December 2000

A holiday toast to wine books

By Oz Clarke
By Oz Clarke
By Joseph DeLissio
By Jancis Robinson
By Kevin Zraly
Review by
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One of the nicest gifts you can give is wine and the version of wine that keeps on giving is a good wine book. Here are some of the best of recent publications, books long on information and short on showy obfuscation.

Oz Clarke's Introducing Wine: A Complete Guide for the Modern Wine Drinker, by one of the best wine journalists around, is, as it says, Just what you need to know. Clear, non-patronizing and practical, it covers how-to's, where-froms, buying, storing and affording, and is first-rate in summarizing styles. Clarke is frank, funny, balanced and just clever enough. The book comes with a wine wheel (reds on one side, whites on the other) that shows how Zinfandels and Shirazes meet at the black fruits and herbs/spices range, while California Pinot Noirs are lighter than Grand Cru Burgundy but outweigh Oregon Pinots.

Clarke also has a 2001 edition of his Pocket Wine Guide, which covers some 1,600 labels in snapshot form. More serious in tone, and organized with more emphasis on questions of taste, terroir and style (i.e., ordering from a restaurant wine list) is The River Cafe Wine Primer by Joseph DeLissio. However, despite some fairly basic information on educating the palate by tasting at home and so on, it would be better suited to someone interested in actually learning wines for long-term pleasure than Clarke's buy-it-tonight, drink-it-tonight tips.

The Guide to Choosing, Serving & Enjoying Wine is as visual as a Web site, colorful, novelty-sized and in a few places just too, too perky ( Are you uncertain about the difference between a wine grower and a winemaker, a vintner and a viticulturist, or about what a wine producer is? ). Once you get past that and the cartoon characters, it's a solid little primer, covering etiquette, business dinners, decanters, glasses, useful tools (stocking stuffer ideas?) and storage. It would be a very attractive first wine book. Appropriately, while winemaking patriarch Robert Mondavi wrote a foreword to DeLissio's book, son and modern-era mover Michael Mondavi writes one here.

Finally, for the new obsessive, or the sort who gets sidetracked and enjoys it, there's the ultimate resource, The Oxford Companion to Wine. It's really a desk encyclopedia, covering not only chemical attributes and specific varietals and producers but gold rushes (which inspired alcohol-making booms), the lyre (not the musical instrument, but a vine-training apparatus resembling one) and gobelet (also a vine frame, this one goblet-shaped), Baga (the most popular grape in the Bairrada region of Portugal), Rutherglen (Australia's answer to Oporto) and even Soviet sparkling wine (don't even go there).

The 2001 Edition of Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: A Lively Guide is a broad, approachable and, yes, lively handbook, with the basics outlined first and helpful notes in the margins along the lines of, If you can see through a red wine, generally it's ready to drink! There are also tips on pairing food and wine and FAQ assembled from his real-life classes: what to do with leftover wine (like me, Zraly belongs to the clean-bottle club), what sort of corkscrew to use (he sweetly admits to breaking a dozen corks a year), and what he thinks of ratings (not much another virtue). The biggest drawback to this book is that it's Franco-heavy. Australian wines and wineries get only three pages the entire Wines of the World: Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile & Argentina chapter (note the omission of New Zealand) is only 27 pages long, and that counts the maps. New York State gets about a page and a half; the Pacific Northwest only one (no British Columbia, either). Still, you might argue that it's the French who make wine so mysterious, so maybe it takes more time to explain.

Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.


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