Category Archives: Books

Book Review: The Quotable Drunkard

quotable drunkard 194x300 Book Review: The Quotable DrunkardFor some reason, I get a kick out of reading quotations, and I expect I’m not alone, explaining why so many books of quotes are on the market. Steven Kates turns to a natural topic – the bottle – for this themed book of musings, and for the most part it’s a solid one.

Split into chapters of natural topics, Kates takes on beer, wine, alcoholism, hangovers, and more, with special sections devoted to quotes about drinking from various books and movies. Historical figures are also amply represented in the text, as is the Bible.

Now maybe I’m old fashioned, but I do believe that no book about drinking, however frivolous, should ever quote Dharma & Greg. And it definitely should not do so three times. Sure enough, these quotes aren’t even remotely amusing, and if Kates’ book ever suffers, it’s in his editing: As if he simply punted and did a few IMDB searches for “rum,” “wine,” and “drinking” and just copy-and-pasted everything that turned up into his manuscript.

But hey, compiling quotes probably isn’t as easy as it sounds, and by and large Kates does good work here. You may even learn a thing or two courtesy of the drinking fun facts interspersed throughout the tome.

Until next time, remember, “I used to think drinking was the only way to be happy. Now I know there is no way to be happy.” (Laura Kightlinger)

A- / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Exploring Wine

exploring wine 237x300 Book Review: Exploring WineEvery wine drinker needs one (and only one) book like this: A magnificent, encyclopedia-sized tome that tells you everything you can possibly want to know about wine in a single book. Or tries to, anyway.

As such a subject is basically unmasterable, the goal with a mega-book like this is to be as comprehensive as possible while leaving out the obtuse junk that no one cares about.

My current bookshelf pick, Andre Domine’s Wine, does a good job of this, highlighting every region you could care to investigate, mapping them intricately, and highlighting the best producers in each.

Now comes Exploring Wine‘s third edition, from Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith, and Michael A. Weiss, in conjunction with the Culinary Institute of America. It’s a 791-page monster, and yet it feels slight. Various regions and wine styles get a mere paragraph or two in Exploring Wine. Even big areas, like the French Languedoc region, get less than two pages total, not much more than California’s Livermore Valley is granted. It’s strange and inconsistent, to say the least.

Exploring Wine doesn’t dwell much on specific wines or producers, aiming instead for more of a global look at the wine trade (even China and India get some ink), how the wine business works, and, for about a third of the book, discussing how wine pairs with food (not surprising considering the CIA’s involvement in the book). Interesting stuff if you’re trying to open a restaurant and train your teenage staff on how to sell wine, I guess, but it’s not right for a consumer. The front of the book is just too vague, and the back end is too industry-specific. Sorry, guys, I’m sticking with Wine for now.

C / $39 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Bettane & Desseauve’s Guide to the Wines of France

Bettane Desseauves Guide to the Wines of France 155x300 Book Review: Bettane & Desseauves Guide to the Wines of FranceFrance is probably the most complicated wine region in the world, full of viticultural areas that not only are most consumers unable to locate on a map, but which they can’t even pronounce.

The thick and unwieldy Bettane & Desseauve’s Guide to the Wines of France will be of little help to most drinkers, an 831-page behemoth that’s as difficult to hold open as it is to navigate. Almost entirely comprised of ratings of wines from hundreds of different chateaux, the book is indeed a guide to the very wines of France and is not a hand-holding introduction to what French wine is all about.

That’s fine, but organization represents a long-term challenge for this book, as finding a producer will test the patience of even experience wine drinkers. Wineries are split up by geography, and Bordeaux, say, is divided into its various sub-regions. If you’re looking for a specific producer (which is really the only reason anyone would open this tome) the goose chase begins in earnest. Hope you understand the peculiarities of French proper names: Chateau La Tour Figeac, for example, can be found alphabetized after Etablissements Thunevin (both are under “T”), and only then will you find them if you know they are Right Bank Bordeaux.

This is, by all accounts, the “correct” way to alphabetize a winery, but without good signposting it won’t mean much to most. The index is more help, dispensing with all the preamble and alphabetizing by whomever’s last name is on the label, but only if don’t make the mistake of looking at the second index, which is again organized by appellation and sub-appellation, basically just repeating the organization of the main text.

