wine Features

Reads to Pair with Summer

Sincere about Sancerre on

By Jim Clarke
July 2008

Wine books aren’t exactly beach reads. They’re authoritative in nature, and lean toward the encyclopedic: lists of vineyards, prominent producers, vintages, and so on. Even a book about a single region can be massive, and while the best are very informative, they’re rarely what you’d call fun reading.

Fortunately for beach-going wine lovers, or anyone who wants a good wine read on a lazy summer day, a more narrative style of wine book is growing in popularity. These books may not leave you with a lot of practical tips to help you look suave when confronted by a 20-page winelist, but the best of them make for pleasurable, even indulgent reading – instead of leaving you feeling like someone signed you up for summer school.

Decidedly un-academic, Eric Arnold’s First Big Crush is a shock treatment escape from wine snobbery. Now an editor at Wine Spectator, Eric, acting on a budding appreciation for wine, went down to New Zealand to work the 2004 harvest; the book simply follows his experiences. He managed to injure both himself and some valuable winery equipment in the process, but he also gives a clear impression of the rigors of working the harvest as well as a snapshot of the contemporary New Zealand wine scene. He looks into vineyard practices, winery work, screwcaps (where the Kiwis have certainly led the way), and mocking the French (no snobbery, remember). There’s plenty of local color, and it gets quite…earthy. With lots of drunkenness, swearing and the occasional exposed sexual organ, this is the only wine book I know of that merits a Parental Advisory Warning. 

If you prefer some schadenfreude to sexual metaphors, check out The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Wine, by Benjamin Wallace. This is the tale of some bottles of 1787 Château Lafite, supposedly discovered by extravagant collector Hardy Rodenstock in Paris; they are etched with the initials “Th. J,” leading many to believe they once belonged to our third president (and first wine connoisseur?),  Thomas Jefferson. The individual bottles fetched six-digit figures when sold at an auction. But before you get jealous of the people who can afford these treasures, here are your sour grapes: they’re very likely fakes. One expert says the etching work seems to have been done with a modern dentist drill, and accessories like blank labels, old corks, etc., were found in Rodenstock’s home. One buyer, Bill Koch, has been pursuing legal charges against him.

While this is the core of the book, it also paints a picture of the world of fine wine collection at its highest levels. Big names in the wine auction world appear, like Michael Broadbent, who sold the Jefferson wines as founding director of Christie’s Wine Department. Rodenstock himself is the most intriguing figure; a Mercurian character, it’s not hard to believe that he attempted a giant fraud just to see if he could pull it off. Were there other deceptions as well? Broadbent and some other experts took many of their tasting notes of rare old vintages at Rodenstock’s dinners, it makes one wonder as to the reliability of much of what we know about some of the world’s rarest vintage wines.

One of those experts is Jancis Robinson, and while it’s not a new book, her collection of pieces bound under the title Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover makes for a good read (or re-read) this time of year. First of all, given its format – half memoir and half a collection of columns – it lends it self to reading in short bits: a quick column/essay/chapter, then in the pool for a dip, then back into the book, and so on. Jancis’s gossipy, self-deprecating tone focuses on her enthusiasms and avoids snootiness, even when she’d tasting some well-matured First Growth at one of Rodenstock’s dinners or lands a high-profile TV gig. The beginning of the book describes her initial, unplanned steps into the world of wine through to when she became the first person outside the wine trade itself to receive the Masters of Wine certification. If you, too, have stumbled into the wine business or aspire to, it makes fun, inspirational, and comforting reading.

Also from the English past, and is Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, a new collection of the author’s columns on subject of drinks and drinking. A wickedly comic novelist – I return to his debut novel, Lucky Jim, on a perennial basis. Bon vivant, and devotee of alcoholic beverages of all sorts, Amis wrote these columns in the 70s and early 80s; they were collected into books on three different occasions, and this new edition brings all three together. Dismissive of the wine snob, Amis takes on wine pairing, the social side of drinking, and especially cocktails (including recipes) with the same wit and humor found in his novels. Some of the essays haven’t aged that well, but many of his observations are still spot on, and serve to remind us of the pleasure that comes with alcohol’s role as a social lubricant while at the same time recapturing an old-school feel for the high life.

On the other hand, perhaps you’re not ready to get that relaxed this summer. If you want to add to your wine knowledge without lugging a huge monstrosity like the World Atlas of Wine to the beach, focus in on bubbles instead with Gerard Liger-Belair’s slim volume Uncorked: The Science of Champagne. It may sound like tough going, but the science as presented is by-and-large formula-free and readable. Liger-Belair is also a photographer, and uses a mix of high-speed and conventional photography to capture some gorgeous views of Champagne bubbles forming, releasing themselves from the side of the glass, and bursting at the top, all the while explaining how it all happens. Want to know, for example, why beer and Champagne bubbles act differently? It’s in here. What began as a hobby – Liger-Belair was a graduate student in physics and amateur photographer until he sent some sample photos to Möet & Chandon – has now become a specialty, and Liger-Belair has glassmakers, sparkling water firms, espresso companies, and more asking him to shed light on what’s best for bubbles.

If a working holiday means keeping an eye on things financial, but you still have wine in mind, Dave Sokolin have written Investing in Liquid Assets: Uncorking Profits in Today’s Global Wine Market. Are you daydreaming that that old bottle that their uncle left them will bring you “Cash in the Attic” style riches? Sokolin brings all that down-to-earth, but without removing the fun and pleasure inherent to the subject of wine. While the main goal of the book is to prepare you to make a financial investment in wine, there’s also a lot here for those who are merely curious about the outrageous figures some wines demand and want a better idea how wine’s prices and resale values work today. Sokolin keeps the tone practical and easy-to-read, and, aside from a pride in his family’s role in the wine trade (His father is often credited with coining the term “Investment-Grade Wine,” and led the way selling futures of Bordeaux in the U.S..), he avoids taking on airs despite the rarefied wines that are at the core of his subject.

On a final, lighter note – and regarding a lighter wine – is Rudolph Chelminski’s I’ll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World’s Most Famous Wine. You might think a book about Beaujolais might be best suited to the third week of November, when the notorious Beaujolais Nouveau makes it’s annual debut (In fact, the book was published last October in anticipation of just that occasion.), but Chelminski’s story of how Georges Duboeuf’s creative and aggressive marketing gave Beaujolais an outsized place in the world of wine moves briskly and keeps its subject relevant. While Chelminski clearly appreciates Duboeuf’s accomplishment, he doesn’t neglect to address the eventual cheapened reputation and ambivalence that the Nouveau wines brought to the Beaujolais name. Still, since even at the Cru level, Beaujolais wines can be fruity, fresh, and suitable for chilling, there’s every reason to read about (and for that matter, drink) Beaujolais this summer.

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