Category Archives: Books

Book Review: The Curious World of Wine

curious_world_of_wineWine is indeed a curious world. Just drinking everyday bottles of the stuff is enough to vault you into a world of confusing terminology, exotic places, and strange people for the rest of your life.

Purdue University’s Richard Vine does the wine fanatic no favors with his book, The Curious World of Wine, which only serves to add to the mystery. A collection of loosely sorted and generally quite short “fun facts,” Vine devotes 210 pages, 10 chapters, and over 100 segments of only a few paragraphs each to one oddball tidbit or another about the world of wine.

Historical vignettes and etymology make up the lion’s share of the book. Some of this you’ll likely have heard before (toasting was born to exchange liquids between two glasses to ensure no one was being poisoned), some you likely haven’t (Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild conceived of Opus One while the Baron was lounging in bed). Most of the tidbits are at least interesting, even if they’re short on being actively educational.

Vine’s writing is typical of academics — straightforward and largely humorless aside from the overuse of wordplay — but breezy enough to make it easy to get into. If trivia’s your name and wine’s your game, give this book a look.

B / $15 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: The New Old Bar

the-new-old-barChicago-based restaurateurs Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh go by the moniker of “The Hearty Boys,” an homage to the restaurant they run, Hearty. In this, their second book, Smith and McDonagh focus on the bar, offering 200 cocktail recipes (including all the ones they serve at Hearty), plus a chapter or two that cover the basics of how to run the bar.

The recipes run the gamut from classics that have recently made a comeback (Pegu Club, Boulevardier, Corpse Reviver #2), as well as newfangled recipes of the Hearties’ devise. Grilled fruits are a common and interesting theme, as are flavored syrups (recipes are included for these separately). One even uses roast beef (as a garnish). By and large the selection is interesting, skimmable (recipes are not sorted but are mere alphabetized by name), and fairly easy to replicate.

The final portion of the book features a welcome collection of bar snack recipes, with 25 items offered, each sounding more delicious than the next. Poutine and Kix Mix… breakfast of champions!

A- / $14 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Dr. Cocktail

dr cocktailCan drinking be medicinal? Since the dawn of time alcholic beverages have been billed as good for the body. That’s how legions of drinkers got their hands on booze during Prohibition, even — through a doctor’s prescription.

Alex Ott, “the sorcerer of shaken and stirred,” takes things a step further with his book Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind and Body. (“Dr. Cocktail,” by the way, is Ted Haigh, so don’t get confused…) In this slim, hardbound book, his goal is to create cocktail recipes that use herbal, traditional, natural, and homeopathic ingredients. These in turn are meant to reduce stress, encourage romance, build your appetite, or curb hangovers. Whether Ott’s mixture of gin, cranberry juice, and cucumbers really has anti-aging properties, well, that’s a matter for the scientists to look into, I suppose.

I was surprised how simple and straightforward most of the recipes in this book were. No acai, no yumberry, or any of the other foodstuffs that are generally considered really really good for you. There’s nothing really more unusual than turmeric and aloe juice here, which is great if you actually want to make this stuff, but bad if you’re looking for something truly novel that you won’t find elsewhere. Many of the recipes here look good, but more than a few are modest spins on time-worn classics. (I remain flummoxed how a Bloody Mary with a ton of Grenadine, Scotch, and bacon bits will detox you.)

But the most annoying thing about Ott’s book is the rampant product placement. While many a bartending book will call for certain name brand spirits, Ott’s does so in virtually every recipe. Hope you stock up on Svedka Vodka, Ecco Domini wines, and New Amsterdam Gin! One has to wonder: Does Ott really drink that much Svedka? Or is he just giving his employers (he’s an ambassador for all three) a contractual shout-out… on your dime?

B- / $13 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Drinking Japan

Drinking JapanI’ve never been to Japan, but it’s at the top of my list. When I get there, I plan to drink it. The whole thing.

Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan will surely help. Part guide book, part encyclopedia of Japanese alcohol, the tome guides you throw the best places to get a sip of sake, shochu, Okinawan awamori, Japanese beer or whisky, or western beverages throughout the country and explains what you’re drinking along the way. Tokyo of course has the lion’s share of the coverage, but you’ll find over 100 recommendations for great drinking establishments throughout Japan.

