Spirited reading for a winter s day


This winter is an inviting one for curling up by the fire with a good book. Not too long ago, in two days several new books, all about wine or related beverages, piled up on my desk. Since then the number has more than doubled, and I face a dozen new titles or editions.

Actually, each one will find its share of readers. Say you want to awe your friends with an in-depth knowledge of single-malt scotch. A handy little book, Michael Jackson s Complete Guide To Single Malt Scotch (DK, $27.50), will tell you so much that even you will be awed.

Others will explain how to plant grapes and make wine, to tend bar, and with no more than a glance to distinguish one red bordeaux from another.

But before you buy land for planting those grapes you have in mind, due diligence had best include The Winemaker s Dance (University of California Press, $34.95), for despite the fanciful title, two serious wine-country geologist-authors, Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell, tell you in very graceful writing that the debris of volcanos and earthquakes, unseen below the surface, will affect your wine for good or ill. Even if the cultivation of the vine is not among your current ambitions, this story will add a new dimension to your appreciation of wine and the path that brings the bottle to your table. If this slender, easy-reading volume isn t the Clicquot wine book of the year I ll be surprised.

Two other hefty volumes will appeal to serious oenophiles.

The Wines Of Bordeaux, by English authority Clive Coates (University of California Press, $60), is the more likely to be read. But for brief general observations of Bordeaux wine-making and pertinent statistics, these 700 pages record a half-century s vintages and Coates s tasting notes, organized by chateaux and estates.

Sketches offer what a producer s past suggests you may expect of today s vintages, but no more; this is not a vintage chart. Given its long history of truancy, the increasing success of West Coast winemakers in producing Pinot noir close to its Burgundian prototype, and in making it year on year, deserves cheers.

It has not been so very long; I find it hard to think of this happy reform as more than 10 years old, of no better than one successful vintage in, say, three. From where I sit, it is a saga to be told, but in its time.

Writing and publishing nearly 450 pages dedicated by author John Winthrop Haeger to domestic pinot noirs North American Pinot Noir (University of California Press, $34.95) now borders on the rash, especially when the publisher s blurb declares that this is the definitive sourcebook . . . a comprehensive reference. As usual, I expect to be pained by omissions in works that are authoritative, definitive, comprehensive.

Reading them side by side, one might guess that Mr. Haeger, who writes gracefully, was inspired in the organization of his book by that of Clive Coates on the wines of Bordeaux.

You may recall that I endorsed the eighth edition of the Wine Spectator s Ultimate Guide To Buying Wine (Running Press, $29.95), a vast, detailed appraisal of mostly what s available today on a retailer s shelves. It is not a vintage chart, even though it shares some characteristics; vines outgrow vintage charts, appraisals may not. Just as wines grow scarce but survive for years, appraisals do not, but whatever their early pertinence, rarely outlive it.

Well, then, what of Stevenson s contribution to this year s harvest of wine readings? It is at least my copy is a dense pocket book, Wine Report 2005 (DK, $15). Mr. Stevenson has recruited a number of regional experts to identify some of the best buys in their area of expertise and add summaries of what events and developments have done or are doing to the shape of tradition as it has been handed down to us. Physically, this book is so tightly bound that one can t easily open all the pages without breaking back the spine; the price seems unreasonably high.

Almost indispensable for accuracy in talking, reading, or writing about wine becoming wine-literate as it were is a book from New Zealand, Peter Saunders s Wine Label Language (Firefly Books, $19.95). It leaps over national and linguistic boundaries, comprehending the wine language of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the United States, Canada, and five other nations. Where terms lead one into distinctive types of a country s or region s wines, Mr. Saunders helpfully notes summary details of what is characteristic.

Not included are what may be characteristic of Israeli wine language, perhaps because these wines and winegrapes have only recently been coming onto world markets, even though the first modern plantings go back to the early 19th century.

This may be reason for putting out a second edition. A step in this direction is Rogov s Guide To Israeli Wines (Toby Press, $14.95, 279 pages).

Though he begins with the observation that 2003 was one of the finest vintage years in recent decades, Daniel Rogov has not given us a vintage chart, but history, the place of wine in an age-old culture, the names of grapes and of wineries, and where to look for the best.

Speaking of where to look, there s a where-to-look book beneath or behind every bar in the world, the barman s best friend.

If the customer wants a Kerry Cooler (not that Kerry), for instance, the name may pass beyond almost any barman s passive vocabulary. As if it s just exactly what every customer in Williams County thirsts for at the end of the working day, yes, you guessed it; the recipe on page 186 of Michael Jackson s Bar & Cocktail Companion (Running Press, $19.95 224 pages) is just exactly what the customer wants.

At home or place of business, the waterproof cover is a welcome addition to the furnishing of a proper bar.

Robert Kirtland is The Blade s wine columnist. Contact him at: rkirtland@theblade.com.