While many wine books are tedious, uncritical and/or unhelpful, many others are quite useful. Among some of the better newer offers are: "Matt Kramer on Wine," "Reading Between the Wines," "Chef in the Vineyard" and "Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2011."
A RICH AND generous assortment of new (and updated) wine books has arrived in recent weeks. I suspect that, much like Champagne, which does a high percentage of its annual sales during the last two months of the year, this is the season when most wine books find buyers.
Books about wine predictably fall into simple categories: Coffee-table tomes loaded with photos; travel guides offering touring information and snippets of stories without critical judgments about quality; pocket guides and encyclopedias that attempt to cram every bit of minutiae into their pages. There are also idylls that transport the reader to some exotic-sounding landscape, usually peopled with ornery but lovable locals. There are dull buying guides that list reviews and scores, and there are always books that claim to demystify or take the snobbery out of the subject.
Are books even relevant any longer? Yes and no. A well-written book is still a joy. It can serve as a guide, a snapshot of a moment in time, a memento when that moment has passed or simply as a valued textbook. Here are some standout offerings from the new crop:
“Matt Kramer on Wine” (Sterling Epicure, $19.95).
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Kramer is one of the few American wine writers who could pretty much write about anything and make it compelling. That he has chosen to focus on wine and wine regions for the past three decades is simply our good luck. Here he has collected some favorite newspaper and magazine columns, snippets from previous books, and a long essay on Angelo Gaja that was originally intended for The New Yorker (and why does that excellent magazine refuse to include meaningful wine writing?). Here again you’ll find plenty of opinions, on topics from blind tastings to why women are better tasters than men.
“Reading Between the Wines” (UC Press, $24.95).
For years, importer Terry Theise has written catalogs that are impassioned manifestos for the sort of wines he admires, notably grower Champagnes and German rieslings. This is his first book, and it packs all that passion and opinion into a wide-ranging look at the beauty and aesthetics of wine.
“Chef in the Vineyard” (Sea-Hill Press, $32.95).
Chef John Sarich, who has been Chateau Ste. Michelle’s culinary director for more than two decades, has authored a travel cookbook that takes you to 10 Ste. Michelle wineries and pairs their wines with recipes emphasizing fresh, local ingredients. I’ve always admired Sarich’s cooking, which is flavorful rather than fussy. Though this book’s focus is exclusively on the portfolio of a single wine group, there is enough diversity and quality among the 10 properties to serve its main purpose well, which is to celebrate the flavors of these world-class wine regions.
“Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide 2011″ (Sterling Epicure, $14.95).
“Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2011″ (Mitchell Beazley, $14.99).
Though seemingly alike, these two pocket guides have quite different strengths. Johnson’s has been published annually since 1977. Methodically updated and expanded, it has defined the pocket-guide genre. It’s organized regionally, with a complex set of symbols and micro-reviews.
Clarke is a more personal and engaging writer. His guide is organized alphabetically, mixing regions, grapes and producers in a vast jumble. His enthusiasm is contagious and his knowledge encyclopedic.
“Washington Wines & Wineries — Second Edition” (UC Press, $34.95)
And, of course, I’d love to have you consider the revised, expanded and updated edition of my 2007 book.