Another challenge comes int he form of the book’s odd design: 11 inches tall and just 5 5/8 inches wide, it is the shape of a pocket book but, at 2 inches thick, will not fit in any pocket you have. The odd shape makes it hard to hold open for long and impossible to lay down without using something heavy to keep it from closing on you. Sticklers will also find that the binding breaks within minutes of first opening it.

All in all Bettane and Desseauve are comprehensive in cataloging the world of French wine (though, as with many of these books, their ratings hover around a very narrowly-defined area), but better books about the wines of France can be found.

B- / $26 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Old Man Drinks: Recipes, Advice, and Barstool Wisdom

old man drinks 192x300 Book Review: Old Man Drinks: Recipes, Advice, and Barstool WisdomThis slim little novelty book from Robert Schnakenberg is as harmless as it is cute: A collection of “Old Man Drink” cocktail recipes, paired with photos of old codgers sitting on barstools and quotes condensing their wisdom into various aphorisms.

Many of the drinks are indeed nothing that anyone under the age of 55 would likely consider ordering – Rolls-Royce, Sloe Gin Fizz – but the vast majority are simply classic cocktails like the Bloody Mary, Manhattan, and Sazerac, stuff that is suitable for all ages. Only a couple of cocktails, like the Bellini, seem not to fit the book’s title at all. I’ve never seen a man drink a Bellini in any seriousness, much less a retiree.

The old man quotes are about what you’d expect, not so much advice but more angry snaps of the complaint variety, heavily focused on the evils of politics, the evils of working for The Man, and – especially – the evils of women. Old Man has to drink, it seems, because Old Lady drove him to it.

The funny thing is that in the black and white photos that adorn the interior of the book – a less attractive collection of pictures I’ve never seen – it’s pretty clear that real Old Men don’t drink Rob Roys and Pisco Sours very often. Seen here, posing with their favorite tipples, these crusty characters invariably seem to head for the truly Old Man standbys of beer and whiskey, straight. I imagine Schnakenberg’s time spent with these dudes to collect his quotes and photographs was quote the experience. Now get off their damn lawn.

B- / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice

how to booze 199x300 Book Review: How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound AdviceThis mixology manual from veteran writer Jordan Kaye and co-author Marshall Altier tries to spin the usual, tired, organized-by-spirit cocktail manual by taking its several dozen drinks – mostly classics, with just a handful of originals thrown in – and offering “The Right Drink for Every Situation.”

Neat idea, and in Kaye and Altier’s world, many of those situations have to do with sex – at least, the first 58 of the 170-or-so pages do. Such is life, perhaps.

I’m hard-pressed to agree with the book’s situational advice. While each cocktail’s case is (sort of) made, does a Pisco Sour really go better with “Stalking your ex” than a French 75 (reserved here for sleeping with your unfaithful partner’s best friend)? The quirks don’t let up, which makes it one of those books that is better fit for toilet-side reading than for practical use in your bar.

That said, Kaye and Altier offer a lot of interesting and informative discussion about cocktails when they aren’t giving you relationship advice (which, I suppose, is part of the bartender’s job) – and it is the only book I’ve ever seen that discusses the pickleback (shot of Irish whiskey, shot of pickle juice) – which the book says is a good variant for “after work.” Sounds about right to me.

B / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Oz Clarke’s “Let Me Tell You About Wine”

oz clarke let me tell you about wine 264x300 Book Review: Oz Clarke’s “Let Me Tell You About Wine”The venerable – unavoidable, even – Oz Clarke continues to grind out book after book, and this almost-coffee-table-sized tome is designed to make wine accessible to even the most rank novice.

If you know nothing, you’ll probably get sucked in by the pictures of strawberries and chocolate, part of Clarke’s goal to get you thinking about the character of a wine instead of just whether it is “good” or “bad.” I especially enjoyed the book’s “wine wheels,” which put the spectrum of reds and whites each on their own circle, with a range of broad flavors around the circumference and intensity representing the distance from the center. While I doubt many readers will ever wonder where Bulgarian Chardonnay is plotted (light, between “oaky” and “oaky and fruity,” by the by), it’s a helpful way to start thinking about how various styles of wine are made.

