Holiday books for wine lovers

New York TimesDecember 10, 2013 

It has been a boon literary year for wine lovers. The flow of noteworthy books has been so steady that some seminal works can get lost in the current, like a 25th-anniversary edition of “Adventures on the Wine Route,” Kermit Lynch’s prophetic look back at the wisdom and traditions discarded by the mid-20th-century wine industry, presaging a welcome rediscovery and new embrace.

Among the new, these books stand out as particularly provocative, informing or entertaining, sometimes all at once.

First comes “The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste” (Ten Speed Press, $35), by Jon Bonné.

As wine editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, Bonné has been positioned perfectly to observe the profound pendulum swing in style and attitude that has occurred among California winemakers over the last decade. While “revolution” may be too strong a term if simply tracking public tastes and sales figures, it nonetheless captures a sense of mental liberation among winemakers and consumers freed from a stultifying, dominant style that Bonné labels “Big Flavor.”

Bonné is occasionally more polemical than edifying, and the book is organizationally awkward. But the story is important and well told, and the time is right.

I don’t imagine Clark Smith would be as enthusiastic about Bonné’s book as I am. In his new and challenging “Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft” (University of California Press, $35), Smith disdains critics like him – or, uh, me – who may be inclined to speak from an idealistic perspective.

“Talk is cheap for the critic who doesn’t have to live with the consequences,” he grumps.

Yet Smith is hardly a curmudgeon. He is lively, funny, cantankerous, devilish and hard to pin down – as Gutman says to Spade in “The Maltese Falcon”: “By gad, sir, you are a character.”

Befitting Smith, this is a most unusual book, written more for winemakers than for the general public. Yet anybody interested in the craft of winemaking and an industry perspective will find it fascinating, occasionally maddening, enlightening yet not entirely convincing.

“The World Atlas of Wine” (Mitchell Beazley, $55), by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, is the single most important reference book on the shelf of any wine student. The new seventh edition, coming six years after the last, mirrors the evolution that has now entrenched wine as a global enterprise.

Counterintuitively, many changes have occurred in the historic wine countries, where ancient regions like Ribeira Sacra in northwestern Spain, Sicily and Ahr in Germany are now making fascinating 21st-century wines. The authors have updated these entries and many others, particularly for Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Canada. Maps have been freshened and expanded, and in the iBook edition ($25), you can zoom in on details concealed in print from middle-aged eyes.

Certain regions, like California and Champagne, could use a more detailed re-examination. Connoisseurs of past editions will note less of Johnson’s playful pungency and more of Robinson’s elegant understatement, as her contribution has increased. Nonetheless, this new edition remains as vital and essential as the last six.

Ray Walker’s life is a fairy tale. As a young American in the Bay Area, Walker heard the siren call of Burgundy. With the barest experience in the wine business, with few contacts, no French and a young family, he took off for France and, before you could wave your wand, became the first American ever to make Le Chambertin, one of the grandest of Burgundy’s grand crus.

How was this possible? Walker, who is now firmly situated in Burgundy with his family, tells his story of passion, determination and unbelievable luck in “The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France” (Gotham Books, $26).

It’s a slender volume, easy to read and engaging. If it falls short of inspiring, it’s only because key points of drama are resolved through the sort of shocking good fortune that we have trouble accepting outside of fables.

The book ends as Walker achieves his dream, yet his story in real life has continued and deepened since. I, for one, am eager for another volume on life in Burgundy.

Pomerol is sort of a velvet-roped VIP club of Bordeaux. It’s mysterious, a backwater with little of the tourist allure of St.-Émilion or the grandeur of the Médoc. Its best wines are beautiful, yet rarely encountered because of price and scarcity. Not much has been written about it, which makes Neal Martin’s magnificent self-published book, “Pomerol,” particularly welcome despite the frustrating thirst it will produce.

Martin, a British critic who writes for Robert M. Parker Jr., specializes in Bordeaux, and this comprehensive tour of the history, land and most important producers is authoritative and entertaining. No hushed reverence or omniscience here. Instead, Martin’s “Pomerol” is populated with red-blooded characters, both aristocratic and plebeian. His judgments are sharp but fair, and his wine descriptions acute.

This is a huge book, almost 600 good-size pages, easy to absorb in small sips. It’s not easy to obtain, available only through the pomerolbook.com for 50 pounds (about $82) plus postage. But if you love Bordeaux, it’s worth the trouble.

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