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Book Review: Heard it Through the Grapevine by Matt Skinner

skinner_heardit_cover.jpgThere are two things I wish were more easily found in the world of wine: great bottles for under $5, and excellent introductory wine books for novice wine lovers. Although after reading his latest book Heard it Through The Grapevine: The Things You Should Know to Enjoy Wine, I'm tempted to suggest that the wine world also needs more people like Matt Skinner.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Skinner stumbled into the wine world almost by accident. As relayed in a 2005 profile in the UK's The Observer, his transformation from surf bum to celebrity sommelier sounds more like the plot to a Hollywood movie than the early career of a successful wine writer. But listen to Skinner talk about wine, and it's clear that however accomplished he may be in the wine world, he still has one foot on the surfboard, so to speak.

That attitude is the Matt Skinner angle on wine, part of his charm, and no doubt one of the reasons that Naked Chef Jamie Oliver, who cultivates a similar enfant terrible image, tapped Skinner to be the sommelier for his London restaurant Fifteen in 2002. Skinner continues to manage the wine operations for the now global restaurant group, while also making a living as a writer, consultant and educator.

Heard it Through the Grapevine is Skinner's third book on wine and his most basic to date. In every way, the book attempts to be an essential guide for the complete wine novice, and it succeeds beautifully. I've thumbed my way through a lot of "educational" wine books -- probably close to a hundred of them -- and I always come away with one of three primary complaints. These books are either too dense with information, too boring, or too poorly organized. Heard it Through the Grapevine strikes the right balance between volume and type of information, style of presentation, organization, and attitude.

The book is organized into five simple sections: Shopping, Drinking, Eating, Sleeping (a strange choice for what should really be entitled "cellaring") and Well-being. Each section begins with a conversational introduction followed by several pithy one-page summaries of key topics.

The Shopping chapter represents a perfect example of why this book is such a great introductory tome. It's subsections are: Buying wine from a supermarket, Buying wine from a chain wine store, Buying wine from an independent wine merchant, Buying wine from the Internet, Buying wine at auction, Buying wine in a restaurant, and buying wine from a vineyard. Now that is what I call straightforward. Each of these sections offers practical advice, pros and cons, and tips for success. The internet section could have used some additional information such as recommended vendors or search utilities like Wine Searcher or Wine Prices, and the section about buying at vineyards doesn't quite make it clear that even though you might save on taxes you're typically paying the highest retail price for the wine. But that doesn't keep this chapter from being the best summary of wine buying advice I've ever seen in a beginner's wine book.

The chapters that follow are equally appropriate for an entry-level audience, and must be commended for their conspicuous lack of a ponderous section on each of the major grape varieties, the wine growing regions of the world, or the process of how wine gets made. I've never thought that introductory books needed this sort of information, which people either tend to pick up on their own (if they're interested) or could really care less about when they're first starting out. These omissions ensure that this book will limit its appeal to purely wine novices, but they might also mean that such folks will actually read every page. Of course this also means that such folks will rapidly need to turn elsewhere if their thirst for wine knowledge continues to grow.

Skinner writes in a very casual style, with language that will seem approachable to most, and perhaps a touch frivolous to those who prefer their wine knowledge conveyed with suitable gravitas. I found it quite to my personal taste, as I think Skinner has a blogger's conversational cant.

The writing style is complemented well by a magazine-style design and layout, with bold colors, and big photos. Sometimes the (slightly amateurish) design becomes a bit too much, as with some introductory pages of ugly fonts against a hot pink background, or the multi-page grid of images for different wine aromas, which, while pretty, comes across as a bit gratuitous. Those with a keen eye for such things will also notice the less than stellar quality of the printing.

Minor design criticisms aside, I find very little to dislike about this book, perhaps with the exception that Skinner spends a few too many pages on wine and food pairing, though he does an admirable job of avoiding rules and dictums in favor of general guidelines and simply offering some of his favorite pairings. The book also contains an entire section on wine as an investment, which seems a little out of place in a book that aims primarily to help people enjoy wine, and slightly dangerous advice for the uninitiated.

I regularly get asked to recommend entry-level books on wine, and I think I occasionally offend people, or at least come off as a snob, by saying I don't think there are any very good ones. But the next time someone asks, I'm going to be both relieved and happy to point them to Heard it Through The Grapevine.

Now if only Matt Skinner could also solve our great-wine-under-$5 problem, he'd truly be a wine hero.

Heard it Through The Grapevine: The Things You Should Know to Enjoy Wine, Mitchell Beazley 2009, $17.99, (Hardcover).

Comments (9)

Dylan wrote:
03.22.09 at 7:16 AM

Since my experience, I've actually started a bit of a wine revolution among my friends from college and home. They are all anxious to start exploring and trying new things, but, as expected, they are fearful to take the missteps along the journey. This should make a great gift for some of them.

Jeff wrote:
03.22.09 at 8:29 AM

That's a pretty neat trick -- Amazon says the book publishes on April 1 and you have a copy already.

Did you receive this as a review copy? Probably good to note that, if so, since your review is so glowing with a pointer to buy the book.


Alder wrote:
03.22.09 at 11:21 AM


You're kidding right? Are you really suggesting that my review of a book might be influenced by getting a copy from the publisher? Did you notice that despite the publication date, it's for sale (not pre-order) on Amazon at the moment?

Jeff wrote:
03.22.09 at 11:34 AM

Whoa. I'm not trying to stick a fork in you or suggest anything. I asked a direct question (which you didn't answer).

Alder wrote:
03.22.09 at 4:16 PM

Jeff, you don't read defensiveness, merely surprise.
Most of the books reviewed on Vinography are press copies, with the exception of the classics, which I and the other reviewers own or get from the library.

It's never occurred to me that anyone might think that a book review might be influenced by getting a copy to review. As opposed to wines, which are a different story, both in terms of value, as well as pyschological influence.

While we regularly see people questioning the objectivity of the wine critics and restaurant critics in the context of free stuff, I don't think I've ever seen anyone even wonder aloud at whether Mitchiko Kakutani gets press copies of the books that the NY times reviews or whether Peter Travers gets a free screening or DVD of a movie before it's released. Such things are so low value in the context of the review of the content, the idea that they would influence the review, or that people would even wonder at it, surprises me.

03.23.09 at 9:47 PM

Would disclosure still be an issue for you if Alder had given the book a caning?

03.23.09 at 9:53 PM


And on the less than $5 bottle issue, is it even remotely possible to create a great wine at this price point, given that it has to go through the full chain of command all the way to consumer?

Actually, this might be a very interesting blog for you to take up. An analysis of the margins at each point in the wine chain, and what the producer would have to make the wine for in order to get it to the shelf at $5. I think that few people would have any idea of just how difficult it would at the production end to achieve such an end.

All the best

Suzy wrote:
03.24.09 at 8:44 AM

One thing I think is interesting is how few real wine writer personalities there are out there. Asides from Robert Parker and (maybe) Andrea Immer, I don't think many "normal" people are all that familiar with writers liks Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, etc. This might be the first young wine writer personality that I've seen and I wonder how that will play out. Watch out celebrity chefs!

rjh wrote:
04.24.09 at 10:56 PM

just picked up this book at costco last week and couldn't agree with your review more. i was immediately struck by the overwhelming design - my wife is a graphic designer and i guess i picked up a few things from her strong eye for design. other than that, though, i actually find the book pretty interesting. all relatively straight forward and i never feel like he's being condescending. i also had the same thought you did that i actually can confidently recommend an introductory book on wine.

thanks for reviewing - spot on.

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.