Wine Books: the ideal gift for your favorite intellectual alkie

By Jesse on December 2, 2008

The long holiday weekend is behind us, and I sure hope everybody enjoyed their Vendredi Noir! No, I’m not referring to the little-known varietal from eastern Quebec; I speak, of course, of “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans all across America rush to their local big-box retailers and complete their holiday shopping in an orderly and civilized fashion. But just in case you’re one of those stragglers who inexplicably didn’t manage to finish your present-buying before the onset of the advent, the Young Winos have the perfect gift idea for you: books!

In his 2004 article “Through a Glass Darkly,” The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik spoke of the annoyingly esoteric nature of traditional wine literature. “The space between what the wine writers say and what the wine novice tastes is a standard subject of satire,” he wrote, expressing the same frustration channeled by LA Wino Noah Verleun when he famously declared that “burning tires” and “junkyard” are probably “not something you’d read in Wine Spectator” (despite being exactly the type of smells and tastes that Young Winos run into as they begin to learn about wine). The wine writing in the three books below, however, skips the “cassis and earthy undertones” in favor of openness, wit, and practicality. Here are the Winos’ picks for your holiday wine book purchasing needs.

Red, White, and Drunk All Over by Natalie MacLean (reviewed by Jesse Porter). Making the jump from “curious wine drinker” to “reader of wine books” can be a scary transition. It’s one thing to put back a bottle or two with some friends on a Friday night; it’s another thing entirely to spend one’s leisure time reading about tannins and terroir. We all want to edify ourselves, sure, but isn’t wine supposed to be fun? (After all, the whole idea behind the concept of edutoxication is that wine is a subject best studied firsthand.)

red-white-and-drunk-all-overFortunately, MacLean’s friendly tome is the kind of reading that will inspire both beginners and experts to only drink more enthusiastically. In her globetrotting account of wine culture at home and abroad, MacLean explores important issues in the wine world through an engaging personal narrative: she tastes refined Burgundy in refined Burgundy, then picks grapes under the scorching Monterey sun; she plans an at-home tasting with her wine-noob friends, then goes “undercover” as a sommelier at a chic Montreal eatery. Her tone is sly and playful, yet constantly informative — and, in a nod to the novice status of many of her readers, she approaches wine issues both simple and complex with that same blend of eagerness and trepidation that so many young people feel when they decide to try and learn a thing or two about what they’re drinking.

Most impressive is the sneaky way that MacLean manages to interject crucial nuggets of wine knowledge into the prose. A retelling of preparations for a dinner party leads into a primer on decanting… a story of a pushy wine-shop cheapskate segues into a discourse on the world’s best value regions… a recounting of her night spent as a sommelier includes an exposé of the murky world of restaurant markups. So effective is she in this technique that what might otherwise be tiresome lessons are ingested entirely unnoticed (sort of like when you wrap your dog’s heartworm pill in a tasty glob of liverwurst).

In “Through a Glass Darkly” (which MacLean herself quotes once or twice in her book), Gopnik opined that “nowhere in wine writing would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk.” To her credit, though, MacLean makes frequent and impassioned nods to wine’s primary purpose. Her stories are peppered with highly relatable accounts of having two or three glasses too many, and her prose embraces a similar Bacchanalian sensibility (she’s the first wine writer I’ve ever seen open a discussion on “vertical” and “horizontal” tastings by clarifying that “this doesn’t actually refer to which position you assume as the night wears on”). As she discloses in the book’s introduction: “much as I’m drawn to its nuances, I wouldn’t be writing about wine if it weren’t for the buzz.” Nor would the Winos be reading about it. $14.95.

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First Big Crush: the down and dirty on making great wine down under by Eric Arnold (reviewed by Andrew Lang). Apparently there is a long history in wine literature of stuffy, humorless pretentiousness wrapped in self-indulgence and suckitude. I wouldn’t know, as this is the only wine-related book I’ve ever read. However, considering the amount of praise he is receiving for being a “bull in a china shop,” “hallucinatory,” and “raunchy, rollicking,” it appears that Mr. Arnold — now an editor at Wine Spectator — very consciously does his best to run in the opposite direction.

From the onset of the story about his journey to New Zealand to work as a neophyte vineyard-hand, he seems insistent to impart upon his readership that he is, in fact, “not your ordinary wine guy.” He is intent on discussing that one time where he got drunk and that one thing happened, or that one girl that he nailed and how awesome it was, as if to make sure that everyone hears loud and clear the message that “this is not a regular wine book, see? Get it?” His unapologetic foray into the nascent “fratire” genre, in which his pursuit of all things prurient and female is championed to such a degree as to make Tucker Max look like Gloria Steinem, might be something of a turn-off for some readers.

