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A Holiday Wine Book Roundup
By Gerald D. Boyd
Dec 29, 2009
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Francis Bacon, the 16th century English philosopher and statesman, had this to say about books: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.”  Even if Sir Francis was sipping from a flagon of Sherris sac when he penned those words, it’s not likely he was thinking of wine books, but the allusion can be imagined if you squint and read the words over a few times.

There’s no question, however, that to get all the flavor and nutrition from most wine books, readers must select carefully which words to taste, chew, swallow and hopefully digest.  None of the six wine books released during 2009 that are reviewed below (except maybe for one) pretend to be anything but useful references.  But depending on your need as a reader and wine consumer, you may just find some food for the soul between the many pages. 

My goal with this annual book roundup is to provide capsule reviews, not literary criticism, of new wine books that wine fans can add to their personal libraries or give as gifts.  The reviews are intended to provide a peek inside each book, drawing out the content, with the occasional comment on the pluses and minuses of the book and the author.

Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology,
Randall Grahm, 2009, University of California Press, $34.95 Hardcover

By definition, wine books are usually reference books, but this year, the six books that stacked up on my desk proved to be more than just academic references.  One book more than any of the others fights against being categorized, placed in a box.  “Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology,” is a collection of Grahm’s iconoclastic, often humorous send ups of the wine industry of which he is a part.  Grahm, the verbose Francophile and philosopher-owner (he dedicated the book to John Locke) of Bonny Doon Vineyards is generally considered California’s bad-boy genius wine marketer. 

Problem is, not everyone understands what he is writing about.  Fortunately, for those readers who may get lost in the thicket of Grahm’s writing, he provides an extensive glossary of terms and entries you’re not likely to see in other wine book glossaries.  Loaded with French wine terms, there are also Italian, German and Spanish terms, plus a liberal sprinkling of Yiddish words and phrases, most of which are a stretch when addressing wine, such as Farmisht: Confused, befuddled.

The collection is divided into seven sections with such tongue-in-cheek sections as “Ficciones: Viterature,” that includes outlandish jibes like “Cheninagin’s Wake: James Juice Takes the Wine Train,” or in the section “Posey Galore,” Grahm’s uses the nom de plume Walter Taylor Choleridge Montebello, in this clever take-off of Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” titled “The Rimeshot of the Ancient Marsanner.”

The man does have a way with words.

There is a four-color comic strip and illustrations scattered throughout the book, plus the author closes out his opus with eight “serious” pieces filed under “Ernest Speeches and Sober Essays,” in which he talks about his education at UC Davis, terroir, and wine in the postmodernist world.  I could go on, but buy this entertaining and well-written book, pour your self a glass of wine (Bonny Doon maybe), and enjoy.

The Finest Wines of Champagne
Michael Edwards and Jon Wyand, 2009, University of California Fine Wine Editions, $34.95 Softcover

The prolific University of California Press has added a Fine Wines Editions, with the release of handsome volumes on Champagne and Tuscany.  Compact in size, these softcover books have fold-out covers, the front flap containing vintage information and the back, mini-profiles of the author and photographer.

“The Finest Wines of Champagne: A Guide to the Best Cuvées, Houses and Growers” is by Michael Edwards, chief inspector of the Egon Ronay Guide and a Champagne student for 20 years.  The beautiful color photographs, mainly portraits of Champagne producers and their families, is by veteran wine photographer Jon Wyand, best known for his photographs of Burgundy that have appeared in “The World of Fine Wine Magazine.”

Following a short but comprehensive section on the history and culture of the Champagne region and the viticulture and making of Champagne wine, Edwards offers profiles of what he considers to be the finest wines and houses, dividing them into four geographic sections such as “Reims and the Montagne de Reims.”  Each profile includes a photograph of the house owner, plus a listing of the finest wines.  Like most wine books, the selections are very personal, but there’s a lot to like and learn about Edwards’ approach to Champagne.  The book concludes with a vintage review from 1988 to 2008, Champagne gastronomy and a glossary of Champagne terms.

The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy
Nicolas Belfrage and Jon Wyand, 2009, University of California Press Fine Wine Editions, $34.95, Softcover

“The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy: A Regional and Village Guide to the Best Wines and Their Producers,” by Nicolas Belfrage MW, with photographs by Jon Wyand, is in the same Fine Wines editions format with an Introduction, the Finest Producers and Their Wines and the concluding section on Appreciating the Wines.  Belfrage divides his profiles into six Tuscan sub-regions including Montalcino and Chianti Classico, plus the Central Italy regions of Umbria and Marche.  He also includes Romagna, or the eastern part of Emilia-Romagna, which other writers on Italian wines consider more northeast than central Italy.

This book on Tuscany, as in the book on Champagne, is loaded with lavish color and black and white photography.  Wyand’s excellent photographs capture the moment and personality of the subjects, like the studied look of Franco Biondi Santi, the devilish stare of Englishwoman Charlotte Horton, of Castello di Potentino in Maremma, with her left hand on her hip and right thumb hooked behind her belt; or the charming and loving pose of Ugo and Lisa Contini Bonacossi of Tenuta di Capezzana.  A few photographs that support the text are by other photographers.

