Wine Books - Must Haves

Hoping to get some insight from the wineberserkers community on must-have books for someone new to wine. I currently have Gambero Rosso Italian Wines and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine guide but am looking for other, similar reference books.

Many thanks,
Ben

(As an aside, I read recently In Vino Duplicitas, and I suspect many of this forum would enjoy it)

“The Wine Bible” - Karen MacNeil

a great introductory reference for all the major regions

I know The Wine Bible has a lot of fans, so it must have something going for it, but it is not for me. I found it rather loose with the facts, and too opinionated for my liking. I understand it was ground-breaking when it was written, but that was quite a while back.

My big recommendation would be The Oxford Companion to Wine. It is not really similar to the books you already have, Ben (and neither is The Wine Bible for that matter), but definitively a “must have” in my opinion. It can look a bit scary at first with large pages of text, but it is authoritative, and the articles are a lot more readable than you might think from first impressions.

The World Atlas of Wine is another book that is often recommended. I am not as enthusiastic as most people, but it is OK. Not sure about pricing on the left of the Atlantic, but in the UK you can often pick this up very heavily discounted if you look hard enough and are prepared to wait a little for the offers, often not long after a new edition is printed. At those prices it is certainly worth the money.

I would like to second the recommendation for the
Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson.

Accurate wealth of information.

For reference, I agree the Oxford Companion and the Wine Bible are your best bets.

A few others that help simplify things:

  • Wine Folly from Madeline Puckette (take a look at her website first, you’ll see the gist of how she approaches things). It’s not a perfect book, but the flavor wheels and maps are really nicely done (she’s a graphic artist and a somm).

  • If you’re a Millennial (or want to pretend you’re one), and want to read something that reads more like a guide than use as a reference book, Wine. All The Time. From Marissa Ross could be interesting for you. She has a no-nonsense approach and writes like she’s your best friend. She’s more about how to drink, how to buy, how its made, than a dictionary of varieties and regions.

  • If you want to explore California producers who have moved away from the big bold wines California is known for into more restrained winemaking, The New California Wine from Jon Bonné is a nice guide.

  • Also, and what I’m about to recommend is a bit divisive, but if you’re at all interested in Natural wines and want to learn what those are about (Marissa touches on them a bit in her book), I’d take a look at Naked Wine. Not everyone agrees with some of the extremes Alice Feiring promotes (and warning, no one in the wine world agrees what natural wines are or agrees about their quality), however, it’s an easy read and provides a really good baseline understanding to what Natural wines are all about. She has a new book out, but I haven’t read it yet.

Enjoy! I don’t think you can go wrong with whatever books you choose to acquire. There’s a ton of wine reading out there to be had!

Enjoy!

Can someone else please explain why Wine Folly is not a good book? It’s not a generational or snobby thing I have against it, but I’m tired of arguing and being negative for now. No, really, I want to be positive. But if no one else does I’ll step up to the plate.

I’d like to hear your thoughts, Steve. For basic understanding of flavors and regions, I think Wine Folly is a great and easy to understand. I know it’s not a complete book, and she had to issue a correction or two after it initially published, but otherwise I never quite understood the criticism.

When I was starting out, I found the World Atlas of Wine by far the most useful book. Especially for old-world wines, looking up where every bottle you drank came from will help you quickly learn about geography, grapes, vineyard, terroir, etc.

Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch.

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Yeah, this too. Such a great book. If you like it, Neal Rosenthal’s Reflections of a Wine Merchant is also very good.

OK. As you ask. I am not sure if I have the corrected version or not - mine was published by “Penguin Random House UK”, but it was apparently first published in the US. I have actually seen very little criticism of the book, but I know the Wine Folly blog divides opinion. I bought it mainly to learn about her popular style of presentation, and to try to understand why it was so popular. I still struggle to understand, and wonder how many people actually try to use the book, let alone fact-check it. It is a while now since I read it, so it is not easy to recall all my many objections, but I will try.

Let’s take the graphics first. Many of the smaller ones are totally pointless, and merely eat up space. There are also great swathes of white (and coloured) space. And words are few and far between. Even the infographics for which Madeline is famous are poor. My favourite examples are the ones for food/wine pairings. Pick any food or wine in one of those infographics, and tell me what they pair with. It is like doing one of those puzzles I used to get in childhood comics. Is there a better way of presentation? Yes - using tables. Other infographics are not so bad, but I am still not sure what they accomplish that could not be done more clearly and concisely in other ways. Don’t get me wrong - I know graphics can be powerful and useful, but these are neither.