But so much of this book is targeted at those oblivious about wine that it’s hard to really savor its lessons. There are sections about how to use a corkscrew, how to order a bottle of wine, and of course lengthy treatises on how wine is made. The book really starts to falter though in its discussion of winemaking regions: The United States is dispatched in 10 pages, one of which is devoted to the wines of Texas. Clarke then gives specific wine recommendations for each region: His list of 30 California wines to try include a hodgepodge ranging from supermarket swill (two Ravenswood bottlings) to cult wines most readers of this book will never encounter (Thackrey, Viader).

All along the way there is a surfeit of photographs of Oz mugging for the camera, glass in hand, and many, many, many stock art selections of grape vines and picnic tables overflowing with full wine glasses. Sure, if you are completely oblivious and need guidance on what wine to pair with “chilli con carne,” well, Clarke will get you there eventually (an Italian red, he would advise), though even that is a bit of a challenge due to the book’s odd organization. All the better for it to sit on the coffee table instead of in the library, I suppose.

C+ / $14 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: The Ultimate Wine Companion

the ultimate wine companion Book Review: The Ultimate Wine CompanionFor a book purporting to be the “ultimate” wine companion, this tome is awfully slim. No judgments, really, but anything claiming “ultimate” status always makes me wonder about where a writer’s bar of excellence may lie.

Like the previously reviewed Whiskypedia, The Ultimate Wine Companion is not the work of one writer but rather a compendium of thoughts from a gaggle of experts. If you know anything about wine, the list of authors will dazzle you: Parker, Clarke, Teague, Asimov, Mondavi, Coppola, Rothschild, Lynch, Kramer… the list goes on and on. Even Jay McInerney, a novelist who’s reinventing himself in the wine world, is here. All that’s missing is Null, to be honest.

Edited by veteran wine pro Kevin Zraly, the book’s title is more telling on second glance: It is not The Ultimate Wine Encyclopdia, it is The Ultimate Wine Companion — a friendly little guide designed to pique your interest in wine and perhaps throw a fun fact or two your way. Curious how Gary Vaynerchuk got his start? An excerpt from his latest book is here. There is a bit about the famous Davis test, wherein various wine “experts” failed to identify whether wines served in black glasses were actually red or white. Should a wine be opened well before drinking it? What does one drink with duck?

It’s largely good fun, and there is plenty of wonky wine stuff here too: An in-depth discussion of the Piedmont area, Argentina, and so on. And there are essays that may offer little real value to the kind of person who might buy this book (or, more realistically, to whom this book may be given as a birthday gift). How to order wine (like, literally, how to ask a waiter to bring you wine) is as skippable as the guide to writing your own tasting notes.

The art choices in the book are a bit bizarre: Photos are almost exclusively devoted to wine labels, thrown in haphazardly whenever a specific wine is mentioned. The occasional map, of course, also appears, but the random label spam seems strange.

As is often the case with anthologies, there is good and bad here and a lot in between. The writing is often lively but is sometimes too austere for the leisurely pace that Zraly tries to set. Not a bad try, but after putting it down, I find I’m more in the mood for a cocktail than a Chardonnay.

B- / $14 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Whiskey & Philosophy

whiskey and philosophy Book Review: Whiskey & PhilosophyIt is try that whiskey has a tendency to make philosophers out of all of us, but I didn’t know that would lead anyone to actually write a book on the topic.

Truth be told, Whiskey & Philosophy is not really a study of drinking dogma but an anthology (written by 20 different authors or teams of writers — when you drink, it sometimes takes more than one person to make a coherent thought, I guess) covering everything there is to cover about the world of whiskey.

There are the expected treatises on the origins of whiskey, various types of whiskey (there’s even a chapter/installment on Japanese whiskey), whiskey drinks (there are 15 pages about the Manhattan), and the appropriateness of judging/grading/describing whiskey. And eventually we get to philosophy. Both Hegel and Kant are invoked.

Perhaps a standout is Ada Brunstein’s essay on female whiskey drinkers, and why the hell they’re so rare. (I can count the number of women I know who genuinely like whiskey on one hand.) It starts with the story of Hillary Clinton drinking Crown Royal on the campaign trail… and the backlash she got for it.

