Reading between the Wines – Book Recommendations for the New Year

Wine books

Sommelier India correspondent, Ruma Singh on the wine-centred books she has enjoyed reading after finishing her studies

With a long period of wine studies finally behind me, it was time to get back to my ‘other’ love – reading. Before wine and its accompanying geekery had consumed my life I had been a voracious reader, and truly missed reading purely for pleasure.

But the prolonged wine study did change one thing for me – I now enjoy a lot more wine-centred reading (as opposed to studying), whether fiction or non-fiction.  It is the perfect way to relax while picking up little nuggets of education. Whatever your inclination and level of knowledge, there is plenty to choose from.

For instance, my first post-exam wine read (on the flight back from London!) was fiction – set in a wine background. I was looking for a light-hearted, entertaining read and I got it. Anne Burchett’s Tasting Notes tells the story of Christine, a French woman working in the English wine industry, and her life, loves and machinations to keep her job as commercial manager at a large French wine company. Peppered with very relatable, cleverly-drawn characters, it was the right way to start reading again. (Was a certain character a take-off on a famous wine professional? Probably.)

For nostalgia, there is Sideways by Rex Pickett, the book responsible for the decisive downfall of Merlot in the early noughties. Here, buddies Miles and Jack drink their way through California’s Santa Ynez wine country, with Miles extolling the superior pleasures of Pinot Noir. (In an interview, Pickett told me how much he loved Pinot Noir, that “it was a grape with the complexity of a great novel… and I thought Merlot had all the depth of a billabong”). Readers who prefer a lustier, madcap read on the shenanigans of the wine trade might want to dip into Peter Stafford-Bow’s racy satiric series, Corkscrew, Brut Force and Firing Blancs about an itinerant British wine buyer Felix Hart, who boasts of more energy than Casanova in his heyday.

But wine-soaked fun reads apart, the books I frequently turn to again and again are non-fiction. Jancis Robinson’s authoritative reference tomes, the bookshelf essentials Oxford Companion to Wine and Wine Grapes may be for the geekier wine lover, but a less weighty (and good for those wanting to learn more) include Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. Zraly, a James Beard awardee and wine educator is known for providing simple explanations to basic questions like, “What is fermentation?” through to “What should I look for in a German wine?” (a very good question!) while listing the top vintages of Bordeaux’s Left Bank. His ability to demystify the knotty mysteries of wine learning explains why his book is now selling its 35th anniversary edition. Those looking for a spot of myth-busting might also enjoy Jon Bonne’s New Wine Rules, where he offers helpful tips and unpretentious advice, interspersed with attractive illustrations and his firm belief that drinking wine should be a simple act of joy and curiosity, devoid of any intimidating factors.

Francophiles might enjoy traversing all of France’s unique wine regions, as I did, with the very articulate journalist and writer Andrew Jefford in his non-fiction book, The New France. The book tells stories of the regions’ top producers and explores their winemaking raisons d’être. History buffs might like to dip into Wine and War: the French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure, which plays out like a historical wartime drama in which French winemakers do their cunning best to prevent their beloved wines from falling into Nazi hands during World War II.

Recently, I have particularly enjoyed MW Fiona Morrison’s Ten Great Wine Families, published by the Academie du Vin Library. Married to Jacques Thienport of the iconic Right Bank producer Le Pin, Morrison has written from the point of view of an insider who received privileged insights into the histories and personal stories behind long-enduring dynastic European producers, such as Gaja, Perrin, Egon Muller, Torres and Frescobaldi, to name just a few. The book is especially informative for wine lovers who seek more than just bare-bones facts – namely, what has turned these families into legends, and how they survived generations of internal and external strife before becoming icons of the wine world.

The universe inhabited by wine folk can take you on a roller-coaster ride – there is never a dull moment, whether you’re sipping, spitting or schmoozing. In fact, an all-time favourite of mine is Bianca Bosker’s pithily-named Cork Dork, sub-titled A Wine-fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. Bosker, a tech journalist, documents her journey to becoming a sommelier, describing often-zany escapades as she heaves wine cases, spills wine on pristine tablecloths and copes with wine-stained purple teeth. Bosker makes wine sound easy to relate to, describing a Viognier as “a total Gwyneth Paltrow, flowery, fresh and a little unctuous”. And proclaims “blind tasting ranks alongside aerial yoga and pure mathematics as one of the things most guaranteed to make you feel like a total idiot…” You get the drift.

But the most popular genre of all has to be writings based on the many thrilling events which have peppered wine history. Take for instance, journalist George Taber’s recounting of the infamous Paris tasting of 1976 which turned the wine world on to its head. Taber, then with TIME magazine, was the only journalist present at the landmark event in which California wines roundly defeated top French wines in a blind tasting, and The Judgement of Paris offers readers a ringside view of the event. This is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters and makes fascinating reading for wine lovers.

For a more personal insight, the late, great Steven Spurrier, the man behind the Judgement of Paris has penned his memoir, Wine – A Way of Life. Reading it is almost like listening to his voice and many Indian wine lovers who were privileged to interact with him personally would be delighted to read of his numerous vinous adventures with superstars in the industry and marvel at his eye-popping travel schedule.

Another enjoyable read is Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar, the Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Wine. The wine in question, a 1787 bottle of Chateau Lafite, was said to be owned by Thomas Jefferson and was bought at auction at Christie’s for $156,000. A fascinating tale of fraud, lawsuits and famous names makes this a not-to-be-missed book. Also, fantastic but true is Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine by Maximillian Potter, which recounts the tale of Burgundian legend Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée Conti. In 2010, De Villaine was held to ransom to the tune of €1 million – the threat: his beloved vines would be poisoned. Were they? What happened? Read to find out more.

Finally, there is the saga of the visionary yet troubled Mondavi family of California’s Napa Valley. The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler presents a story of family feuds, brawls and infighting covering four generations of the family, from its spectacular rise to its fall.

These are but a few of the books I have read, and my list grows longer. Along with Jasper Morris’ Inside Burgundy I have earmarked Chateau Musar: The Story of a Wine Icon, in many ways the most unusual yet compelling story in the wine world and among my favourite wines.