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Reading Food : The Best of This Year's Wine Book Harvest


Alas, so many books have come out in the last decade informing us about wine--from endless reprints of the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux to what wine goes with prune ragout--that they all seem derivative. Even Hugh Johnson, the greatest of all wine writers as far as I'm concerned, has brought out a rather ho-hum volume that appears to be deja vu all over again.

The 1990 harvest of wine books was rather lean, at least for new works. Revisions of older books seem far more interesting, the main exception being "Napa" by James Conaway (Houghton Mifflin: $24.95), a fascinating and important new book recently reviewed in the Times, which is brilliantly researched and extremely enjoyable reading. It has a lot of Napa Valley residents upset over its National Enquirer-ish tone, but the message of the book is more vital: that this paradise that produces great wine is in jeopardy of being destroyed by pro-growth forces, some of whom are, ironically, wine makers themselves.

The largest book of the year by far is "Burgundy" by Robert Parker (Simon & Schuster: $39.95), a thousand-pager intended to reveal everything imaginable about that French wine-growing region. Parker has done a monumental amount of research, and the book puts into one volume as much information about Burgundy as anything yet published.

Still, the writing of this book is a tad precious and magisterial, and a number of other books on Burgundy, though lacking tasting notes, are easier reading.

Another book somewhat derivative of past efforts is "The Right Wine" by Tom Maresca (Grove Weidenfeld: $19.95). Maresca aims to guide the reader to matching wine with food, a nearly impossible task. He doesn't do as good a job as Josh Wesson and David Rosengarten's 1989 "Red Wine With Fish" (Simon & Schuster: $19.95).

The section of the Maresca book I liked best was on choosing wine in restaurants. After slamming excessive markups on wine in restaurants, Maresca prints the wine lists and menus of four top restaurants, including L.A.'s own Valentino, and guides the reader into various ways of choosing a complete meal. (Alas, one of the restaurants he used has since closed.)

Hugh Johnson's latest, "How to Enjoy Wine" (Fireside Books: $9.95), isn't bad, but it's pretty basic stuff that can be found in Johnson's older works. Still, for the beginning wine lover there are plenty of Johnsonian bonuses here, including essential tips on ordering wine in a restaurant, serving it at home and storing it. The format is attractive (compact and loaded with nice color photos), and the glossary at the end is one of the better ones I've seen.

One of the most spectacular coffee-table books ever is "Napa Valley," by photographer Charles O'Rear (Collins Publisher, San Francisco: $45). Lots of books have been published on wine-country areas full of color photos, but O'Rear's touch is brilliant. And the text by wine educator John Thoreen is carefully researched and well written.

When I originally picked them up, I expected I'd like two pocket guides written by an old friend of wine books better than I do. "The Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Red Wines" and its "White Wines" counterpart ($10.95), both by Jim Ainsworth, are small (handy for carrying around to the wine shop or restaurant) and packed with basic information for the newcomer to wine.

The best features of the books are identifying the basic taste components of wines from around the world and discussing wines in terms of similar wines.

The organization is alphabetical, listing grape varieties and regions. Unfortunately, some references are hard to find (Grenache, for instance, is not listed), and the size of the book forces Ainsworth to compress some material too much.

"Wine Dynasties of Europe" by Harry Eyres (Lennard Publishing: $20.95) is an entertaining look at what the author calls "10 leading (wine) houses" on the continent, and though the profiles are well written, the selection of the 10 leaves me wondering.

In France, for example, he ignores Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Petrus, Veuve-Clicquot. In Italy, only Antinori is listed (no Baron Ricasoli or Angelo Gaja!). Perhaps this is the first in a series.

A new guidebook for the traveler is sure to anger folks in Amador, Santa Barbara and southern Riverside counties. That's because it's called "The Complete Wine Country Guidebook" (Indian Chief Publishing: $7.95) but includes only Napa and Sonoma.

The book is compact but a little out of date and lacks a number of obvious recommendations. Overall it's not as good as Bob Thompson's 1987 work "Webster's Wine Tours: California, Oregon and Washington" (Prentice Hall: $15.95).

One of the better books of the year is a revision, but it's a very thorough one. "Italian Wines" by Philip Dallas (Faber & Faber: $24.95) bears only scant resemblance to the earlier work of the same name.

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