Mainly due to the many graphics and use of white space, the text typically appears in blocks of a sentence or two, and is very disjointed. OK, sometimes that can be a good idea. But other times you actually need a proper paragraph to get an idea over, and there are none in this book. The language is also clunky (some might say wrong) in places, e.g. “Wine grapes are different than table grapes”

The main part of the book is structured around something called “a wine”. Usually these “wines” are actually grape varieties, but sometime they are blends, sometimes styles or controlled terms (like Sherry). And there is also a wine called “Sauternais”. If I were just starting off in wine, I would be totally confused by this. What is needed of course is a section of text explaining grape varieties, regions and appellations. Just ducking the issue does not make it any easier.

There is a big emphasis on the aromas in wines. Take Riesling for example. She has dominant flavours of lime, green apple, beeswax and petroleum. That’s fair enough, and I would suggest it’s all a beginner need know. But then apparently you also get orange and nectarine in warm climates. Really? Well maybe, but you don’t usually grow Riesling in warm climates. And then in the big circular graphic there are all manner of flavours I have never noted in a Riesling, and would not recognise if I did. Like pink grapefruit, Thai basil, cantaloupe, white cherry, guava. I don’t deny that some people might recognise them in a Riesling, but is it REALLY helpful to beginners to list them? And strangely, orange and nectarine do not figure in the longer list!

I am sure I also found factual inaccuracies earlier, but admit I cannot find them in a quick look today. But I found there was a whole spectrum from “wrong”, through “I don’t think so” and “not always so”, to “I wouldn’t say it like that”.

For a beginner’s text (which I don’t think BenB was after actually), I would suggest Michael Schuster’s “Essential Winetasting”. Whenever I return to it I think it is spot on in the way it makes a potentially complex subject easily understandable without compromising on the facts. Sadly though, it is now looking quite dated in style, even if the content is still largely applicable. For a good beginner’s book with a more up to date presentation, there is also “Exploring and Tasting Wine” by the team at BBR. This has some Wine-Folly-style graphics, but also some proper text.

Thanks Steve for taking the time to write all that. I definitely understand the concerns you have and agree with some of them. I’ll respectfully disagree with you on the use of graphics and white space (graphic design is such a subjective beast!) I’ve never read the book cover to cover (just as I haven’t read the Oxford Companion cover to cover), instead I use it as reference when there’s a specific grape or variety I want to look up. Most often I use it when I have non-wine-geek friends over who are asking questions about the bottle we’re drinking and use it as a quick/easy reference to show them more about the grape/variety/wine and the possible flavors they could be tasting (considering climate, aging, terroir, winemaking styles, etc., the possibility usually extends beyond what’s typical or what you might have experience with) and it gives them a nice basic understanding. I don’t think the book’s audience is for us Berserkers, so I try not to evaluate it in that way. Thanks again for taking the time to respond to my question! (And happy to end this thread drift so the OP can continue getting advice on other books – there’s so many out there to explore!) Cheers! [cheers.gif]

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Thanks Alicia for your measured response. I really didn’t want to get into an argument. Before we end the thread drift, I would just like to add a couple of comments.

One is that I did not evaluate it from a wine-geek standpoint either, but from a beginner’s point of view. I do still remember how I was when starting off in wine, and I also remember how frustrating it is to have picked up a “factoid”, pass it on, and later to discover it is wrong. I was however envisaging the situation where the beginner owns the book and uses it as the primary means to learn about wines, rather that it being used as an aid for discussion as you described.

Regarding the subjectivity and design, I agree that the aesthetics are subjective, and to be honest I think it looks pretty. But book design can also be evaluated in terms of how well it imparts information to the target audience, which is more objective. I do not pretend to have performed an objective evaluation in this case, but in principle that can be attempted.

With very best wishes, Steve

Ben:

Wine is so vast a subject that no single book really encompasses everything. I would recommend several books, each of which is excellent in its own right and in its own domain.

Everyone should read The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode, as it is one of the only books that will allow you to understand the process of winemaking, grape growing, basic climate science and geology, as well as the sensory aspect of wine and how modern technology affects it. It is eminently readable, and no matter how many books or articles you read, if you don’t understand how soil types differ and how they play into wine, most advanced wine reading will be lost on you.

