Lise's Top 20 Books on Wine
The long, dark nights of winter often find me curled up in my favorite old leather chair with a good book and a glass of wine. About half of what I read relates to food, wine, or travel—or in the best cases, all three. I thought I’d share what’s on my wine bookshelf in case you (or someone on your holiday gift list) also has a fondness of both reading and wine. Perhaps you'll find some of your favorites on this list, but more importantly, I hope you discover some new ones! (Clicking on the cover image will take you to Amazon.)
[Added January 2016: The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) awards medals for the best new wine books, some of which are available in English]
The Wine Bible by Karen McNeil
If I were suggest a single book for someone who wanted to learn more about wine, this would be it. A very readable book from front to back, serving as a thorough introduction to the world of wine. At 1000 pages though, it’s not a quick read. The first part of the book is general (e.g., how is wine made, tasting like a professional), while the vast majority covers the major wine regions worldwide, highlighting their predominant wine types and top producers.
The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
This was probably my very first wine book (my father gave it to me when I was in college)—and one that I continue to reference to this day because of the maps. Where the grapes are grown is the most important aspect of wine, thus the detailed, information-rich maps in this book are indispensable. Of course you'll find maps of California and Napa, but also detailed maps of Oakville and Stag's Leap for example. I also appreciate the conciseness of the writing: my 1985 edition is a brief 300 pages (Sonoma merits two pages, Napa three).
The Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding
An encyclopedia of wine, organized alphabetically and covering every topic imaginable. It’s my go-to book for answering questions such as are Rollo and Vermentino the same grape? (Yes) Where is the pergola method of training grapes still used? (Several places in Italy but especially Trentino and Emilia-Romagna). This is not a book to read from front to back, unless you are a geek like me, but still very useful for curious people who appreciate the value of books over Google.
The Wines of the Northern Rhône by John Livingston-Learmouth
The bible for Syrah lovers, and my desert island book. If you are not stuck on a desert island with only one wine book, but instead you are planning a wine-intensive trip to the region, this book is indispensable. It details each of the eight regions in the northern Rhône including it’s history, major vineyards, terroir, vinification methods and food pairings. It also goes into the major producers of the region, their significant wines, and descriptions of each vintage of that wine. A dense book, but a very enjoyable read (recommendation: skip over the vintage descriptions, which are dated anyway).
Napa: The Story of an American Eden by James Conaway
Reading like a novel with its plot twists and scandals, this social history of the Napa Valley provides great insight into the families and events that shaped the iconic valley. While the book’s coverage ends over 20 years ago, the same political battles between the vintners and the growers continue today.
When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country by Vivienne Sosnowski
An entertaining history of the struggles of the northern California wine industry during Prohibition. Focuses on Sonoma families (Seghesio, Foppiano, Cuneo) but some Napa, too. The title refers to when winemakers had to open the valves on tanks holding thousands of gallons of (red) wine. Although the book is poorly edited, the wonderful stories backed by unparalleled research makes it all worthwhile.
The Science of Wine: from Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode
Although for the non-scientist, this book targets those who want to go a level or two deeper into viticulture and enology. Key scientific developments and controversies are explored including the future of cork, climate change, “natural” wines, terroir, brettanomyces. While this book isn’t comprehensive, it does hit the highlights of present day wine debates.
DeLong's Wine Grape Varietal Table by Steve DeLong
Not a book, but rather a poster of 184 wine grape varietals organized like a periodic table by acidity and body. From Agiorgitiko to Zweigelt, a scientifically-minded wine lover will appreciate all the information packed into this table.
Travel & Wine Classics
Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France by Kermit Lynch
This and the next book are classic wine travelogues by very eloquent writers. Kermit Lynch is a well-respected wine importer who thrives on finding small producers with profound wines. In addition to his entertaining stories with colorful characters, you will learn about the major wine regions in France: their vineyards, their wines, and their producers. Be warned that it was written over 25 years ago, and times have... evolved.
Vineyard Tales: Reflections on Wine by Gerald Asher
A collection of personal wine stories by the long-time Wine Editor of Gourmet magazine. Being both informative and entertaining, Asher expounds on his experiences in wine regions around the world. Like the prior book, this one should not be used as a travel guide as it was written almost 20 years ago.
Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey by Robert Camuto
A chronicle of the author’s journey across Sicily from the lava-strewn vineyards of Mt. Etna, to the wild interior, to the tiny island of Pantelleria. Through the lens of wine, we also learn about the history, the people, the food of Italy’s largest and perhaps least understood wine regions. Be warned that after reading this informative and entertaining book, you will want to hop on the next plane to Sicily.
The Making of a Great Wine: Gaja and Sori San Lorenzo by Edward Steinberg
One could fill their bookshelves with books on or by specific winemakers, but this is my absolute favorite. The author focuses on Angelo Gaja, a renowned winemaker from northern Italy, along with a quintessential bottle, 1989 Sori San Lorenzo. Enlightening as well as poetic, the book captures the spirit of the nebbiolo grape and the Piedmont region.
A Wine Atlas of the Langhe: The Greatest Barolo and Barbaresco Vineyards by Victtorio Mangnelli
This is my all-time favorite book that focuses on a single wine region. Its a coincidence that it deals with one of my favorite regions! Vineyards, vintners, and growers are depicted of course, but also grafters, barrel makers, and teachers. Additionally, the maps are excellent (I have a soft spot for maps). I only wish every wine region had such a detailed, informative, yet impactful book.
Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup
A historical thriller that recounts the trials and tribulations of French vintners during WWII, many of whom had to fight to keep the Nazis from looting their wine. I’ve bought multiple copies of this book because I keep gifting it to houseguests who looking for a good read while in wine country.
The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace
Another historical thriller, which depicts the “underbelly” of the rare wine and wine auction worlds. Focuses on a bottle of Chateau Lafitte supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson with interesting digressions such as how to fake an old wine bottle.
Judgment of Paris by George Tabor
Tells the story of the historic tasting of 1976 in which a panel of esteemed French wine experts ranked American wines over their French wines in a blind tasting (the Stags Leap Cabernet beat out Bordeaux classics such as Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won over notable white Burgundies). The 2008 movie Bottle Shock was based on this book.
The Heartbreak Grape: A California Winemaker's Search for the Perfect Pinot Noir by Marq de Villiers
The story of Josh Jensen, founder of Calera, who set out to make a California wine to rival the best Burgundies. A must-read for all California Pinot Noir lovers because it captures the entire grapegrowing and winemaking experience so poetically and dramatically.
Just for Fun
The New Yorker Book of Wine Cartoons by Jack Ziegler, James Thurbur, et al.
There's no better humor than the intelligent and sophisticated cartoons found in the New Yorker. Whenever I pick up the magazine, I first flip through it just to read the all the cartoons. This book cuts out the fluff (all that wordy prose!), focuses on my favorite subject, and is simply a classic.
The Grapes of Ralph by Ralph Steadman
Various wine-oriented mysteries from the authors Nadia Gordon, Kathleen Tosh, Michelle Scott
I have a confession to make: mysteries are my guilty pleasure (mostly of the non-vinous sort). Several authors offer a series of mystery stories focusing on wine, such as those above. I don’t love any of them unconditionally, either individual authors or books, but some are fairly entertaining. Nadia Gordon’s books are the most polished, Kathleen Tosh’s are the most accurate, Michele Scott has some good plots. In my humble opinion, there’s a real void in this category—I'm still looking for the Andrea Camilleri or Tana French of wine!
I realize that I’ve omitted plenty of wonderful books. I'd love recommendations from you: what books are in your top 20 list?