These two attractive books capture the essence of the producers and their wines, both in words and pictures.  Edwards has a nice easy style to his writing, like when he explains about the longevity in the wine business of the Frescobaldis, compared to colleagues and rivals, the Antinoris: “Frescobaldi, never knowingly over-PRed, can see their great rival Antinori’s six centuries plus as wine merchants and raise it , claiming 700 years and more than 30 generations in the wine business….”

Drink This: Wine Made Simple
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, 2009, Ballantine Books, $26 hardcover

In the somewhat limited world of wine book publishing there appears to be a trend in “how to” books written in a casual style, no doubt meant to attract a younger reader who might be looking for a non-intimidating  primer on wine appreciation.  Minneapolis-based wine and restaurant writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl has taken a shot at this approach in her new book, “Drink This: Wine Made Simple.”

Grumdahl’s breezy guide works to take the intimidation out of wine buying in a “liquor store,” and wine ordering in a restaurant, which she details in the first chapter, “The Nuts and Bolts of Drinking, Buying and Tasting Wine.”  Chapters 2 through 10 cover popular grapes in essays with titles like “Pinot Noir: The Heartbreak Grape,” a title already used by Marq de Villiers in his book on Pinot Noir, “The Heartbreak Grape.”  One nice touch, though, is a series of “Conversations with Bigwigs,” insights from winemakers talking about the pros and cons of specific wines.

While the author’s casual writing style will not appeal to everyone, Grumdahl makes an admirable effort to speak directly to younger wine consumers, the very market that wineries try to attract, with mixed results.

Uncorking the Past
Patrick E. McGovern, 2009, University of California Press, $29.95 Hardcover

“Uncorking the Past” offers an in-depth look into the history of drink, a convenient inclusive term, coined by the Brits, for any beverage containing alcohol.  The author of this tour that ambles through China, the Near East along the Silk Road, back into Europe, with a side trip to Africa, is Patrick E. McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

McGovern makes his case to support the compelling connection between “humanity’s ingenious, intoxicating quest for the perfect drink” and the very advancement of civilization itself.  Along the way, he uses archaeological, chemical, artistic and textual clues to support his thesis.  In a general sense there is little new  here pertaining to wine that hasn’t already been covered in numerous scholarly works such as Hugh Johnson’s excellent “Vintage: The Story of Wine”  and “In Celebration of Wine and Life: The Fascinating Story of Wine and Civilization,” by Richard B. Lamb and Ernest Mittleberger.   What McGovern brings to his book, though, is a detailed sense of history and how the development of civilization and the quest for the perfect drink, not just wine, went hand in hand through the centuries.

So for wine drinkers, “Uncorking the Past” is an interesting read, supported by maps, illustrations and photographs, about the history of drink and for the curious who want to know more about related subjects like wine and poetry, wine additives in mind-altering beverages, wine and ancient culture and trade and viticulture and winemaking in the ancient world.

South-West France: The Wines and Winemakers
Paul Strang, 2009, University of California Press, $45 hardcover

If you search long and hard enough, it’s likely that you’ll turn up at least one book on every wine region in the world.  France, for example, has been covered many times from Bordeaux to Alsace, Champagne to the Rhône Valley.  But this is the first book I’ve seen on the many, mostly obscure to the American wine drinker, wines of the southwest of France.

Author Paul Strang has cobbled together an impressive number of wines and winemakers from that part of France that lies between Bordeaux and the Spanish border, along the river valleys of the Dordogne and Lot and south to the foothills of the Pyrenees.  Recognizable to most wine drinkers with a passing knowledge of French country wines are Bergerac and Monbazillac from the Dordogne Valley, along with Cahors and Madiran.  But then Strang adds to his collection such exotic-sounding wines as Coteaux et Terrasses de Montauban, from just north of Toulouse,  Irouleguy from Basque country and Entragues et le Fel, north of Rodez in the eastern hill country of Southwest France.

There’s a good detailed map at the front of the book to orient the reader, some explanation on how to use the book, plus the usual sections on wine and food pairings and a glossary.  The grape list at the back of the book is a fascinating look at familiar varieties such as Malbec, Colombard, Gamay and Syrah, but then there are unfamiliar grapes (at least outside Southwest France) like Len de L’El and Ondenc known in Gaillac and Egiodola from the Coteaux de Chalosse.  A look at this list brought home to me how locked into the dozen or so “international” varieties that we forget there is wine made in many parts of the world from grapes that never made the big time.

The heart of the book is nine regional sections such as The Wines of Gaillac, featuring individual wines with thorough explanations of Area of AOC, Grape Varieties, Minimum Alcohol Content, Maximum Yield, Minimum Planting Density and Pruning, at the beginning of the section.  Color photographs of winemakers, growers and vineyards, by Jason Shenai help to break up blocks of grey print.  An added bonus for those using the book as a touring guide is full contact information for each producer, including, address, telephone, email and web site.

“South-West France: The Wines and Winemakers” is both a useful reference and a guidebook, although the weight of this hardcover volume makes it a bit awkward for travelers.  Still, this is a well organized book that nicely displays the enthusiasm and knowledge of its author.  This is a must-have addition to the library of all serious students of French wines.