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Wine Books for the Holidays
By Gerald D. Boyd
Nov 4, 2008
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About this time last year (has it been a year already?) I wrote a handful of capsule wine book reviews as holiday gifts for wine lovers.  Paper and print books still hold some interest, but this is the electronic age and the era of electronic "books."  As clever as these new gadgets may be, flipping a page electronically somehow doesn't have the same tactile and sensory satisfaction.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of book publishers that release a selection of wine books every year, many of them worthy additions to any wine lover's library.  Last year, a number of the new wine books were written by people who are not wine writers.  This year's crop is not much different with one notable exception.  English wine writer Clive Coates, MW (Master of Wine), is out with The Wines of Burgundy, a heavy new sequel to his acclaimed Cote d'Or: A Celebration of the Great Wines of Burgundy

Followers of French wines, especially Bordeaux and Burgundy, know of Coates' impressive depth of knowledge and his unerring taste for the wines.  He is prodigious in the numbers of Burgundy wines he tastes and rates, and that is evident in this new updated edition to his classic reference on Burgundy.  In the introductory section, Coates does a creditable job of unraveling the complexities of Burgundy and its wines by concisely spelling out 'How Burgundy Works,' 'How Top Burgundy is Made,' and a treatise on benefits and detriments of the wine media concerning Burgundy wines.  Make no mistake: Cotes is a purist, and while he admits to being a wine writer, his opinions about his colleagues can be caustic: 'Wine critics are often misinformed or just plain pig-ignorant.'  No comment.

The 35-page introduction is one of the best pieces I've read on what Burgundy is all about and how to buy and enjoy it.  But the meat of the book is in Coates' thorough coverage of 'The Villages, The Vineyards, The Domaines.'  Amiably walking the reader through Chablis, The Cote d'Or and the Cote Chalonnaise, the author discusses the wines, the leading domaines, and much more.  Whether you are a Burgundy neophyte or collector, The Wines of Burgundy by Clive Coates, MW, University of California Press, hardcover, $60, should be among your most valued references.

For a more in-depth look at what makes Burgundy and Bordeaux click, and how the different regions, people and cultures interact and impact the wines, there is Jean-Robert Pitte's Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry.  This slim volume is dense with text but in need of good maps to guide and orient the reader; unfortunately, the inclusion of four simple black and white maps add little to a better understanding of the regions.
Pitte, a professor at the University of Paris, weaves a social history of the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy with insights about their histories, origins, contrasts and rivalries.  Of the four major sections that make up his analysis, the most interesting and topical is 'The Physical Environment,' a lengthy essay on the various terroirs, the people who use and misuse these terroirs, and Pitte's somewhat obvious summation that Bordeaux wine is much more popular because there is more of it.

Serious students of Bordeaux and Burgundy will no doubt find something of interest in this book, but the average American wine drinker may think that Bordeaux-Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry, Jean-Robert Pitte, University of California Press, hardcover, $24.95 is way too academic in tone and loaded with unfamiliar French names.

Still in the realm of European wines is a new edition of George Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar-Book, by Thomas Pinney, a professor of English at Pomona College, California.  Saintsbury, one of winedom's most celebrated gourmands, was a journalist, critic, editor and professor of literature at the University of Edinburgh during the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th century.  He was also an unabashed advocate and promoter of wine and spirits and their relationship to food and joie de vivre.
The first edition of Notes on a Cellar-Book was printed in 1920, followed by eight reprints and a 1978 reissue, published by MacMillan London; it is this reissue, with its many notations and dog-eared pages that I have in my wine library.  This newly edited and annotated edition includes a dozen additional writings and musings by Saintsbury, plus Pinney's extensive end notes that go a long way to explaining many of Saintsbury's dated references and inside comments and opinions.

The world wine market has changed greatly since Saintsbury scribbled his notes, and while his humor and passion are to be treasured, Notes on a Cellar Book, George Saintsbury, edited and annotated by Thomas Pinney, University of California Press, hardcover, $29.95, is likely to be viewed by many modern wine drinkers as a curious oddity.

If you still have trouble deciphering Saintsbury's obscure references, you may find your answer in The Wine Snob's Dictionary, a new illustrated reference that bills itself as 'An Essential Lexicon of Oenological Knowledge.'  This humorous little paperback is deftly written by Vanity Fair writer David Kamp and award-winning writer and sommelier David Lynch, with illustrations by Ross McDonald.

