Wine and Words in Three Volumes

I happened last week to be eating lunch at a small cafe that had a wine store and bar attached. The only available table for me to occupy while scarfing down my panini during a break from my fifth day in the jury box (long story, don’t ask), happened to be in the wine store. And sitting on the table was a careworn copy of Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits, first published in 1967.

I spent my lunchtime leafing through this early (and remarkably deep) attempt at a comprehensive description of the world of wine. In addition to reminding me of what a clear communicator Lichine was, the book’s late-sixties perspectives were an easy reminder of just how far the wine world has moved in the past sixty years. It’s fun to get a chuckle out of seeing things like Semillon listed as one of the primary white grapes of California.

But you don’t have to look at old books to get a sense of how the wine world has changed. Three recently published books each provide some perspective on the changing face of what we know of wine.

There are few volumes of wine literature as venerable as the Oxford Companion to Wine. I’ve described it in the past as one of the most essential books for anyone who is curious about wine. Last month, the fourth edition of this massive tome was released bearing more than two years of work by editors Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, along with hundreds of contributors. The new edition, in which more than 60% of the original entries have been significantly revised, sports more than 300 new terms required to maintain its claim as the authoritative reference guide on wine.

I’ll spare you the suspense. Yes, even wine blogs have now made it into the Oxford Companion.

Some other terms that I’m happy to see have been added include:

Orange Wine — mmmmmm. Skin macerated goodness!
Counterfeit Wine — vigilance, people!
Kalecik Karasi — Turkish wine rocks!
Microbial Terroir — it’s all about the bugs, people
Pet-Nat — who don’t love themselves some pet-nat?
Sideways — never underestimate the power of Hollywood
Urban Wineries — if you don’t own vineyards, why not work where you live?

The fourth edition also sports a much improved typographical layout, better quality and more durable paper, and yes, even some color photographs. Perhaps more importantly the maps have all been updated, as have many of the diagrams. Appropriate disclaimers must be made here — I’m listed in the acknowledgements and (as many of you know) am partly employed by the book’s editor, Jancis Robinson. Nonetheless, I’d heartily suggest that if you have the previous edition, and especially if you don’t, this hefty tome is worth its weight.

I said there were few volumes as venerable as the Oxford Companion, but by sheer coincidence, this autumn marks the new edition of another contender for that designation, Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. Easily the best-selling wine book in American history since its publication in 2000, The Wine Bible has also been completely revised from top to bottom.

Where the Oxford Companion aims to be and encyclopedic reference, The Wine Bible aims to be an authoritative education. I’ve often told people who aim to learn about wine that if they’re going to purchase just one book, The Wine Bible is their best bet. This completely renewed second edition rewards that recommendation even more. A full 100 pages longer than its original edition, this version of the book deeply reflects the intervening 15 years that Karen MacNeil has spent as one of America’s foremost wine educators. wine_bible_2nd_ed.jpg

The book reads like the most entertaining textbook you’ve ever encountered. Its comprehensive descriptions of the world’s different wines and wine regions are peppered with anecdotes, photos, tips, and even amusing titles that draw you along through the text. Before you know it, you’ve got a comprehensive understanding of a piece of the wine world.

Take for instance the book’s section on Port. The 19 pages devoted to this important Portuguese fortified wine are broken up into the following sections, sidebars, callouts, and cul-de-sacs:

The Quick Sip on Port — a three sentence overview
The Land, The Grapes, and The Vineyards — a description of the region and its growing conditions
The Grapes of Port — a description of the most important grapes
The Term Touriga — an interesting anecdote about the origin of the name Touriga
The Top Port Shippers — MacNeil’s list of the top producers
Making Port — a description of the winemaking process
“Ports” Around the World — a sidebar on the illegal use of the Port name by others
The Birth Present — explaining the British relationship to port
The Styles of Port — a compact description of the styles and their origins
Is Port Ever White — a sidebar explaining this rare type of Port
Port’s Flavor Paradox — a description of what great Ports taste like
Declaring a Vintage — the story behind vintage ports including a list of the vintages
When You Visit Portugal — tips on how to visit port producers
Port’s Classic Partners — what to eat when you drink it
Bloody Hell, College Was Brutal — a sidebar about the wine cellars of British colleges
Decanting, Drinking, Aging, and Storing Port — everything you need to know about consumption
How Long Will an Open Bottle of Port Last — a handy chart with timelines
Portugal’s National Dish — a sidebar about Bacalhau
The Bottle’s Beginnings — an anecdote about the first glass wine bottles (used for Port!)
The Ports to Know — the list of bottlings that MacNeil recommends

