Wine is an overwhelming topic. Even a simple post like, say, The Best Books for Learning About Wine, may start out straightforward but very quickly can turn mind-bogglingly complex. Here is how it happened this week: One Christmas a friend’s awesome husband emailed and asked me what I would recommend as a gift for his wife who wanted to learn more about wine. I sat on the question for a while before I was inspired to look up their address, find wine classes near to them and a collection of books I thought she would like. It was a hit! Another Christmas and another friend’s boyfriend asked the same question. So obviously this was something useful — perhaps I should keep a list current to save me time next time the request came up. I started with books by going through my collection, making a list of which ones I used most often and which ones I thought were the best teachers, saved it and that was it. Until a few days ago when I decided to turn that little note into a Belle Année posting. I checked out which of my favorite books had been updated, sat down at my computer, collected the links and images, watched a few clips from The Daily Show, trolled through my photographs, emailed some friends, check out hotels in Istanbul, made a cup of tea, checked Facebook and then began to write a brief informative piece.
I started off with a quip about being a wine geek and how uncool wine people are as a general rule. I then segued into education….and that’s where it went wrong. Books, I reasoned, are only one of the many ways to learn about wine. I mean I should really throw in some information about classes, like which ones are best, and where and how to find them. But then, you know, classes aren’t really for everyone, and a good first step to wine knowledge is having wine at home, so I added in a bit about how to turn your evening glass of wine into a small wine tutorial, but then I thought, well that’s not really the best way to learn – it’s better to have an informal wine club so I wrote up instructions on how to host a wine tasting. Then it occurred to me that one needs to know how to buy wine and order wine if planning to drink it so maybe some thoughts on my favorite wine stores and online wine retailers and tips for finding great wine on a wine list…and what about some basic information like opening wine, tasting wine and storing wine? What about my credentials, should I include those too? And my favorite wines….and regions…and….and…and…See? SEE WHAT I MEAN? I bet the Oxford Companion to Wine started out as a short essay about wine that just snowballed.
So if you read this and think “Well, sure, these are books but what else can I do to learn about wine?” I don’t want to know about it.
This is a simple (and outstanding) list of the books I recommend to learn about wine and, if you already know your red from white, these are the ones I recommend to keep on hand to continue to improve your knowledge.
Book number one in your library. No one can begin a wine education journey without first picking up The Oxford Companion to Wine. It includes maps, descriptions of grapes, list of producers, explanations of diseases, definitions of wine making terms, well-known contributors to the trade, historical facts and current figures. It is a big fat book and you will never read the whole thing but you need it so that when a friend asks why they add so much sugar to dessert wines you can bop her over the head with it. Figuratively speaking, of course.
This is another good beginners wine guide but also a great reference book. Everything you need to know is here but not covered in overwhelming detail. It’s sort of bite sized chunks. The book isn’t super expensive and you can flip through it randomly and educate yourself in chunks or you can use it as an educational companion.
This is a new book by by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. It is expensive ($185) and heavy (1280 pages) but is a necessity for a wine geek or an aspiring wine geek. It is also newly released so expect it to be included on lots of holiday gift guides. Including mine.
Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course (new edition coming out in October)
Kevin is the best wine educator on the planet, and I have met every single one of them. Kidding, of course, but not about Kevin being the best. This book is the companion to his wildly popular Windows on the World Wine Class hosted a few times a year in New York City. It is the most fun you will ever have in an educational wine setting. He also does master classes for Sherry Lehman in NYC which are also pretty great. But back to the book: This is the one I recommend for people who are just starting out wanting to understand wine. It is informative with lots of color pictures, maps and anecdotes and is only about an inch thick so it isn’t too overwhelming.
The first thing I do when I try a new wine is try to identify exactly where it is from. This helps me remember what regions I really like, discover new ones and solidify existing prejudices. I recommend any budding student of wine do the same and in order to do so you need The World Atlas of Wine. And I’m not too proud to admit that the first time someone told me I needed “Hugh Johnson” to learn about wine I giggled.
My friend, Anne Dowling, who owns a great wine (and cheese and chocolate) shop in Breckenridge, Colorado gave me this one for Christmas one year and it was my bedtime reading for months. We both love Rajat Parr and this book is only one example of why. This is not a beginners book – rather it is a great addition to an already fairly well stocked wine book collection. Lots of tips on buying, storing and tasting wine plus interesting stories from sommeliers around the US.
Absent is the extremely popular, “Wine for Dummies” but I find the For Dummies series so painfully dull I can’t recommend it.