Even better: Ian J. Dove’s treatise on reviews and tasting notes, and how one can rarely tell if a whiskey is actually any good by reading them without a grade or rating. And what’s the difference between a 92 and a 95 anyway? Jim Murray gets a hearty raking over the coals here.

But almost all of this (a few stories excepted) is very dry stuff. Written academically — every essay is footnoted extensively — this is a textbook for that class in college that sounds like it’s going to be awesome… until you get there and realize that no booze is allowed in the classroom.

In other words: Perfect for the whiskey-lover’s bookshelf. But not a book you should expect him to actually read much of.

C+ / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: Whiskypedia

whiskypedia Book Review: WhiskypediaThe beauty of books about whiskey (vs. books about wine) is that they needn’t be replaced quite so often with new ones. Compared to the wine world, the whiskey world is relatively plodding in speed, and the Black Label you drink today is going to taste and be made an awful lot like the Black Label of 10 years ago.

With Whiskypedia: A Compendium of Scottish Whisky, Charles MacLean takes a different approach than Michael Jackson and Jim Murray, with an emphasis not on rating every whisky under the sun but rather on exploring how they are made.

As the title implies, the book is set up like an encyclopedia, with Scottish distilleries (single malt only) arranged in alphabetical order. Other whiskey regions are not included. Flip to your favorite purveyor and you’re likely to find a brief history of the facilities, its ownership (MacLean spends a lot of time on how distilleries have changed hands over the centuries), and a section of “curiosities”: Trivia about that distillery’s whisky. The entries end with a discussion of the various available expressions, and an in-depth look at the materials the distillery uses: Where its water and malt come from, the size of the plant and the equipment therein, even where barrels are sourced. Not every entry has every scrap of data, but Whiskypedia is amazingly comprehensive on the whole.

What’s lacking is much of a sense of how these whiskys actually taste. MacLean goes into the house style of each of the 134 distilleries he covers here, but that only gets you so far. Even consistent houses will vary dramatically from expression to expression, and MacLean’s coverage of these is relegated to a simple list of what’s on the market — and I’ve found some holes there, too.

If you’re curious what, say. Glen Ord’s eight washbacks are made out of (Oregon pine, by the way), Whiskypedia sure beats the hell out of searching the web.

As a side note, I imagine MacLean is horrified that the publisher chose as the cover art a glass of whisky with ice in it — anathema for any single malt drinker.

B / $12 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: The Quick-Fix Hangover Detox

quick fix hangover detox Book Review: The Quick Fix Hangover DetoxSubtitled “99 Ways to Feel 100 Times Better,” this slim tome (just 99 pages long including the index) is a straightforward list of recipes and advice for correcting the worst part of drinking: the hangover.

The advice is split into three sections – before, during, and after you drink – and the advice varies from simple to obtuse. Lots of this stuff you already know: Drink lots of water. Take B vitamins. Don’t drink too much.

Some of the advice will likely be new to you: Drink a mixture of blended lettuce, broccoli, and spinach. Eat celery to help with nausea. Gin and tonic is a depressant.

Still more of the advice is contrary to what you probably think you know: Don’t take pain relievers in the morning. Caffeine is bad for hangovers.

Even more of the advice you can safely dismiss: Use crystals to help recovery the next day.

Some of the advice isn’t hangover advice at all: Drinking is fattening.

There’s no telling how much of this information is legit, but it mostly sounds OK and the bulk of it comes down to not drinking too much and making sure you eat lots of fruit and vegetables during your recovery. Good advice, I suppose, provided you’ve read this tome and stocked up well before that big night out gets underway.

C / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Book Review: The Sommelier Prep Course

sommelier prep course Book Review: The Sommelier Prep CourseNeed to bone up on the wines of Greece and Hungary? Can’t keep straight the various styles of Madeira? Desire a greater understanding of the production of various ciders? You need The Sommelier Prep Course: An Introduction to the Wines, Beers, and Spirits of the World.

As the name might imply, wine is the focus of this book, which is actually a textbook broken into chapters and each with a set of review questions at the end. The full wine experience is here, from the history of the grape to wine pairings to descriptions of every wine region you can imagine. The information is in-depth but accessible and easy to digest, useful both for beginners and even more seasoned wine drinkers.

The inclusion of beer and spirits is a little baffling here. The former gets two chapters, the latter one, and neither gets enough attention to merit much of your time.

