California's Great Cabernets by James Laube (Wine Spectator Press: $29.95, 460 pages).
This is the most controversial wine book of the printing season, and expectedly so. When someone takes a strong stand, ranking the quality of various wines and wineries, it's like hanging out a target and handing you the bow and arrows.
And there is plenty to question about this book, but there is a lot to praise too.
For one thing, Laube, who lives in the Napa Valley, has done a monumental amount of research and has compiled here, in addition to a plethora of tasting notes, a serious appraisal of Cabernet Sauvignon in California that contains a lot of new material.
Laube's tasting notes appear to be pretty good, all things considered, though I feel in some cases a lot of scores are too high and a number of them are way too low. There is also a good in-depth look at vintages from 1933 through 1988, at microclimates (though there are some shortcomings here) and a series of valuable appendixes.
But the concept of the book--creating a ranking for Cabernet--is next to impossible. Moreover, the book ignores differences between wines that are either vineyard designated or always "estate bottled" (whatever that term means these days) and those wines that come from 20 or 60 different growers who change from year to year.
And it's not comprehensive, which is bothersome to those who would like to track such old-line wineries' Cabernets as Dehlinger, De Loach, Dry Creek, Parducci, Hacienda, Domaine Laurier, Foppiano, Rodney Strong, Grand Cru, Fetzer, David Bruce, Concannon and Pedroncelli.
Laube, asked about these omissions, said that "one of the yardsticks for any evaluation of Cabernet is how the wines age," and he didn't feel these properties' wines had aged well.
Also, omissions of newer wineries such as Folie a Deux, Cain, Clos Pegase, Cosentino, Domaine Michel, and Kistler was based, he said, on not enough experience with them. However, the goal was to update the book every three years and all such wineries will be considered for inclusion in the future.
One final problem I have with the book is that Laube gives a suggested collectibility price, which I feel in many cases is simply too high and doesn't reflect the actual resale value.
(Moreover, I'm personally irritated when anyone suggests that wine ought to be bought as a commodity to be sold for profit. I feel wine should be bought, aged and enjoyed. Call me Pollyanna. On the other hand, Laube doesn't recommend this practice; he merely accepts that it happens.)
All in all, however, I like the Laube book and feel it should be in every wine collector's library, preferably next to the Cabernet section in the wine cellar along with a corkscrew and a glass. It is a marvelous reference work for those truly dedicated to Cabernet and its myriad of stories.
Wines and Vines of California by Gary L. Peters (Star Publishing Co.: $15.95, 184 pages).
This new addition to the vinous literature from a newcomer to wine writing is an excellent example of a dedicated wine lover and geographer taking a personal look into wine.
This book is a winner on two levels. As a basic primer it offers a simplified look at modern wine production techniques without getting too technical, emphasizing the relationship between quality wine and the region in which the grapes grow. It also dissects the various regions of California, specifying which varieties grow best in which regions.
For those just getting into wine, this book is excellent, though the lack of an index makes it less useful as a reference.
Plain Talk About Fine Wine by Justin Meyer (Capra Press: $9.95, 160 pages)\o7 .
\f7 Any wine writer would have mixed emotions about a wine maker entering the writing field, just as wine makers should be irritated if I left my computer to commercially produce wine.
Yet I have known Justin Meyer for 15 years, since he left the Christian Brothers to operate Franciscan Vineyards and subsequently struck gold on his own with Silver Oak Cellars, and I know him to be one of the brightest and most thoughtful men in the business.
And though I liked this book quite a bit because of some marvelous insights into wine, by and large it is poorly organized and misses the mark as a unified work. Moreover, its "talk" isn't that plain, because in some areas, Meyer goes into such technical detail I wondered who would care.
This book is intended as an introduction to wine, "to make you as comfortable (with wine) as you are with food." Alas, a better book to accomplish this is Leon Adams' superb, "The Commonsense Book of Wine" (McGraw Hill, 1986, $15.95; paperback $9.95).
In fact, I recommend the Plain Talk book for those who have already read Adams' work and seek more depth because, as previously mentioned, there is a lot of good stuff here.
Beringer, a Napa Valley Legend by Lorin Sorensen, with Fred Beringer (Silverado Publishing Co.: $39.95, 198 pages).