The author's tongue-in-cheek subtitle is much starchier than their light, mischievous and occasionally snarky entries. The small book is crammed with smartly written items, some very inside, such as this mention: 'Clarke, Oz.  Bald, English, Oxford-educated, relentlessly chipper pocket-guide specialist who took up wine-writing as a second career after his West End acting career got stuck in idle.'  Or, closer to home, there's the author's take on 'Clendenen, Jim.  Falstaffian California winemaker whose Robert Plant mane, flora-print shirts and dude-ular bonhomie….'   

Other clever and fun bennies include a wine glass symbol to indicate a 'Wine Snob Vanguard item, denoting a person (e.g., Alexis Lichine), an entity (vintage 1961), or a concept (mid-palate) held in particular esteem by Wine Snobs.'  And there's the 'Wine Snob Cheat Sheet for Confusing Similarities' such as Krug (Champagne) and Charles Krug (winery). 

Kamp and Lynch deserve credit for writing a not-so-serious dictionary and for injecting some humor into wine writing.  Check out The Wine Snob's Dictionary, David Kamp and David Lynch, Broadway Books, softcover, $12.95.

In a more serious vein, New York University and University of Chicago wine instructor Tyler Colman is out with a compact and academic little reference titled Wine Politics, a title that should excite today's politically-minded wine consumers, or incite other wine consumers who are sick to death with politics of any kind.

Colman's subtitle: 'How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink' says it all.  He loads his position with illustrations, sidebars, end notes and a thorough bibliography.  Posing the question, 'What is Wine Politics?' Colman offers such possibilities as neo-prohibitionist laws that hamper wine sales and the influence of wine critics like Robert Parker whose notes and scores can send the fortunes of wineries around the world soaring or plummeting.'

The political back-story of wine that Colman painstakingly dissects makes for fascinating reading for both the wine fan and the politics junkie.  It is safe to say that Wine Politics, Tyler Colman, University of California Press, hardcover, $27.50 presents a side of wine that you've heard little about.

The recent movie hit, Sideways did wonders for the sales of Pinot Noir, especially those from California's Central Coast, while encouraging wine consumers to expand their wine horizons.  Communications research scholar William Ausmus at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo jumped on this fast-moving wagon as it sped by, releasing a new book, Wines & Wineries of California's Central Coast.

Constructed in two parts, with a scattering of maps and helpful appendices, the first part of the book lays the foundation with discussions of the land, history, terroir and the Central Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA).  Ausmus admits confusion about the official definition of the AVA ('an extraordinary amount of territory') and the fact that the AVA continues to grow with the addition of new sub-AVAs.  He then offers some solutions, including making the North Central Coast a separate appellation.  Although this is the author's 'favorite' solution, it is not a new idea on how to bring useful meaning to AVAs that, because of their size, dilute the real meaning and value of place.

The remainder of the book is a listing of winery profiles separated into three areas: The North Central Coast (Monterey County), The Mid-Central Coast (San Luis Obispo County and the South-Central Coast (Santa Barbara County).  Although there is little new in this book, consumers will find Wines & Wineries of California's Central Coast, William A. Ausmus, University of California Press, softcover, $24.95, helpful as a guide through the many wineries along California's vast Central Coast.

Absinthe was once the naughty drink of the common folk, made popular by artists of  Bohemian Paris, such as Van Gogh, Manet and Degas.  Favored as a tonic for the working class, absinthe was a liquid transport from the harshness of physical labor, low wages and poor living conditions.  Made from the herb wormwood and other ingredients such as juniper berries, absinthe was prescribed for all manner of ailments and maladies.  When mixed with water, the liquid became cloudy and took on a faint green hue, earning the drink the name 'Green Fairy.'  This contemporary look at a controversial drink is attractively presented in Absinthe: Sip of Seduction.'

The popularity of absinthe moved across the Atlantic from Europe and reached new heights in America, but mostly among advocates in New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century.  Yet the popularity of absinthe was also its downfall, as it came to be seen as the cause for public drunkenness and odd and erratic behavior, resulting in a ban of absinthe in Europe and the United States.  Eventually, new research cleared the veil of mystery from absinthe, and in 2007 the Green Fairy was once again a legal drink in this country.

This new book on absinthe is chock-full of fascinating facts about the Green Fairy, such as, 'Some claim that (Vincent) van Gogh was an addict who came to rely on absinthe for creative energy.'  The author's revised edition of this contemporary guide is divided into six chapters, with a couple of short appendices.  Perhaps the most fascinating chapter, and the shortest, is Chapter 2, 'The Sip,' where the authors explain the contents of absinthe and why it remains a controversial drink.

Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, Betina J. Wittels, MS Ed & Robert Hermesch, Speck Press, softcover, $22, is an attractive and informative book, loaded with photographs and sidebars.  It is fascinating reading, and if it had a hard cover would be even more attractive as a coffee table book.