Pacific Northwest | December 21, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 21, home
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For Lovers & Learners
Good wine books to pour over
For even the most dedicated wine enthusiast, there are really just a handful of necessities. Wine, for starters, and a good corkscrew to get things going. At least one set of quality wine glasses, so you can actually taste what's in the bottle. And books.

Like gardening books and cookbooks, you can never have too many wine books. The topic seems inexhaustible. Every year a mix of updated pocket guides, evergreen classics, revised best-sellers and scores of hopeful new examinations of wine regions, wine history, wine trivia and wine basics hit the shelves.

Here are the highlights from 2003, all of which will make great holiday gifts for your favorite enophile.

"Andrea Immer's 2004 Wine Buying Guide for Everyone" (Broadway Books, $12.95)

The terminally perky Immer, who has become the Martha Stewart of wine, may have the year's most useful pocket guide. Rather than cover the world, she focuses on the top 600, widely available name brands, ranking them in a series of quick-hit lists. Borrowing from the Zagat methodology, she uses a panel of consumers and industry pros to compile her lists, organized by value and varietal.

There are breezy mini-essays on how to buy wine in retail shops and restaurants, and highly distilled versions of her hardcover books on wine tasting and wine-and-food pairing.

What's great about Immer is her ability to navigate the basics of wine buying and tasting without a hint of snobbery. A perfect stocking-stuffer for the person who needs to know just enough to avoid getting into wine trouble, but doesn't want to dig into wine minutia.

"Making Sense of Wine" by Matt Kramer (Running Press, $19.95)

There are many erudite and exhaustively researched wine books that deliver the nuts and bolts of wine-growing and wine-making around the globe. But if you want a book that distills wine to its essence, that ponders the history, mystery and romance of wine, extracting nuggets of useful wisdom and wrapping them in pointed opinion, there is really only one best choice, and it is "Making Sense of Wine."

When I first read it in 1989, I knew immediately that here was the wine book I would most like to have written. Revisiting Kramer's lucid, thought-provoking essays in this revised and updated second edition, I find that the work has more than stood the test of time.

"Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy" by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch (Clarkson Potter, $35)

No major wine country in the world has more great wines, more different types of wine, and fewer up-to-date resources for finding those wines than Italy. This well-researched book is a welcome addition to the reference shelf.

The authors, who import and sell Italian wines in the Northeast, divide the book into thirds. The first section covers the basics of Italian wine history, wine laws and wine labeling. The second section is a tour of the country's 21 wine regions, nicely illustrated with anecdotes, maps, fast facts and plenty of recommended wines. The third section is reference material, including a glossary of terms, a guide to the more than 300 appellations and a producer directory.

The prose is lively and helpful. This is a book that any lover of Italian wines will return to again and again.

"The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine" by Andrew Jefford (Mitchell Beazley, $45)

Matt Kramer writes that the 1990s were the most transforming 10 years in the history of fine wine. Jefford sets out to document the truth of that statement, at least as far as it applies to France, which is and always has been the greatest producer of fine wines in the world.

He begins by praising the French enthusiasm for wine, which he discovered while still a young visitor was "the Frenchman's tea. It seemed to make everyone happy, and turned no one into a hooligan or a roaring thug, which was what I had seen beer do in Britain."

Jefford's personal voyage of wine discovery began some 30 years ago; he has traveled throughout France to compile his observations for this large-format book, which includes pointed criticism as well as detailed, well-crafted critiques and essays on mysteries such as the true meaning of terroir (which he calls "the print of place"), and the convoluted French appellation system.

Like Kramer, Jefford is a staunch critic of mass-produced wines that are products of marketing departments rather than unique expressions of a particular time and place. But he is more upbeat, perhaps because his primary turf is France rather than the New World.

"Bordeaux: A Consumer's Guide to the World's Finest Wines" by Robert Parker (Simon & Schuster, $60)

Finally, there is the inescapable Robert Parker. This new, fourth edition of his most important work — his methodical evaluation of the wines, vintages and producers of Bordeaux — covers vintages from 1961 to 2001, with limited remarks on a few classic "ancient vintages." Virtually any Bordeaux wine likely to be found in any cellar or on any wine list is examined, sometimes with merciless acuity.

I have always found the book's print-heavy, tome-like layout to be daunting, and Parker is no magician with prose. But the completeness of his work, and the undeniable pleasure of looking up his notes on virtually any bottle one happens to be drinking, keep it an engaging read.

In addition to the wine reviews (augmented with label illustrations for the first time), he writes about changes that, in the past two decades, have convinced him that "Bordeaux quality has never been better."

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines" and a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at

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