That’s a hell of a lot to pack into 19 pages, but MacNeil does it remarkably well, with beautifully clear and casual prose. The rest of the book is just as packed with education, making this book the best possible introduction to wine that can be found between two covers. And somewhere in there you’ll find a photograph by yours truly of a horse pulling a biodynamic spray rig through the vineyards of Seresin winery in New Zealand. Go ahead, look for it. Who knows what you’ll have learned by the time you find it.

While both the Oxford Companion and The Wine Bible are nearly comprehensive in their scope, more words aren’t always better. In fact, wine writer Matt Kramer would suggest all you really need are seven of them. At least, that’s the premise of his his recently published True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words. If the 6.2 pounds of the Oxford Companion or the 1008 pages of The Wine kramer_true_taste_cover.jpgBible seem a bit too much to swallow, Kramer’s slim new book offers a sure antidote.

I’ve always adored Kramer’s writing for its unique balance of erudition and lack of pretense. Kramer isn’t a critic, he’s a wine writer, and spends his time looking for meaning rather than adjectives in every glass.

Kramer doesn’t seek flavors, but something more fundamental in what makes wine great. He offers his seven wine words in the vein of the Platonic Solids, shapes that were thought at the time to be the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

Insight, Harmony, Texture, Layers, Finesse, Surprise, and Nuance. These are the characteristics that Kramer suggests should form the fundamentals of any judgement about wine. Wines either have them, or they don’t, says Kramer, and the best wines have got them all.

But even more to the point, Kramer suggests that once you understand these elements of wine, they’re pretty much all you need to fully understand and appreciate it, which may be a welcome message to many who will never pick up the Oxford Companion or The Wine Bible.

Indeed, this book seems pitched at a very different audience than those two reference books, likely to already be in the possession of serious wine aficionado. Kramer’s little book may be best for the wine timid — those who enjoy wine and are slightly embarrassed by how little they know about it (which describes a large portion of my friends, and yours, most likely).

These folks will find a combination of solace and inspiration in Kramer’s book, starting from its very premise. The individual essential words that Kramer has selected are beautifully elucidated and explained, in ways that make them both approachable, but also profound.

Here’s what Kramer has to say about finesse in wine:

“Finesse is when the wine does all the work, as it serves to effortlessly deliver all the forces present in the wine to you. It presents these without your having to either look for them or somehow sidestep them. A wine with finesse always seems subtle, no matter how big or powerful.”

Kramer not only explains each of his seven essential wine terms, but uses those explanations as jumping off points to dispel many myths about wine that pervade the current discourse of wine, from the obsession with alcohol levels to the ubiquity of points, to the notion that someone who merely tastes a lot of wines automatically has something worthwhile to offer to consumers.

Of his seven words, insight proves to be the stickiest, which may be why Kramer chooses to address it first.

“It is not enough to simply taste a lot of wines,” writes Kramer. “I’ve met many people who have tasted thousands of wines. And God knows, they have opinions. But too often they have little to say.” Instead of the “data processing” of tasting notes, Kramer exhorts us to actually think about wine. He’s even given us an equation: “Experience + Thought + Synthesis = Insight.”

The difference between insight and Kramer’s other six words is that we don’t look for it in the glass. We look for it in ourselves and in others. Which is why we all continue reading Matt Kramer, with pleasure.

Mentioned in this article:

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding The Oxford Companion to Wine 4th Edition, Oxford University Press 2015, $39.86 (Hardcover).

Karen MacNeil The Wine Bible 2nd Edition, Workman Publishing 2015, $28.03 (Hardcover).

Matt Kramer True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words, Cider Mill Press 2015, $14.82 (Hardcover).