Other than that, though, this is a useful and intelligent book that anyone looking to expand or refresh their wine knowledge should enjoy. Maps, charts, terminology, and even pronunciation guides are to be found herein. At $29, it’s not going to break the bank, either.

A- / $29 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Japanese Cocktails (Book)

I love the idea of Japanese Cocktails, the look of it, and the author Yuri Kato, who has obviously toiled for some long months to come up with a succinct list of Japanese-inspired cocktails that you won’t find in any other cocktail recipe guide.

And therein lies the problem with Japanese Cocktails: Unless you have access to some rare and obscure ingredients, you’re going to spend a lot more time dreaming about these drinks than you will making them.

Every page seems to demand something off the beaten path: Umeboshi? Shichimi Togarashi spice? Kabosu juice? I don’t even know what some of these things are, much less where to buy them.

But really, that’s OK. Many of the 60 or so recipes in the book at least lend themselves to substitution — if you don’t have sweet potato shochu you can always sub in whatever rice soju you can find; non-peated Scotch can sub in for rare Japanese whiskies — and even if you can’t they might inspire you to make something new. Don’t have yuzu juice? Try subbing in another fruit flavor and see what happens.

More coffee table book than indispensable bartending guide, Japanese Cocktails is a great gift for the cocktail enthusiast who thinks he’s seen it all.

B+ / $10 / [BUY IT HERE]

Japanese Cocktails book Review: Japanese Cocktails (Book)

Review: Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch 6th Edition

Michael Jacksons Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch Review: Michael Jacksons Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch 6th EditionThere are two major schools of thoughts in whiskey review compendiums: You can get Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, which features digest reviews of every whiskey known to man in birdseed type, or you can go for Michael Jackson’s less thorough (and covering single malt Scotch only) Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, which features quite short reviews but offers lots of history on malt whisky and a treatise on each distillery in the tome.

Both are worthy books and I refer to them frequently when I encounter rarities in the field.

Despite having died three years ago, Jackson’s book has been updated to a sixth edition, with Dominic Roskrow, Gavin D. Smith, and William C. Meyers contributing new reviews and updating coverage from the 2004-published fifth edition.

The book is of course long overdue, as the last six years have seen plenty of new whiskeys hit the market.

Fans of older editions of the book will find no surprises in store here. The writeups are exactly as they used to be (and there’s no way of knowing who wrote what), and Jackson et al do a good job of covering the basics without trying to convince you that a whiskey is awesome a la Murray. When reading Whiskey Bible, I always feel like I’m trying to be sold something. While Jackson’s ratings can feel a bit random with some wild variations in them, they are always allowed to stand without a lot of fluffy commentary.

Certainly a must-have tome for any serious whisky aficionado.

B+ / $20 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: The Professional Bartender’s Handbook

professional bartenders handbook Review: The Professional Bartenders HandbookWhat a strange little tome we have here. All business, this book claims to offer “a recipe for every drink known–including tricks and games to impress your guests.”

Do professional bartenders engage in tricks and games? For most that I know, scowling is as close as they get to anything approaching a tabletop diversion.

The book begins with one oddity after another: Sections on what liquors you need to start a bar are fine (if limited — any professional bar will need far more than is listed here)… but it segues there from a section on wine and cheese pairings. For a book that includes two recipes for “Flirtinis,” it’s quite the strange addition to the book.

The meat of the tome, however, is the 1,500 recipes mentioned on the cover, and indeed The Professional Bartender’s Handbook is pretty comprehensive. Recipes are presented alphabetically, with no separation based on primary alcohol or other arbitrary categorization. This is a book for “looking up a drink quickly,” with 8 or 9 recipes per page. No photos, no history lessons on how the caipirinha came to be.

Overall the quality of the recipes are good, and the breadth is solid. That said, some key ommisisons make this book a tad suspect. One might conceivably be forgiven for including only a “Manhattan (Dry)” in the book, leaving the reader to figure out to sub in sweet vermouth for the dry vermouth in that recipe to make a regular Manhattan. But how a book like this omits any recipe for a Martini, well, that one even I can’t explain.