Are there specific areas you are interested in?

Johnson / Robinson - World Atlas of Wine. As they say in Real Estate, Location, Location, Location.
Anything by Harry Waugh for flavour, old school.
These are more by way of reference books
Oxford Companion to Wine
Wines of Burgundy by Clive Coates
Bordeaux by Robert Parker

Maybe a bit off the wall but for some insight into the mania of wine making: The Heartbreak Grape: A California Winemaker’s Search for the Perfect Pinot Noir By Marq de Villiers ( about Josh Jensens exploits at Calera Winery).

Since you mentioned In Vino Duplicitas, I will assume you are not just looking for reference books. In that case I will recommend Cork Dorks by Bianca Bosker. The closest a wine book can come to being a page turner, Cork Dorks steps on some toes and is a window into a very small part of the wine world but a fascinating and provocative one and superbly written.

I apologize if any of my book recommendations are not in-line with what the OP is seeking.

I have a handful of books on wine, mostly covering California stuff:

The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Ed (2006), Jancis Robinson

An incredibly useful “dictionary” of wine terms, whether places, procedures, or grape varieties; the author(s) are not objective in all topics, which can spice up an otherwise dry reference book.

Vine Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties (1992), Jancis Robinson and Mitchell Beazley

Since I didn’t have the $$$ to fork over for Ms Robinson’s most recent tome on the grape varieties that make up bottles of wine, I happily discovered this older, less comprehensive reference book.

A Companion to California Wine (1998), Charles Sullivan

A great read, though most of the figures are out of date 20 years later; I now find myself seeking its treasure-trove of info more than any other book in this list.

The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste (2013), Jon Bonné

A quick, but useful, read; I imagine that “who’s hot” texts like this are doomed to obsolescence more rapidly than most other books on wine.

American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink (2016), Patrick J Comiskey

Unlike the previous entry, I believe that this entry will remain relevant for years to come, as the human story of how America found, lost, and rediscovered the red and white grapes from France’s Rhône will provide readers with an in-depth, yet light-hearted contemplation on how particular grapes catch the attention of the drinking public.

Wines of the Rhône Valley: A Guide to Origins (1987), Robert W. Mayberry

I sought out this book after finishing Mr Comiskey’s history; just as he says in American Rhône, this book provides sketches of countless wineries, even mentioning the proportions of different varieties in the named wines. I can see how this book once served as a “cheat-sheet” for winemakers new to Grenache, Syrah, etc.

French Country Wines (1990), Rosemary George

This author provides a travelogue through nooks and crannies of southern France, shining a light on countless underappreciated regions, varieties, and wineries along the way.

Monks and Wine (1979), Desmond Seward

The history of wine in Europe is so intertwined with the establishment of monasteries that it was easy for me to avoid reading a book like this for years. I learned a great amount about the “why’s” and “how’s” of European (re: French and German) wine via the concise, clear prose of this work’s author.

History of the Sonoma Viticultural District, The Grape Growers, the Wine Makers, and the Vineyards (Comprising Sonoma, Marin, Lake, Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte, and Siskiyou Counties) (1998), Ernest Peninou

“If a wine aficionado happens to be interested in the history of the source of his/her Sonoma/Northern California wines, I doubt that there exists a more comprehensive exploration of the entire region mentioned in this book’s title. There are some areas/townships that do not receive sufficiently in-depth coverage, yet I remain awestruck by the level of research necessary to produce a work like this. There may never be a more ambitious effort of documenting for the general public a historic layout of the agricultural heritage of California (this title is apparently only one of several).”

Table Wines: The Technology and Their Production, 2nd Edition (1970), MA Amerine & MA Joslyn

“Yes, THAT Amerine wrote this highly technical, and out-dated tome. I cannot recommended it to non-winemakers, since the work is almost akin to the dreaded VCR manuals of the 1980’s. Still, I found it to provide a neat snapshot of the culture of scientific winemaking. Who knows how​ many aspiring vintners have a dusty copy of this book on their shelves?”

Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray (1993), Eleanor Ray & Barbara Marinacci

“After reading Charles Sullivan’s Like Modern Edens, I sought out any text which might help me understand the history of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the contributions Martin Ray made to California winemaking. As this biography is written by the widow of Mr Ray, I anticipated there may be occasional flights of nostalgia. My impression of Vineyards in the Sky is best expressed by the chorus of The Vandals’ ‘Aging Orange’:

‘Cuz I invented socks
and I invented gravy
I made up the cotton gin
but no one ever paid me’”

A Zinfandel Odyssey (2001), Rhoda Stewart

“I bought this one, after finishing David Darlington’s work, on a quest to find as much information as possible about Zinfandel (but not focused on the genetic homeland of the grape). There are the inherently​ out-dated tasting impressions of wines made, and consumed, years ago. However, the real value of Ms Stewart’s coffee-table-sized, glossy-paged, picture-laden book is in her skill of making the reader feel as though one is there, surveying panoramic vistas of vine-covered valleys; sharing sandwiches with winemakers at a picnic table under the shade of an old tree; leaning closer to hear every word spoken by an wizened vineyard owner as a third bottle of Zin is popped. The author’s Odyssey takes the reader from Cucamonga to San Luis Obispo, to the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, Contra Costa, Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, and Napa. Two of my favorite parts involve legendary winemakers. Joel Peterson shares insight into his thoughts on aging bottles of Zinfandel, old vineyard sites versus younger ones, and his attraction to a grape that virtually has become synonymous with his name (as well as Ravenswood). Meanwhile, Paul Draper relays his history in selecting small oak barrels when other Californian vintners were conservatively clinging to the larger models. Stewart relates an anecdote of Draper’s where he travels to Arkansas, insists on buying seven-year-old American oak staves, and supervises moderate gas-fired toasting for the Ridge barrels.”

Zin: The History & Mystery of Zinfandel (2001, formerly Angels’ Visits, 1991), David Darlington

“Mr Darlington is one of my favorite wine writers, having read several of his articles in the Wine & Spirits magazine. Zin is a travelogue of sorts, yet I love this book for the intimate details it shares. The journey to create his own pet-project bottling of a Beaujolais-style Zinfandel brings you into the ‘daily grind’ of winemaking, in a way. Much love is deservedly heaped upon Mr Joel Peterson (a young MTP steals the spotlight a couple of times, hinting at the genius many Berserkers now appreciate). As the author journeys to vineyards, restaurants, and tasting groups, the reader’s appreciation of a finished bottle of wine is expanded. When so much can ruin months of hard work, the act of sharing a bottle of wine with a friend becomes a minor miracle in itself.”

I hope that some Berserker reads at least one of the texts I have suggested. Whether or not you agree with my reviews, I only wish to make available a handful of books that expanded my understanding and love for wine. :slight_smile:

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Great list and thanx.

The Hugh Johnson pocket book is a heck of a resource for the size. As with all opinion based recommendations, there are producers who are missing and others who are listed, but I don’t rate highly. That’s life, but I’ll admit I do reach for it when exploring a completely new region. The food matching section also very handy.

From there I think it comes down to your own interests. I’ve got Gambero Rosso guides from 1998-2009 inclusive, though most picked up 2nd hand for little money. I didn’t especially like it, though for an English language Italian annual, it was probably best of a poor bunch back in those days. However in recent times they’ve given up all pretense of writing tasting notes, making it fairly useless to me. Now I have a little better Italian, the annual I like is Bibenda Wine (was Duemilavini) produced by the guild of sommeliers. I rather like a hard copy book, so was disappointed when they went online only recently, but for many this will be a better format. Ratings are similarly simple, which I approve of if they have to make a rating 0-5 grappoli (grape bunches!). However with that come detailed tasting notes rather than the fawning comments that Gambero Rosso used to wheel out. Difficult to get a feel for tastes, perhaps not quite so obviously enamoured with oak / internationalised wines as Gambero Rosso, but nor are they arch-traditionalists.

My favourite book on Italy (in English) is Ian d’Agata’s native grapes of Italy book. Relatively expensive, but it’s a proper tome, with writing both technically and emotionally strong, which often leaves you thinking …“I really want to taste a wine from that grape”.

Grapes and Wines by Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand

I’ve always enjoyed learning about wine from Oz Clarke, whether it’s his writing or his CD-ROM from back in the day. The book is actually fine for anyone from novices to those with advanced knowledge. Great illustrations and recommendations, too, for the major varietals. I gave copies of this book to my coworkers in the wine department when I worked in a retail shop a few years ago and they all loved it and their levels of knowledge varied from basic to advanced.