USA 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]
Situated 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]
I 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]
If 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]
One 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]
As 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]
Back in February, we dedicated nearly a full month to reviews on books based around alcohol as the main subject. While this post could serve as compendium to that month, here are a few more ideas for last minute stocking stuffers. Read anything not on our list that we missed, or suggestions for alternatives? Drop us a line in the comments section! We’re always looking for more to read.
For the whiskey fans in your life (or yourself), a few books from the heart of Kentucky provide hours of entertaining facts, recipes and historical anecdotes. Derek Bell’s Alt Whiskeys looks into the adventurous experiments of his Corsair distillery. Mike Veach’s historical tome on the history of Kentucky bourbon is thoroughly detailed and rich with engaging content, but it might prove to be a bit much for those newly initiated into bourbon culture. Fred Minnick’s Whiskey Women gives a compelling account at the understated, underrated role women played in the making of bourbon and Scotch (our review is forthcoming). Dominic Roskrow’s encyclopedic tome, The World’s Best Whiskies, is a gorgeous, full color affair that is mildly outdated but is an excellent resource with 750 excellent suggestions and selections to consider. With an update to reflect recent expressions, this would no doubt be the book of the year for whiskey fans. Finally, New York Times scribe Clay Risen offers up a new book called American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, which is a competent, accessible and affordable read.
Historical drinking books were even strong beyond the whiskey world. Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist breaks the origins of drinks down to a near-molecular level, explaining in wonderfully written prose the biology of our everyday drinks. Brad Thomas Parsons’ Bitters acts as a wonderful supplement to The Drunken Botanist, deeply documenting the history of one of the most essential ingredients of any cocktail.
We also saw an abundance of cocktail books hitting the market this year, and Katie Loeb’s Shake, Stir And Pour was among the best of its class, offering a perfect hybrid of quality recipes and affordability. Tim Federle’s gorgeously illustrated Tequila Mockingbird provides literary history lessons with tasty tequila recipes and some seriously wince-worthy puns (“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita”). Tristan Stephenson’s new release (again, review forthcoming) The Curious Bartender is a quick and simple read, giving modern twists to classic favorites but offering clear and simple directions that even the newest of mixologists can follow.
Judging by the credentials listed in his author blurb on the back sleeve, Dominc Roskrow could certainly lay claim to being an “expert” in his field of study. A veteran writer and author with over two decades of published works, he’s received the Scotch industry’s highest order – Keeper of the Quaich – and was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel in 2010. He had the honor of updating Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide To Scotch and his list of contributing editorships reads like a Who’s Who of Whiskey publications (he currently serves as editor of Whiskeria magazine).
It’s the last great frontier for alcohol: Frozen dessert treats.
Booze is tricky in frozen desserts because it lowers the freezing temperature of whatever you add it to. A bottle of vodka in the freezer doesn’t freeze, even at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Add it to ice cream the wrong way and you get more of a slush than a dense cream.
The premise of The Big Book of Martinis for Moms is straightforward enough and to its credit, is never deviated from through 250 pages and 175-plus recipes. What one sees is exactly what one gets. Authors Rose Maura Lorre and Mavis Lamb (both professional bloggers and highly accomplished cocktail journalists) have painstakingly developed and curated recipes for every demonstrable occasion along the child-rearing process.