Bible into a shorter, easier to read format. This is actually the book I would recommend to someone who literally knows nothing about wine, but wants to learn. If you want more in-depth material on certain wines/regions, though, you’ll need to consult MacNeil.
– The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson – This is a stellar coffee table book. It is also Tier 3 territory, with intricate descriptions not only of sub-regions and vintages, but of specific climate patterns, soil composition, and other obscurities. As a reference book, it’s essential, but it’s fine to skip over the details and just marvel at the beautiful topographic maps of tiny villages and plots (if you’re a total map nerd like me).
– The Wine Guide (Williams-Sonoma) — There are probably quite a few wine terminology/glossary books out there; this happens to be the one I have, and I’ve found it to be useful.
– Wine for Newbies podcast – There are a ton of wine podcasts out there, and I’ve only checked out a few. But if you’ve got the time and the space on your iPod, the archives of this one are worth a listen. The host is just your average Midwestern dude who decided long ago to learn up on wine, and despite his nervous nerdiness and unsteady pacing, he covers the basics in a very easy-to-understand way. Next time you’re on the bus, resist the urge to revisit Ira Glass and learn instead about the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon.
– The Emperor of Wine, by Elin McCoy — This is ostensibly a biography-cum-critique of Robert Parker, Jr., the world’s most well-known wine critic, but it’s actually way, way more interesting than that description makes it sound. It’s a fascinating look into the development of the international wine market, and how the rise of Parker and his ilk (that is to say, wine critics and their rating systems) have changed how we look at wine, shop for wine, and even produce wine. In the meantime you get some real insights into how wine is produced and marketed. For instance, one entrepreneur developed a computer application that allows wine-growers to understand exactly which changes in their growing and production methods could translate into a 1-point increase on Parker’s rating scale, which in turn would yield increased sales. Can’t recommend this one enough.
– The Judgment of Paris, by George M. Taber — I cannot believe that the “event” depicted in this book is being made into not one but two movies, but there you have it. Sideways changed everything, for better or worse. Anyway, this book is about a famous blind tasting event in 1976 that pitted American Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons against classic French Burgundies and Bordeaux, and we Yanks won some awards, and it was a big coup, and that was the beginning of the U.S. finally being taken seriously in the world of wine. The chapters about the tasting itself are fairly dull, but the story of how the winning wineries (Château Montelena and Grgich Hills) came to fruition draws from some interesting material. If you ignore the dreck, a lot of this book serves as a solid introduction to California winemaking.
– Love by the Glass, by Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher — This book made me want to throw up. Its authors are a married couple who write a perfectly lovely long-standing wine column for the Wall Street Journal. This book, though, is a misty-eyed stroll down Memory Lane for the two whose primary device is a chronicle of the wines (good and bad) that they drank during all of their ups and downs together. Except that their life together has been disgustingly perfect, which results in them making literary Bambi-eyes at each other and recounting their charmed existence in excruciating detail. I don’t recommend this book on literary merit, but rather because it acts as a kind of wine time capsule, capturing the significant “wines of the times” from the mid 1960s to today. In the same way that a steady diet of pop culture improves your Jeopardy! skills over time, the more you read about specific wines, the better you can recall them and place them into context later on.
And now, readers, your suggestions! I’m especially interested to hear if anyone has discovered a good primer on Italian wine, which by all appearances is stupendously complex, and thus remains mostly a mystery to me.