Wine Books to Get Dad Through Summer

by Jim Clarke
June 2005

Wine Books

The World Atlas of Wine
Great Wine Terroirs
How to Taste
Story of Wine
Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure
Vino Italiano
Making Sense of Wine

As a Father’s Day gift, wine can be tricky. It can mean spending a lot of money. It can mean giving a gift that Dad will want or need to save for ten years before he can open it up and tell you how much he enjoyed it. Father’s Day comes just days before the Summer Equinox; how about some summer reading about wine to provide some more immediate satisfaction.

Wine books, however, tend to be “full-bodied” and don’t necessarily lend themselves to light summer reading. There are some great reference books, like Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine. Or more technical books, like last year’s Great Wine Terroirs, by Jacques Fanet. Many are hardcover, oversized, or both. They rarely seem designed for beach-blanket reading. Here’s a few exceptions, books that are enjoyable to read, not too technical, and might bring Dad (or yourself) some new ideas about what to drink with dinner.

For the father who’s a recent convert to wine, Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste ($25) is a great way to get comfortable with the world of wine. Robinson’s priority is familiarizing the reader with the different styles of wine; as Dad’s tastes develop, Robinson will help him get a handle on his preferences and explore other wines he might enjoy. The book is divided primarily from a varietal rather than a regional point of view, going grape-by-grape through the world’s major wine styles. While primarily about understanding the different aromas and tastes of wine, How to Taste doesn’t neglect practical matters like glassware, decanting, and storage. It’s only available in hardcover, but it’s not a weighty tome and is written in a clean, easy-to-read style.

If Dad is disappointed that the summer cabin doesn’t get the History Channel, Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine ($40) may stand him in good stead. Divided in five parts, the book covers wine’s history from mankind’s earliest alcoholic discoveries through to the recent advances in California and Australia and subsequent repercussions in the Old World. It’s a thick read, but each chapter is relatively self-contained, so Dad can dip in and read about, say, the rise of Sherry and Port, and then go for a dip in the pool without losing the narrative thread. It is available in both hardcover and paperback, and last year a new edition was released which abridges the text somewhat to make room for more prints and photos, giving the book a second life on the coffee table.

A more portable book for history buffs is Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure ($15) by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. The authors weave together stories from all the major wine regions of France. Some of their subjects fought to hold on to their own despite the Reich’s yen for French wine, using trickery, bargaining, and deception to keep the so-called “Weinfuhrers” from absconding with France’s best. Others used wine to keep their hopes alive while waiting out their time in a German POW camp. The stories range from touching to astonishing, and the book offers a revealing look at wine’s place in the French psyche.

Given the high Euro, visiting Europe in book form might be better than investing in plane tickets this year. Vino Italiano ($35), by Joesph Bastianich and David Lynch, will take Dad to Italy for a while. Each chapter visits a different region of Italy, giving a taste for the local culture before breaking down the wines and grapes. Coverage is well-balanced; traditional grapes and winemaking are well-represented, as are newer trends like Super-Friulian wines and international varietals. They conclude each chapter with some shopping suggestions to help get a sense of the area’s grapes and wines, plus some notes on regional cuisine and a recipe from either Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali. If Dad gets a spending urge, the authors have also written a follow-up Buying Guide, a reference volume which offers more extensive specifics about picking out Italian wines at the shop.

Matt Kramer is primarily known for his columns in Wine Spectator. In Making Sense of Wine ($13), he condenses his thoughts to tell the reader what’s good and what’s bad about wine today – and how it got that way. It’s not about individual producers; instead Kramer tracks the broad trends that have changed wine production, marketing, and consumption. Despite the broad subject matter, he maintains a clear focus and a light hand; Making Sense of Wine is no struggle. At 214 pages in paperback, it’s also great for the beach. The most recent, 2003, edition (it was originally published in 1989) takes into account the big changes that have swept the wine industry in the past 25 years.

Another slim, beach-friendly volume is Frank Prial’s Decantations ($15). A collection of Prial’s best columns from his long stint at the New York Times, the book profits greatly from his curiosity and journalistic nose for a good story. He talks about winemakers and regions, but also casts some light on the act of writing about wine itself, wine’s place in the restaurant industry, and the oddities and eccentricities that dot the entire industry. His down-to-earth style is refreshing; he never puts winemakers on a pedestal, and gives both first-growths and everyday wines their due. Given the format, it’s perfect for summer: read a column or two, take a nap. A couple more- time for a swim. Another few pages – time to open a bottle.