B / $15 / [BUY IT HERE]

Review: Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide 2010

oz clarke pocket wine guide 2010 Review: Oz Clarkes Pocket Wine Guide 2010The venerable Oz Clarke is back again with another pocket-sized guide to the entire world of wine. Naturally it’s impossible to distill everything into 350 minuscule pages, and as always it’s easier to see what Clarke has left out than what he’s decided to include in his annual guide.

Organized like a dictionary, everything’s alphabetical, with entries for Galicia (a region in Spain), Gallo (the winery), and Gamay (the grape) all on the same page. Novices will appreciate this approach but it will likely frustrate those looking for more depth of coverage.

One thing you may appreciate is Clarke’s coverage of Australian and New Zealand wineries — he’s actually British, mind you — which is always deeper than you’ll find in other tomes. Maps are handy and vintage charts are easy to find right in the inside front cover.

B- / $10.17 / BUY IT HERE

Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending

idiot bartending Book Review: The Complete Idiots Guide to BartendingWhile I was pleasantly surprised to find that the recent Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Basics was a credible and well-written introductory guide to the world of wine, another book from the Idiot’s series unfortunately bears little similarity.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending, by Amy Zavatto, boasts 1,500 recipes on its cover, but sheer volume is the only thing it has going for it. The problems begin with the excruciating first four chapters (wedged into 48 pages), wherein Zavatto tries to explain how to stir a drink with ice, that you shouldn’t drink and drive, and — most painfully — explains via table that some booze is more expensive than other booze, but fails to offer an opinion on whether it’s worth it to upgrade. To see the entire wine world crammed into a third of a page (and a mere quarter page for beer) is so laughable one wonders why it wasn’t excised by a shrewd editor.

But eventually we move on to the bulk of the tome, and that is recipes. They are helpfully split up by main liquor type, but that’s about all I can agreeably say about them. Surely no one has ever ordered a bouzo — bourbon and ouzo on ice — but obscurities like this are no reason to hate the book. Rather, it’s that some of the recipes are just plain wrong. The absolute worst offender: The caipirinha recipe, which calls for the juice of an entire lime, twice as much (or more) than you’d need and likely to kill both the drink and the drinker.

Other issues are less heinous but still eyebrow-raising. The type of vermouth in most recipes is often unspecified. The martini’s vermouth is, but the recipe calls for three whopping, brutish ounces of gin and a “dash of dry vermouth.” And the recipe for sangrita included is a more obscure, alternate version, which includes no tomato juice.

Sigh. Maybe “idiots” can drink wine, but they surely shouldn’t tend bar.

D / $13

Book Review: The Essential Cocktail

essential cocktail Book Review: The Essential CocktailAuthor and mixologist Dale Degroff was in town recently to promote his new book, The Essential Cocktail, and while I sadly missed the promotional soiree, I did at least get a copy of the book to check out.

All in all this is an excellent and accessible introduction to classic cocktails and their newer variants. With 200 recipes total, it’s easy to find something that looks good (and which you can actually make) — and in fact all you need to do is look at the pictures, as almost every drink is illustrated with a large, full-color photo, some of them consuming an entire page — no small feat since this is a 10 x 7.6-inch hardcover tome that massively outsizes in sheer dimensions (if not depth) anything else on the typical bar shelf (including mine).

Degroff breaks the book down not by main ingredient but by style — classics, martinis, sours, tropicals, sweet drinks, etc. — and when he offers variants on a recipe they’re kept together on the page. I’m especially intrigued to try some of these alternate versions — I’m particularly interested in trying out the Grapefruit Julep, a spin on the Mint Julep (which Degroff outlines with his own unique and prickly attention to detail). The ginger-lychee infused caipirinha also sounds wonderful, but lots of work. Degroff’s effort in explaining how to make garnishes and describe the proper use of glassware is also exemplary.

Degroff offers anecdotes on the origin of many recipes — if you aren’t familiar with Pepe Ruiz’s Flame of Love from L.A.’s Chasen’s, you’ll have to read the story here — but even more interesting are sidebars on things you may not think much about. Degroff advises against storing vodka in the freezer (and explains why), and tells us what makes Myer’s Rum so dark. Fascinating stuff, which is why you’ll often find yourself flipping around and reading the book and forgetting to actually get up and make the actual drinks.

