A wise person once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. The same could perhaps be said in regards to talking about wine, an exercise so absurd it’s regularly mocked on novelty napkins. Writing about wine, however, is another thing entirely. Wine is an especially literary liquid; no other nutrient gets its own section in the bookstore.
The majority of books about wine, however, tend to be of the How To variety: how to buy it; how to pair it with food; how to get it out of your new shirt; etc. Wine For Dummies, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. When it comes to a subject as complicated as wine, we’re all dummies, really. But I must confess that I prefer books that tell me Why instead of How. Here, then, are five of my favorite books about wine for the enophile on your gift list.
1. Napa by James Conaway
The glamour and the glitz, the backstabbing and the scandals, it’s all there. But Conaway’s book is more Grapes of Wrath than “Falcon Crest.” Napa is a very American story about farmers, pioneers and immigrant winemakers, and the endless battle between preservation and development. It’s also a reminder that America’s wine tradition, while not as old as Europe’s, is just as valid.
2.The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace
More than just a book about fake wine or Thomas Jefferson, America’s first obnoxious wine collector, The Billionaire’s Vinegaris a solid bit of narrative journalism and a cracking good detective story. It’s also a view into a world where manhood means having a huge wine cellar.
3. A Life Uncorked by Hugh Johnson
For a country that has never produced much wine to speak of, nobody appreciates vino better than the English. Hugh Johnson is one of the world’s foremost wine writers, and his autobiography is witty, informative, and full of British charm. A Life Uncorked describes my fantasy life. Cricket flannels, claret, and tasting matches between Cambridge and Oxford? Yes, please!
4. Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch
Required reading. Lynch’s book is a window into a world that may unfortunately be dying, a world of authenticity, beauty and tradition. This is a book about moldy cellars, eccentric winemakers, and gnarled vines. No other book so perfectly captures the passion that used to lie behind the business of wine.
5. A good wine atlas
Every enophile should own a wine atlas (try one by Oz Clarke or Hugh Johnson) because wine is about place. Instead of asking, “What are we drinking?” start asking, “Where?” You’ll learn more by studying the geography of wine than you ever will by reading tasting notes.
So there you have it, my holiday reading/buying list, proof that writing about wine is nowhere near as difficult as dancing about architecture. Why are there so many books about wine? Because wine itself is a story. Every bottle tells its own tale, about a time, a place and people. Otherwise, it’s just booze.