However, for the typical person interested enough in a book about winemaking to pick this up (read: old), such bawdy prose may well be delightfully shocking and spiritedly naughty. In my vain attempts to find a demonstrative quote, I discovered something to elucidate my point much more succinctly: page thirteen alone features references to tucking your package between your legs to look like a woman, a pencil-in-the-ass of a figurine, a sexual favor from a 19-year-old, a used condom, lesbian sex, and the size of a gentleman’s “browneye” after having gone to prison. I can’t blame the guy for trying, but I will blame him for failing.

bigThe good news is, when he’s not cramming forced humor down our throats, Eric is a genuinely articulate writer about the process of making wine. Ever want to know the difference between pumping over and plunging? Want to learn how they get all that juice from tank to tank? How about various vine pruning techniques? With his detailed and surprisingly engaging descriptions and diagrams, this is a great book to learn all about the nuts and bolts of turning a vine into fermented and bottled alcoholic grape juice. Since Mr. Arnold spent a full year getting his hands dirty in all areas of wine viticulture and production, and knew little coming in, he makes the entire enterprise very accessible to both casual wine drinkers and serious winos alike.

The populace of Marlborough, New Zealand is wonderfully colorful: from grumpy winemakers stressing over the weather, to rugby-playing womanizers, the reader becomes immersed in the details that set Kiwis apart. Eric participates in wine rating event, hosts a pairing of meat pies with various homegrown wines, and even goes undercover as a day-laborer vineyard worker to experience that shady, backbreaking world.

While difficult to come to terms with the humor, there is much to gain beneath the crusty surface of First Big Crush. Equal parts entertaining and educational, Mr. Arnold’s participatory journalism is up to the task of demonstrating how difficult, crazy, and even fun winemaking down under can be. $24.00.

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A Year of Wine by Tyler Colman (reviewed by Jesse Porter). If Red, White, and Drunk All Over is the wine primer you read on the plane, then Dr. Vino’s stately hardcover is the one you display on your coffee table and read with a big glass of Zinfandel. If it’s winter, that is. Because if it’s summer, you’d read it on the porch with a Prosecco, and if it’s fall, you’d pop a Mourvedre. So prescribes the good doctor, whose eponymous blog has been hailed as one of the best in the grogosphere for its daily dispatches of lucid and engaging commentary on all things wine-related.

In A Year In Wine, Colman covers much of the same “basics” territory as MacLean (and other writers of gateway wine texts), but the structure of his book is a unique one: emphasizing that wine should always be appreciated in a contextual sense, he breaks down the year and recommends wines for seasons, months, and holidays (Grüner Veltliner in the spring, Prosecco for Mother’s Day brunch, a Loire red as an alternative to whites and rosés in the summer months, etc.).

yearofwineOther contextual pairings are less seasonally-based, but equally insightful: a section called “Pairing wine with chocolate, if you must” suggests trying a bottle of Banyuls (wtf?), and wine’s casual applications are celebrated in a passage entitled “Riesling: the choice for takeout and TV.” (Despite occasional cutesiness, Colman’s writing is never thoughtless or glib; if he says that Riesling is the wine to drink with spring rolls, you can be sure he’ll back that up with several paragraphs of history, cultural references, and at least one story about his grandmother.) In fact, although the month-by-month structure is an inspired one, Colman is at his best when he doesn’t feel the need to funnel his Balthazar’s worth of wine knowledge into those narrow constraints — an examination of winemaking across the fifty states, for example, is rather spuriously jammed into November by way of a paragraph about national elections, when it would’ve worked just fine on its own as a free-floating tangent.

Fortunately, the accessible book features a number of such well-researched tangents, and they help to make the read as informative as it is enjoyable. A section on the “sorry history of wines in the White House” includes a dinner menu from Queen Elizabeth’s latest visit (a few surprises there), and a portion devoted to organic wine helps to answer a lot of questions about that nebulous subject. Although embodying some of the same “personal narrative” touches as the other two, this book works the most effortlessly of the three as a reference guide; with its ten-page index, appendices, and various useful blurbs scattered throughout (like “how to chill a wine bottle in five minutes”), A Year In Wine is not only a book that will inspire you to drink more, but one you’ll want to have on hand when you’re doing so.

No one’s going to turn to Tyler Colman for well-mannered baseball commentary; the fact that a review from Bobby Abreu appears on the dust-jacket isn’t the worst thing ever, but when he refers in the section about ballgame wine to my back-to-back NL Central Champion Cubs “melting down in their patented June swoon,” I’m left wishing he’d put down the pinstriped stemware and stick to straight wine writing. Thankfully, for the rest of the book, he does — and he does it well. $24.00.

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.

2 Comments »

  1. For all of you out there who are into Pinot, “The Heartbreak Grape” by Marq De Villiers chronicles Josh Jensen’s quest to find the ultimate California location for growing Pinot to rival the best of Burgundy.

    Comment by Mitch — December 4, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  2. Good review!

    Comment by Dylan Conroy — December 6, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

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