Every bar (most are actually restaurants too) features an interior photograph, a map, and detailed directions of how to get there. Bunting’s attention to detail is astounding, including the hours, the cover charge (in detail), and even whether there’s a menu available in English. The picks seem thoughtful, varied (from holes in the wall to hotspots like the New York Bar from Lost in Translation), and nearly all worth visiting. And the writing is both fun and educational — particularly if you don’t know your honkaku from your happoshu.

When I eventually make it to Japan, this book is coming with me.

A / $19 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Wine: A Tasting Course

wine-tasting-01-thumb-620x445-74509USA Today readers rejoice: There’s a book that takes the pedantic prose out of wine and turns it all into colorful infographics.

Marnie Old’s Wine: A Tasting Course cues you in from the start, with a cover festooned with cartoony illustrations and questions designed to pique your interest in the category (“Which are the most important grapes?”)

You’ll find answers to all of these and more within the 247 pages of the text, and you generally won’t have to do too much reading. Enormous graphics, heavy on iconic yellow-or-red bottles or glasses of wine cue you in to where to look on every page. Old is fond of the Venn diagram, often plotting grape varietals, winemaking styles, and even foods and flavors on one spectrum or another. In Wine: A Tasting Course, there’s nothing that can’t be rendered as a graphic.

That’s not a bad thing, and while it’s intended to simplify the subject matter, often it has the opposite effect. Will the average reader of this book really track down Argentian Malbec, Spanish Priorat, and Australian Tawny Port for a comparative tasting in “exploring heavier red styles?” What would be learned in the process of this tasting, other than to follow Old’s graph that plots “weight” vs. “flavor,” and agreeing that, yes, the Port does have more “flavor” to offer?

I don’t mean to make fun. It’s easier to learn through pictures than it is through words, and a segment of readers will probably find this approach an easier one to follow than others.

B / $20 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course

windows on the worldSituated at the top of One World Trade Center, Windows on the World was a restaurant-bar-entertainment venue that was beloved by just about everyone until the tower’s tragic destruction. Its resident cellar master was the equally beloved Kevin Zraly, and for the last 25-plus years he’s been publishing his own book on wine. Actually, it’s a “course,” designed to teach newcomers on wine everything they need to know to get comfortable with wine in a relatively slim volume.

Annually updated, the book combines timeless information with current events. Here you’ll find a page on how weather impacts the grape harvest, along with a sidebar digesting recent storms around the world. This contextualizes Zraly’s lessons while giving the dedicated fodder they can conjure up at cocktail parties.

It’s a breezy book, often presented in Q&A format and with lots of headings followed by a quick paragraph or two of detail. There are plenty of pictures and maps, but Zraly keeps things simple and easy to digest. (The book’s errors — Napa doesn’t have an “Atlas Creek,” but rather an “Atlas Peak,” last time I checked — are curious, but not deal killers.)

One of my favorite things about the book are the nuggets you simply don’t get anywhere else — and would be hard-pressed to dig up online, even. A map of the U.S. with the number of wineries and AVAs in each state? It’s here. A list of the major wine conglomerates and all the brands they own? Got it. The wine grapes native to Hungary? Perhaps less useful, but it’s here too.

Zraly deserves his reputation and should be praised for condensing a complex subject into just over 300 pages (plus online extras) while covering far more than “just the basics.” You may not need to buy it every year, but one copy will get you a long way.

A- / $30 / [BUY IT AT AMAZON]

Book Review: Bitter Brew

bitter brewI really had no idea that the Busch family had gone through such a turbulent century, with the fortunes of Budweiser careening up and down. But then again, like most readers of this blog, I don’t give Budweiser a whole lot of thought, anyway.

But with Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer, author William Knoedelseder grabs you right from the start (with the ultimate fall — the company’s foreign takeover in 2008), before backtracking to 1857 when Adolphus Busch took over a small, bankrupt brewery and launched the A-B empire. While some tales, like the Busch’s obsession with and purchase of the St. Louis Cardinals, may not carry much weight with readers who are more interested in the sudsier side of things, but Knoedelseder’s gifts with the pen will keep you flipping the pages nonetheless.

One tragic oversight: No mention of Spuds MacKenzie.

A- / $13 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Book Review: The New York Times Book of Wine

nyt book of wineIf you want to learn about wine… like really learn about wine, you might think a mammoth tome like The New York Times Book of Wine would be a good place to start. Sure sounds legit. Alas, TNYTBOW is not that kind of place. As with many a book of this ilk (the kind with a newspaper name in the title), it’s not a book written with any specific goal in mind, but rather a loosely cobbled-together collection of previously published stories wrapped around a single topic. In this case, wine.

