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WINE: Vintage reading

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One question often asked of people who write about wine or who otherwise pretend to know a thing or two about the subject is, “What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted?” Another question asked is, “How can I learn more about wine?”-but that one doesn’t get asked quite as often. Folks want easy answers. Unfortunately, the first question is virtually unanswerable-at least as far as I’m concerned. I could no more name a single wine as the best I’ve ever experienced than I could name a single book or painting or glorious sunset-and I suspect most other wine lovers feel the same way. There are simply too many kinds of wine in the world and too many ways in which wine can be good. Besides, the most extraordinary wine-drinking experiences sometimes depend on things other than the wine itself (the surroundings, the company, your raging thirst). Anyway, if you really love wine it’s hard to pick favorites. The best wine I’ve ever tasted is usually the last one I’ve had before the question is asked-or, better yet, the next one I’m going to have. That second question, on the other hand, has an easy answer: If you want to learn more about wine, drink a lot of it (remembering as much as you can about what you’ve had) and read plenty of good books on the subject. In my columns, I usually deal with the first of these matters by recommending wines to drink (and sometimes suggesting what is most worth remembering about them). This time, though, I’d like to address the second matter: good wine books. Obviously not all wine books are good. Some of them are shameless PR; some are hopelessly outdated and/or are carelessly inaccurate; some are cloyingly flamboyant piffle (albeit sometimes rather charming cloyingly flamboyant piffle). But since the great American wine boom of the Seventies, many wine books of high quality have become available.

Such books can be divided roughly into two categories: books for reading and books for reference. You can, of course, read reference books or refer to the other kind -but, in general, some volumes are the sort that are genuinely pleasant to sit down and read from start to finish, while others are more appropriate for research, for identification of wines and for looking up a vintage or a vineyard name.

The best-reading wine book, for my money, is Wine, 2nd edition, by Hugh Johnson (Simon and Schuster, $15.95). Johnson is an extremely knowledgeable young Englishman who writes lucidly and accurately, in a style that is neither obscure nor condescending and that manages to be almost offhandedly witty while never being cute. The book begins with good basic explanations of wine history and winemaking techniques, then has sections, region by region, about aperitifs, white table wines, red table wines and after-dinner wines. It doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about wine, but it will give you a solid foundation on which to build. If there is a better introduction to wine, or a better book for filling in gaps in your knowledge of the subject, I haven’t yet encountered it.

Two other good reading books, each limited to a comparatively small part of the wine scene, are Vino by Burton Anderson (Little, Brown and Co., $19.95) and The Signet Book of American Wine, 3rd edition, by Peter Quimme (Signet, $2.50 paperback). The former, subtitled “The Wines & Winemakers of Italy,” is arguably the best book on the subject in English today. As I’ve noted before, Italy doesn’t have a wine country, it is a wine country. Wine is produced, sometimes in great variety, in all 20 of its administrative regions -often using grape varieties, label terminology and winemaking methods that are sheer mystery to non-Italians. The book’s topic is thus an immense-and immensely complicated – one. Anderson, an American who lives in Tuscany, makes sense of it all in an affectionate and highly personal way. He includes historical notes, an explanation of Italy’s quality control system for wines, vintage charts, even impressions of local restaurants and regional dishes that go well with wine. But it is his portraits of the people who make Italian wine -from small producers using the methods of bygone centuries to the most sophisticated of enological technicians-that give the book its life and help the reader keep this complex corner of the wine world straight.

The Signet paperback on American wine lacks Anderson’s personal warmth and style, but is nonetheless an enjoyable and remarkably complete account of grape growing and winemaking, past and present, throughout the country (though it concentrates, reasonably enough, on California). “Peter Quimme” is actually a nom de plume for the husband-and-wife team of John Frederick Walker and Elin McCoy, who are wine and spirits editors of Food & Wine, and are among the best-informed and hardest-working wine writers in the country. Their prose is crisp, full of detail (but not cluttered) and very well-organized. They include history, notes of grape varieties, hints for reading labels, tasting and cellaring wines, and even a guide to good buys in American wine (already inevitably outdated, but still basically sound). California is handled in admirable depth, but what makes the book especially useful are its chapters on the wines of New York State, the Pacific Northwest and other American winegrowing regions (though Texas is mentioned only in passing).

