Book Review: Heard it Through the Grapevine by Matt Skinner

There 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).