If you want to learn about Gary Vaynerchuk’s past, or you want seafood recipes, or you’re interested in comments on pairing oysters with red wine, you’ve come to the right place: This is a seemingly random anthology of stories that all do get around to mentioning wine at least at some point.

There are plenty of the expected kinds of pieces you read about in newspaper wine columns these days: Don’t serve your wine too cold, don’t serve your wine too hot, drink more Lagrein, maybe boxed wine isn’t so bad, that kind of thing. There’s a whole chapter of missives on Port, Madeira, and grape-based spirits like Cognac. (Filling a daily newspaper column with wine coverage for 30 years must not be easy.)

Of course, it’s all a bit random. Alongside insightful but well-trodden pieces on stuff like the ancient history of wine you’ll find gag dispatches to giggle over. For every deep dive into why vine pruning is important you’ll find an inscrutable piece of self-love that begins along the lines of “I was sitting at my desk in Paris one day when…” And you’ll even find book reviews of other wine books! Now that’s meta.

Reading TNYTBOW is a lot like reading the paper: The individual pieces are very short (often just a couple of pages), and the whole affair is seemingly designed so you’ll keep this book beside the toilet. That’s not to say that the book is slight or useless. Given that this monster tome comprises 592 pages of old newspaper clippings, it’s perhaps to be expected that there is plenty of good material here, but plenty of chaff too. Just like the wine world, I suppose.

B / $17 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Whiskey Women

Whiskey-Women-Cover-393x590One of the more problematic challenges of historical books is their inability to provide truly holistic, objective testimony on actual events. There will always be omitted perspectives, conflicting stories and incomplete narratives. Facts and figures may contradict oral histories and withering records may not fill in cracks the way one would hope. When it comes to the history of alcohol, many of these books share the deficit of not recognizing the plentiful contributions women have made over the centuries to the history of drinking. Perhaps this can be attributed to the lack of consistent information needed to construct a narrative; perhaps this is due to the male-dominated arena of alcohol-oriented historical non-fiction. Whatever the case, there’s plenty of attribution to go around at the table.

Which is why Fred Minnick’s Whiskey Women makes for such a crucial piece of historical documentation: It remedies many of these errors through incredibly thorough scholarship. He takes the reader from the earliest of recorded history in Egypt all the way to Marge Samuels’ invention of the red wax packaging now synonymous with Maker’s Mark. Along the way Minnick makes stops in Europe and the United Kingdom to keep the reader compellingly flipping pages through amusing anecdotes and stories which otherwise may have been lost to dust and library basements. He is passionate in his subject and serves to provoke the reader into considering different approaches to the largely accepted traditional narratives long after the book has been put down. Hopefully this is the first of many books providing an alternative history, giving life to those voices largely ignored.

A / $17 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Uncorking The Past

Uncorkingcover2As I took the opportunity to sample the Dogfish Head Ancient Ales collection, it felt appropriate to enjoy a book written by one of the men whose scholarly pursuits inspired and acted as a catalyst to many of the creations. It’s a nice supplementary companion while drinking and enjoying.

Dr. Patrick E. McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and for the last several decades has been a pioneer in the field of Molecular Archaeology. Uncorking The Past is an engaging road map of humanity’s fascination with fermented beverages. With narrative passages that would make Indiana Jones proud, McGovern goes to incredible lengths to ensure scientific and anthropological accuracy and integrity with each discovery; travelling the ancient world to reveal the secrets behind beer, wine and other alcohol-based drinks. Through it all McGovern reveals a striking connection between civilizations, ritual, and their intoxicating elixirs. He also develops a new field of anthropology from which to appreciate parallels between cultures.

McGovern’s writing is densely packed and rich in detail, but crafted in a way that is accessible to casual readers and fosters moments of amusement and discovery. More than once I found myself looking up things on Wikipedia or Google for further information on a topic. Best of all, the whole experience is greatly enhanced while enjoying a glass of whatever subject is being discussed (if you can find it).

Though at times it wanders a tad too much into the waters of academia, Uncorking The Past is an incredibly fascinating read and should be on the holiday wish list of every avid reader that enjoys history, alcohol or the history of alcohol.

A- / $16 / [BUY IT HERE]