Finally, among wine books to read, I must reluctantly list Dionysus, collected and edited with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman. I say reluctantly because this wondrous volume was published in 1962 and has long been out-of-print. If you really love wine or if you have a friend who does, I’d say it would be worth going to a good deal of trouble to track this book down by employing a book-finding service or a used-book dealer. There have been other ostensibly similar collections (i.e., The Fireside Book of Wine, edited by New York magazine’s Alex Bespaloff), but none as well-chosen and deftly annotated as this one. The book consists of a collection of 24 short stories or fragments of longer works (one of them is actually a novella and one is a narrative poem) about wine and its enjoyment. Authors represented are a heady lot: Dorothy Sayers, A.A. Milne, Kingsley Amis, Robert Graves, Alfred Noyes, Alphonse Daudet, Roald Dahl, Edgar Allen Poe (“The Cask of Amontillado,” of course), Peter De Vries, Lawrence Durrell, Art Buchwald, Christopher Morley, Hilaire Belloc, George Meredith, et al. Some of the entries are heart-rending, such as J.M. Scott’s beautiful “The Man Who Made Wine.” Some are highly ironic, as is G.B. Stern’s “The 1865” and Roald Dahl’s famous sendup of blind tasting, “Taste.” Still others are downright funny, such as Lawrence Durrell’s tale of heroic wine-bibbing in the diplomatic corps, “Stiff Upper Lip.” Although factual information about wine is almost nonexistent here, this book can, in some ways, tell you more about the subject than even Hugh Johnson’s Wine can. These stories reach into the soul, the blood of wine.

Here are some notes on half a dozen very good, and very useful, wine reference books (all of them currently available) arranged alphabetically by author:

The Great Vintage Wine Book by Michael Broadbent (Knopf, $25). Broad-bent conducts wine sales for the noted English auction house of Christie’s and is the author of a classic work called Wine Tasting. The present volume includes a sort of shortened version of that book, but is primarily composed of Broadbent’s own notes on wines, arranged according to region and vintage year. He has tasted an incredible array of wines, from a 1653 Rheingau R垻desheimer (which was, amazingly, still drinkable) and a 1799 Chateau Lafite (“still a meaty little wine, faded but fascinating”) to an 1872 Sunbury Hermitage from Australia. Broadbent’s accounts of such wines make fascinating reading, but the book has a utilitarian purpose, too: Included are specific notes, with ratings, for literally thousands of (at least slightly) more-accessible wines -Bordeaux, Burgundies, Champagnes, Ports, Rhines and Moselles, etc., up until (in most cases) the 1977 vintage-with notes on vintages through 1979. The author’s assessments are brief, colorful and evocative and should be of inestimable use to a wine collector who is about to buy a certain wine or to a wine lover who is about to enjoy one.

Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits by Harold J. Grossman, revised by Harriet Lembeck, 6th revised edition (Scribners, $19.95). This classic massive volume is a no-nonsense textbook-like affair, offering plain facts about the alcoholic beverages of the world (where they come from, how they’re made, how to use them), as well as all kinds of specialized information on mixing drinks, making up restaurant wine lists, bar operating and beverage purchasing, storing and cellaring, merchandising, etc. There are also 21 appendices, from vintage charts to customs and tax information to the aphorisms of Brillat-Savarin (few of which, incidentally, have anything to do with alcohol). This book would be of great use to the restaurateur or wine shop owner, but is so jampacked with information that it is also an essential part of any home wine library.

The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson (Simon & Schuster, $32.50). Hugh Johnson strikes again, this time with a beautiful book composed largely of maps of the world’s major winegrowing areas. Each of these is accompanied by a brief explanatory text and by reproductions of wine labels from the area in question. There are also handsomely illustrated sections on all manner of wine history and wine lore -and, the book’s title notwithstanding, such noble spirits as cognac, armagnac, calvados, rum, scotch, bourbon and kirsch and its relatives are given maps and chapters of their own. And if a book of wine maps sounds a bit esoteric to you, I can assure you that seeing charts of the physical relationship between vineyards, chateaux and delineated subregions, and seeing what their physical characteristics look like can give you a whole new level of understanding of the wines (and spirits) these places produce.

Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, 3rd edition, by Alexis Lichine in collaboration with William Fifield (Knopf, $29.95). This is a large-format 718-page reference work by a well-known winery owner and wine merchant, filled with straightforward definitions of and comments on wine and grape names, spirits, winemaking and wine-tasting terminology, wine history, etc. There are also sections on wine and food combinations, wine and health, winemaking techniques and a number of useful appendices. There are some little, nettlesome inaccuracies here and there-Duriff is defined as a “Californian grape,” when in fact it is French in origin; it is said that Lirac produces only roses and white wines, while its reds are becoming increasingly popular; Lichine reports the now-discredited story of how Agoston Haraszthy brought the zinfandel grape to California -but the book is, generally, a most impressive one, offering much more of the sort of detail the nonprofessional wine-lover might want than Grossman’s does.

The Wines of Bordeaux by Edmund Penning-Rowsell, 2nd edition (Penguin/ Scribner’s, $27.50 hard cover, $14.95 paperback). This is a chateau-by-chateau history and description of what is perhaps the world’s greatest winegrowing region, written by the respected wine correspondent for London’s Financial Times and former chairman of the International Wine & Food Society. There are many facts and figures here, and it’s definitely the kind of book you’d probably dip into only occasionally (unless you drink nothing but Bordeaux, you lucky dog) – but it’s the best thing on the subject that’s available in English, and there probably isn’t a similarly complete work even in French.

Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, 5th edition, by Frank Schoonmaker (Hastings House, $14.95). The late influential Mr. Schoonmaker (he virtually invented California varietal labeling) wrote the original English-language wine encyclopedia, which first appeared as a rather slim “dictionary” in 1951. Unlike Lichine’s far larger work (this one runs a mere 454 standard-sized pages), Schoonmaker’s book deals strictly with wine, and it doesn’t waste much time on historical background or technical terminology. It’s an accessible, reasonably complete volume, written so that not even the rawest recruit to wine drinking would be intimidated by its terse, clear prose. There are even silly-looking but useful pronunciation guides: (CLERIC-MILON-MON-DON – Clair-Melawn-Mawn dawn).

Finally, two “little” books on wine: Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine by, of course, Hugh Johnson (Simon & Schuster, $4.95) and The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines by Charles Olken, Earl Singer and Norman Roby (Knopf, $4.95). Both books are bound in plastic and are obviously meant to be slipped unobtrusively into purse or pocket before you go off to confront a restaurant wine list or a wine shop’s shelves.

Johnson’s book, which measures about 4 inches by 8 inches and is about a quarter of an inch thick, does fit inside a man’s inner jacket pocket with barely a bulge; its presence can be most reassuring. An amazing amount of information is packed into its 144 thin pages. There are country-by-country alphabetical listings of wine, grape, vineyard and even brand names – complete with quality ratings and recommended recent vintages; there are stylized maps of winegrowing regions, appraisals of vintages and hints on matching wine and food. There are even illustrations of bottle shapes and notes on how to read wine labels. All of this is stripped down to the basics, easy to find and, as usual with Johnson, scrupulously accurate.

The California volume is slightlyshorter and about twice as fat, but coversits material in a similar style and would beextremely nice to have handy if you weregoing after American wines exclusively(California is the main focus of the bookbut other domestic winegrowing areas areincluded). Olken and Singer are the editors of a newsletter called Connoisseurs’Guide to California Wine, and Roby is associate editor of Vintage. All three arewell-respected in the San Francisco Bayarea and have extensive familiarity withthe California wine industry -and itshows. There are alphabetically arrangedsections on wine grapes, grape and winevarieties, California vintages (from 1968to 1979), wine geography, wine and wineries in California, (with the best wines ofeach establishment identified and rated),wine and wineries outside the state andwine terminology. There is also a sectionon touring the California wine country.It’s all clear and straightforward, and,though I don’t always agree with the authors’ opinions on specific wines or wineries, at least those opinions are honest andmore than defensible.

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