In the days before video came the wine book. These were slim, privately published, unillustrated tracts that contained the ramblings of that precious breed known as the wine connoisseur. "Ah, yes, the 1875. Great vintage, and a most sublime and abstruse endeavor."
Then, before America discovered White Zinfandel, we saw the advent of the Wine Book, a massive tome that resembled an obelisk. It bowed coffee tables. Wine Books had a lot of color pictures and a lot of well-researched and -written text. No one ever read Wine Books for fear that one slip would break a metatarsal.
In the last decade, we have experienced the Wine Text, a kind of primer for the budding wine enthusiast. As they have come to us in all their stupefying statistics, so many of them sound so much the same, complete with their endless lists--the Crus of Beaujolais, a glossary of words no one uses, a detailed description of what oechsle means.
Some of these things can sound awfully derivative: "There are five First Growth wines in the Medoc." Snore.
In the last few years, thankfully, a new breed of educational book has appeared. It is written with style and grace and the good sense not to merely list things in columns. The best of them are written by Hugh Johnson (under various titles) and by Alexis Bespaloff. In fact, Bespaloff's "Signet Book of Wine" ($4.50) is the current U.S. all-time best-selling wine book in America.
Maps and Illustrations
"The Essential Wine Book" by Oz Clarke (Fireside/Simon & Schuster: $14.95, paperback) adds depth to the educational category of wine writing, but for a number of curious reasons, I liked it. One reason is that this revision of an earlier work (1985) does not try to be comprehensive.
Clarke, a Briton with a sense of humor and a divergent and diverting writing style, recognizes that to write a primer on wine that is relevant and unpretentious, one must address questions of the various wine-growing regions of the world such as "what kind of grapes grow here?" and "what do the wines taste like?" And this is exactly what he does, with boldface subheads so you can't misread anything.
Moreover, the text includes decent maps, color pictures of the regions, label illustrations and what I consider to be dead-on comments on many of the wines. Clarke pulls no punches when he says, for instance, that the wines of Franken in Germany usually aren't a very good value or that Italy's Brunello "is more often than not a disappointment."
A nit-picker might criticize him for writing about some wines we'll never see in the United States. But since this book was first published in England, this is understandable, if a bit frustrating.
As a first look into the world of wine, this book offers a good cross-section and it's worth a look.
Another book that handles the same subjects with a lighter-than-usual hand is Kevin Zraly's fine 1986 work "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course" (Sterling: $18.95, hard cover).
Zraly, the light-hearted wine buyer for the most wine-conscious restaurant in America, anticipates readers' questions (many of them come from students who take the Windows on the World wine courses he teaches). He answers them with the same wit with which he teaches.
Up the scale a bit in terms of depth are the pocket guides to the various wine regions that Simon & Schuster puts out every year, topped by the masterwork of the genre, "Hugh Johnson's Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine 1989" ($9.95, hard cover.) It presumes you know something about wine, so it is not a primer, but it is a great friend of the budding wine lover.
Johnson is a droll fellow whose entry into the writing dodge was through a book on gardening. His epic works ("The World Atlas of Wine" and "Hugh Johnson's Modern Encyclopedia of Wine") are two of the great efforts in vinous literature, and the pocket guide is a mere sliver of the whole. Still, it gives all of us who have a less-than-perfect memory all we need to sound like an expert.
Started in the Garden
Here's how it can work: slip it into a vest pocket or purse and hie off to a local eatery. Then make certain your guest has plenty of water to drink. Do not order the wine from the wine list until the companion has offered an excuse-me and has gone off to powder a nose. Then grab both the wine list and pocket guide and quickly note that the 1984 Chateau Lynch-Bages, on the wine list, is ready to drink. Order it.
When companion later notes you have had the good taste to order a Lynch-Bages, you can casually say, "Oh, yes, it's one of Pauillac's regular stars." And then silently thank Johnson for the crib notes.