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Beloved Wine Books
By Rebecca Murphy
Jan 16, 2018
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I love books, especially wine books.  Since I was a child, I always had my nose stuck in a book, though not wine books at the start, of course.  As an adult, I’ve traveled with books, piling pound after pound of reading material into my backpack or briefcase.  When I’ve devoured the material I had packed, I head out to find another book to read for the remainder of my trip.

When e-readers first appeared, I was skeptical.  I loved the feel of a book, the heft, the texture of the paper.  I was in no way convinced of the value reading on some sort of electronic device.  It was the third household move in two years that inspired my e-reader epiphany.  Out with all the novels with a few exceptions and of course, my wine books.

I am in the process of packing my wine books, all 522 of them, for yet another move.  Sadly, I admit I have not read them all, an I haven’t opened some of them for years.  However, as I handle each of these books, I am reminded of those that have had profound impact at different phases of my career in wine. 

Since wine was not a part of my early life history, when I talked my way into my first restaurant job of wine steward in the 1970s, I relied on books like Alexis Bespaloff’s The Signet Book of Wine: A Complete Introduction (1971) and Alexis Lichine's Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits (1967).  I read what I could about wines from the wine list, but when a guest ordered something I hadn’t studied yet, I would hope they didn’t ask too many questions.  Lichine’s book was chock full of information about wine service and wine and food as well as history and terminology.  I still recommend Bespaloff’s book to novices who want to learn more about wine, because even if some information is dated, it is well written and full of reliable and easy to understand information.

When I changed jobs to a restaurant with an all-American wine list in 1975, I didn’t know much of anything about American wines…nor did many of our guests.  So, I started reading The Wines of America (Second Edition, Revised) by Leon Adams.  He was a fearless and zealous advocate of American wines, and helped me realize that good wine really could be grown and made in the U.S.  He believed that wine could and should be made in every state to help people understand that wine is an agricultural product, not just an elite beverage.  That, he preached, was the way to make the U.S. a country of wine drinkers.  In addition to his writing, he founded the Wine Institute and Medical Friends of Wine.  Both organizations are still active today.

I was reminded of my time of buying and recommending American wines when I read American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine (2000) by my Wine Review Online colleague, Paul Lukacs.  California has been so dominant in American wine since Prohibition that it is hard to believe that states like Ohio in and Missouri were the major players in the 1800s.  He describes the big personalities that built the foundation before Prohibition and those who rebuilt after. 

For years I relied on Frank E. Johnson’s, The Professional Wine Reference (1977) because it had clear, easy to understand answers to just about any topic about wine.  My well-used leather-bound copy is beginning to come apart.

Since I was learning about wine by tasting and reading, Thomas Maresca’s Mastering Wine (1985) really resonated with me.  His approach was for readers to explore wines to determine their preferences.  He recommended tasting pairs of wines, specific pairs that represented differences in styles or grapes or regions.  He didn’t tell the reader which was best, but rather left the reader to decide.  He outlined a progression through colors and styles.  By the end of the tastings, done at the reader’s pace and choice of location, he or she would have a good idea of what they liked to drink.  The specific wine pairs are now quite out-of-date, but the premise is brilliant.

The first book I remember seeing about matching wine and food was Red Wine with Fish: The New Art of Matching Wine with Food, by David Rosengarten and Josh Wesson (1989).  They are credited with the concepts of matching or contrasting components in the wine and the food.  They did take the onus off wine and food pairing, saying that no one is an expert in this endeavor because the qualifications are knowing the taste of every wine and vintage in the world, all foods from all producers and how they all taste together in every combination and every circumstance.   

In 1989, the labels warning of negative health effects from consuming alcohol were required on containers of beverages containing alcohol.  Suddenly, information about the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption that normally appeared in peer-reviewed medical journals was featured in consumer media.  To Your Health!: Two Physicians Explore the Health Benefits of Wine (1994) by David Whitten, MD, PhD and Martin R. Lipp, MD, provided comprehensive information in easy to understand language about the influence of alcohol on health. 

Pierre Galet’s, A Practical Ampelography: Grapevine Identifcation Translated and Adapted by Lucie T. Morton (1979) is considered a groundbreaking work in the field of grapevine identification by various physical characteristics.  It was my first wine grape variety reference and Lucie Morton was my first go-to wine grape person.  The book includes images of grape leaves of from different varieties and a system for determining identification.

While Galet’s book is slim, Wine Grapes (2012) by team Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz requires a well-fortified resting place.  It is entirely too easy to get totally engrossed in the wealth of information including history, lineage, synonyms, where it is grown and several grape family trees.  It is an indispensable resource for me.

The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World (2004) by Christie Campbell was the best account of the plague of phylloxera I have read.  Andrew Jefford’s The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine (2002) was my first exposure to his eloquent prose.  Each chapter he would lure me in to watch his words soar, then bring me to earth for the facts.

Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers (2012) by Katherine Cole is another very entertaining writer and a thorough researcher.  This tiny book is bursting with information about two of my favorite topics: Oregon wines and biodynamic viticulture.  I didn’t know that biodynamics can be traced to Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion created by the ancient Iranian Prophet Zoroaster.

Peter Hellman’s In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire (2017) recounts in delicious detail the outrageous tale of wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan, the wine collectors, auctioneers and winemakers who unwittingly or tacitly aided and abetted him and those who stopped him.

I may have mentioned that I love books.  I also love wine.  I think the best way to learn about wine is to go to the regions where it is produced:  Walk the vineyards and talk to the producers.  The next best way, however, is to read about wine while drinking them.