It’s that time of year again. You know, the holidays. (Or maybe it should be THE HOLIDAYS!) when every newspaper, magazine, and shopping guide purports to instruct us on the finer points of selecting THE PERFECT WINE for everyone on our list: the wine neophyte; the full-fledged wine geek; the persnickety boss whose taste runs toward cult Cabernets. Here’s a thought: if you don’t know the person well enough to understand which wines fire them up and which ones they’d drink only if you gave them a bottle as a gift (then forced them to unwrap it in front of you, took it upon yourself to open said bottle, and then poured each of you a glass) don’t do it. There’s a better way. Give them a beautiful wine book. Look at it like this: while you might not know that your friend from work loves every wine she’s ever had from the Piemonte region of Italy, you do know that she loves wine. And that’s enough to go on.
Here are my favorite wine books. Let’s start with the basics:
Classic Wine Tomes
Every person who loves wine needs a copy of these books, the tacitly agreed-upon sacred texts of wine knowledge. They comprise the unofficial wine reference library that every enthusiast wants and needs on their shelves. And, here’s the interesting thing about these books: they are updated on a regular basis. Even if a friend already has the full complement of Big Wine Books on her shelf, she will need the new editions once they’ve been released.
The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
The ultimate geographical reference to the world’s wine regions, this volume includes detailed appellation maps as well as information on soil composition, climate, and elevations. Great eye candy for map lovers with a passing interest in wine; an essential tool for serious students of wine.
The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding
The closest thing to a true encyclopedia that exists for wine. You’ll find everything you need to know, from grape varieties to appellation requirements to historical tidbits on how the global wine trade developed. It’s a beast of a book, but quite a nice little beast at that, what with its bright pink jacket.
Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours by José Vouillamoz, Jancis Robinson, and Julia Harding
What the Oxford Companion is to general wine knowledge, Wine Grapes is to the stories of the actual grapes themselves. If you’re curious about the lineage of your favorite grape variety, say Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ll learn about its parents Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as where it came to life, its characteristics, and its progeny. Not as dry as it sounds, I assure you. You’ll see how different varieties form distinctly different types of grape clusters and leaves and learn why that’s important for the fruit as it ripens. A lot of good stuff here!
An Objet d’Art /Coffee Table Book
Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte by Suzanne Hoffman
A tour-de-force of Northern Italian wine history, this gorgeous book highlights the importance of family ties in Piemonte, home of the esteemed wines Barolo and Barbaresco. What’s different about this tale is its focus on the women who hold key positions in the wineries and business operations that drive production of some of the most coveted wines in the world. It’s a lovely saga of family ties, regional history, and the challenges of globalization, told in the women’s voices and accompanied by their photos. I’d recommend this book for photographers and historians as well as wine aficionados. Or get a copy just for yourself: when you have a quiet moment, pour a glass of Barolo, plop down on the couch, kick off your shoes, and imagine you’re wandering through the hillsides of Asti. I can’t think of a better virtual trip.
For the Italophile
Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata
This is the perfect gift for the Italian wine lover on your list. On the surface it looks like a dry, alphabetically arranged encyclopedia on – yawn – Italy’s 10 billion indigenous grape varieties. But please open it, leaf through the pages for a minute, perhaps read a paragraph or two. It reads like a wine novel! D’Agata has breathed life into the wine reference genre by injecting his own passion for Italian wines into what is basically a catalog of grape varieties. There are stories about winemakers, ancient explorers, and first dates that did or did not work out. This book was my constant companion earlier this year as I studied for my Italian Wine Professional certification. While it certainly qualifies as a scholarly reference book, it makes for great entertainment, too.
For Those with a Scientific Bent
Members of the monthly #WineStudio group were lucky enough to participate in a chat with this Master of Wine, whose book explains how differently people perceive taste components like acid, bitterness, and sugar. We are genetically predisposed to like particular styles of wine based on our threshold or tolerance level for each. It’s a fascinating read that will turn everything you’ve heard about food and wine pairing upside-down. You’ll even go through an exercise to determine your Vinotype and learn what that means in terms of your preferences.
The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode
I read this book over the course of several weeks, as part of the book club sponsored by the Society of Wine Educators. It really digs into all aspects of viticulture (how grapes are grown) and viniculture (how wine is made) without getting too deep into the weeds. In other words, chemistry, botany, cloning, pH levels, and other seemingly esoteric topics are presented with the non-scientist in mind. While a few chapters were a bit of a struggle, most left me with a significantly greater understanding of the grape-growing and wine-making processes. A useful reference for the serious wine student or for science majors who have a passing interest in wine.
Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor by François Chartier
Ferran Adriá, molecular gastronomist extraordinaire of El Bullí wrote the foreword for this book, and that should prepare you for the creative ideas inside. Chartier explores food and wine pairing from a slightly different angle than Tim Hanni (see above). He focuses on the chemical make-up of foods (e.g., capsicum in bell peppers) and suggests wines that contain similar or complementary components (in this case, Cabernet Franc). He explains why certain pairings are likely to work better than others, and even offers up a few recipes. The layout of the content is fresh and modern, making you forget for a minute that this is – gulp – a science book! It’s a fun ride and provides some provocative vinous food for thought.
Satire, Sarcasm, and Sacraments
Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour by Michael P. Foley
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll already be familiar with this book, as I’ve used it as inspiration for several posts. The book is arranged according to the liturgical calendar and looks a bit like a diary, with each day’s page devoted to a particular saint. In addition to a decidedly tongue-in-cheek recap of the saint’s history and the reason for his/her martyrdom, each entry includes a suggested libation and sample toast for regaling these righteous individuals in a cocktail hour devoted to their memory. An example? Did you know that the cross on the Jägermeister label is a direct reference to the legend of Saint Hubert? It’s a slightly irreverent way to welcome the holidays and continue your celebrations into the new year.
With the ease of on-line purchasing and, for us procrastinators, the convenience of overnight shipping, there’s no reason to stress about last-minute gifts for your wine-loving friends. So go ahead and pour yourself a glass of something delicious and enjoy a few minutes of blissful silence amid the holiday rush. You’ve got this.
Happy Holidays, Everyone!