To learn about wine, nothing beats buying and opening lots of different bottles. Tasting lots of wine… and the attendant hangovers… are the best teachers of what you like… and what likes you.
There’s another way to learn about wine: through books. Over the years, I have read many about wine and am often asked for my favorites. Some are variety-specific, some are geography-centric, some are anthologies, some are encyclopedic, some are light, some are heavy, some are well written, many are not.
Probably my favorite “best written” wine book was penned by wine retailer Kermit Lynch, (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley) in 1988.
Adventures on the Wine Route tells of Kermit’s discovery of the very winemakers whose wines he imports today. His stories, profiles and myth debunking are superb. Kermit was one of the first retailers to rail against the numeric rating system of critics. What he said in 1988 sounds as though it were printed in a wine magazine today:
“This all reminds me of an acquaintance who always seemed to have a new girlfriend. His girlfriends all had two things in common: huge breasts. His choices might be pretty or not, intelligent or not, interesting or not. Nothing seemed to matter to him as long as the breasts were enormous. It was such an impractical way to assess the quality of a woman that it began to seem almost perverse. And I have an identical reaction to those who go gaga over an inky, oaky monster wine…. I cannot begin to communicate how profoundly the critics’ embrace of such freak wines depresses me.”
“Why ask that a wine be jarring to the senses, a criterion that we do not apply to other arts like music or painting in which delicacy is valued, where shading, nuance, even silence or empty space can be considered remarkable. But keep an eye on the wine critics’ ratings. If a wine is black, packs an alcoholic, tannic wallop, and smells like a lumberyard, it receives high points.”
Amen, Kermit. You set the stage for others to follow. Your book is filled with revelations like this and like many of the wines you sell, your tome ages beautifully… and is still showing quite young!
One of the encyclopedic books that I have often gone back to, time and again, is out-of-print but available used from third-party sellers on Amazon – The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine, last updated in 1988, the same year Kermit published his book.
Read the buyer’s comments about this out-of-print book on Amazon and you will see that wine lovers are still reading it, using it, learning from it. Sure, we have new terms, and new processes that did not exist in Schoonmaker’s day – spinning cones that modify alcohol… and cold stabilization – but the book has the goods on all the classic stuff you need to know about wine.
For sheer detail, authority of subject matter and infinite tasting notes, one of my most prized books is Wines of the Rhone Valley, written by Robert Parker Jr., who is billed in Business Week as “the world’s most influential wine critic.” Which he most certainly is.
My copy is very special to me; it was given to me by Parker himself after we met at Mustards Grill, discussing the pros and cons and age-ability of (then) contemporary vintages of Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines. A few weeks after our talk, Parker sent the book, inscribed, “To Jim White, a guy who really knows how to Rock and Rhone!” It was signed and then he added a PS: “Mustards Grill Rules!”
I have thumbed through my copy for years, always finding something new among the 685 pages. Today, Parker’s notes are available – and updated – on his website, erobertparker.com, but this column is about My Favorite Wine Books, and this one rates near the top for me as I am so passionate about the wines of the Rhone Valley.
Times change and so do people’s tastes. Zoom ahead 19 years from Kermit’s and Schoonmaker’s day to today – and we see a growing backlash to over-oaked wines; we see consumers experimenting with cheeses and wines they would never before have considered serving together; we see wineries that made their reputation fermenting in stainless steel reverse their M.O. by 180 degrees and pledge their (new) undying love for wood-fermented wines. What goes around comes around. What was trendy became untrendy… has become trendy once more.
Commentary about the contemporary taste of wine has been distilled through the palate of a bright, young San Francisco sommelier named Courtney Cochran in her just-published book, Hip Tastes, The Fresh Guide to Wine.
Courtney holds Hip Tasting sessions in San Francisco to introduce 20-somethings (actually, let’s hope they’re legal 21-somethings!) to the world of wine. Which is what her book also attempts to do. The book is a bit like Chic Lit; it is airy, fun to read and not overly pedantic, which for a subject as sensual as wine is probably the right path to follow.
The narrow paperback will fit into your back pocket, or cargo pants pocket, like a mickey of Jagermeister, and probably will keep you out of a lot more trouble. Courtney shares her passions, gives lightweight lessons in how to taste wine, buy wine, store the stuff and, what I like best, is a guide on how to pronounce the stuff.
For some reason, many Americans are linguistically challenged and it’s rare to find anyone who can say “pinot noir,” as a Frenchman might say it, rhyming “noir” with “armoire,” and rolling that last ‘r.’ Instead, Yanks come up with something that sounds like “pee-no-nwah.”
I like the fact that Courtney advises readers to pronounce “Gigondas” (wonderful wines from a village of the same name in the southern Rhone) as “jhee-gohn-doss,” which is how the locals there say it. Somewhere, in cold northern American climes, someone once started pronouncing it “jig-an-dah,” dropping the final ‘s,’ which no respecting Frenchman would do.
If you want to find out more about Courtney’s book, go to Amazon. If you want to find out more about her Hip Tastes sessions in “the City,” (as locals in Napa Valley refer to San Francisco), then drop her a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Summary of Books
Adventures on the Wine Route, Kermit Lynch, published in paperback by North Point Press. $11.56 on Amazon.
The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine (Hardcover)
by Alex Bespaloff, from third-party sellers on Amazon, from $12.82
Wines of the Rhone Valley, by Robert Parker Jr., expanded and revised in 1997 from an earlier edition, published by Simon & Schuster in hardback, $18.75 from third-party sellers on Amazon.
Hip Tastes: The Fresh Guide to Wine, by Courtney Cochran, in paperback from Viking Studio, $12.89 on Amazon.