A / $23

Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Basics (Second Edition)

wine basics book Review: The Complete Idiots Guide to Wine Basics (Second Edition)I never would have thought I’d be recommending a book about wine with the phrase “complete idiot” in the title, but for outright rank beginners, this tome by Tara Q. Thomas is an accessible way to get a bearing on a complicated subject.

Primarily broken down by grape varietal (with a few chapters devoted to certain wine regions), the book is 368 pages of easy-reading, breezy coverage of the basics of the grape. Favorite feature: Simple line drawings that outline the grape-growing regions of virtually every major country where wine is made. Unless you need a map of, say, South Africa’s wine regions, you should be able to get your bearings from Wine Basics.

As this is indeed a book of “basics” you’ll find only minimal discussion of actual producers and essentially no discussion of vintages, as Thomas sticks to the high points of, say, what Chardonnay tastes like or how Sauvignon Blanc varies from old world to new. There are no obvious gaps in coverage, but the index certainly needs work. I’d expect any wine novice to search for, say, “Sancerre” in the index (where it isn’t listed) instead of knowing to find it discussed, almost in passing, in the chapter on Sauvignon Blanc.

At a paltry $12.89, consider this a fine little stocking stuffer for the wine novice in the family, and one which will set you back less than even a cheap bottle of Chardonnay.

Buy The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Basics

B / $13

Bad Red vs. Bad White?

kingsley amis everyday drinking 150x150 Bad Red vs. Bad White?From the inimitable Kingsley Amis, in the tome Everyday Drinking:

Faced with a choice between bad or untrustworthy red wine on the one hand, and ditto white on the other, pick the red.

That was true back when Amis wrote those words in the early ’70s (when cheap white wine meant one thing: crudely made German plonk). Not sure if it the advice is the same today: Cheap whites now tend to be better than cheap reds in my experience (and we’re talking in the $6 or less per bottle range).

What a terribly fun book. Casual and serious drinkers alike should seek out a copy. I’d quote the whole book if I could.

Book Review: Hip Tastes – The Fresh Guide to Wine

hip tastes wine book Book Review: Hip Tastes   The Fresh Guide to WineCourtney Cochran is one of these hipster gals trying to change the wine world and refocus it on a younger crowd, away from the Robert Parkers of the industry. Great, I’m all for it.

Now she’s got a book out, Hip Tastes – The Fresh Guide to Wine, which is sort of an introductory text on wine for people too intimidated by that aisle at the grocery store or the wine list at their favorite restaurant. Again, I’m all for it.

Hip Tastes is indeed a pretty good primer on wine, though it isn’t without some issues. The best part is that, from start to finish, Cochran talks in plain English about wine, laying out grapes, regions, and etiquette issues like how to pick a wine when you’re dining out. It even dips into “advanced” stuff: I love that she took the time to outline the six types of sweet German wines and offers a handy primer on the typical styles of various Champagne houses. The section on food and wine pairings are also helpful, as is a pronunciation guide in the back of the book.

For a beginner’s wine guide, though, a lot of Hip Tastes feels a little off topic. At 300 pages, it feels too long, and the very tall and slim design doesn’t work well with a book this thick. I suppose it’s meant to be taken with you on your trips to the store or the wine country, but it’s too fat to fit in a pocket and too chatty to use as a quick reference. The latter half of the book could easily have been trimmed down or ejected entirely.

The appendix is where I figure most wine buyers will spend their time, and here the book is not really of much help. This section outlines major wine regions of the world and provides “recommended producers” for each. Sadly, it’s heavily focused on wines that no new wine drinker will ever sample: Three pages of Bordeaux recommendations (oh, Petrus is a good brand!?) are followed by only 20 recommended wineries from all of Napa Valley, from which most U.S. wine drinkers will be getting their bottles. Worse still, her recommendations for top wines from Sonoma Valley include at least three outright terrible picks, which either shows a lapse in judgment or simply bad taste. The long tabular style of the appendix makes it hard to read, too.

Still, for novices and outright newcomers this isn’t a terrible book. While one gets a bit of the feeling that Cochran is sort of rehashing her Master Sommelier coursework (which she is still working on) in book form in order to help pay for the classes, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Wine educations will certainly cost a lot more than the 15 bucks this book runs…

B / $15 / buy it here