30 November 2010

christmas profiteering: the not drinking poison gift guide

Image nicked from purecashmagazine.com.
Every year people ask me what to buy for the wine geek or aspiring wine geek in their life. Every year I write the same few book titles on the backs of a few napkins, which are presumably still balled-up in these same people's jacket pockets, having been instantly forgotten, and laundered into oblivion by now.

This year is going to be different. I've created a Not Drinking Poison Gift Guide!

(Which, full disclosure, is also partly intended to line my own pockets, since from what I understand I'm set to receive some infinitesimally small kickback for each product purchased from Amazon via a link from Not Drinking Poison.)

Below are ten N.D.P.-endorsed Amazon products that are guaranteed to help you and your friends avoid drinking poison in your day-to-day lives. I recommend purchasing all ten for everyone you know, just to be dead-certain.

1. The New France - Andrew Jeffords

For a perceptive and intelligent region-by-region overview of contemporary French winemaking, there's really no better reference. Jeffords is a wonderfully engaging writer who manages to remain eminently accessible whilst never once dumbing down the subject. For me what most differentiates this book from a thousand others is its careful emphasis on the individuality of the various winemaking cultures within France. What flies in Bordeaux doesn't in Burgundy, and the norm in Champagne is anathema everywhere else, and it's this basic understanding - that there must be many understandings of wine in France - that The New France does such a great job of transmitting.

(Amazon.fr / Amazon.co.uk link: The New France)

2. Vino Italiano - David Lynch & Joe Bastianich

An extraordinarily readable introduction to Italian wine, Vino Italiano, like The New France, covers its subject on a region-by-region basis, only on a slightly more intro-level scale.

With a few years' perspective, I do perceive a slight bias towards the producers with whom Joe Bastianich works extensively in the restaurant he co-owns with Mario Batali - but this is sort of a chicken / egg scenario, wondering whether the business relationships came before the wine admiration or vice versa.

(Amazon.fr / Amazon.co.uk link: Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines Of Italy)

3. Vines, Grapes, & Wines: The Wine Drinker's Guide to Grape Varieties - Jancis Robinson

It's interesting to note that Robinson is now considered prescient for having originally published this back in 1986, which is indeed somewhat before the grape varietal came to dominate how consumers know wines. It's not entirely comprehensive, and I'd differ on certain descriptions of certain grapes, but as a go-to reference, it's super-helpful.

4. Barolo to Valpolicella - Nicolas Belfrage

This list is not in any particular order, I should add. If it were, this would rank higher than Vino Italiano, because where that book is useful for inspiring an interest in Italian wine, this one is vital for sustaining same interest. Belfrage is one of seemingly few wine writers who don't let a deep knowledge of their subject and industry get in the way of an enjoyably ambitious description.

(Amazon.fr / Amazon.co.uk link: Barolo to Valpolicella: The Wines of Northern Italy)

5. Brunello to Zibbibo - Nicolas Belfrage

The second volume of Nicolas Belfrage's excellent series on Italian wine. Worth the price for his symphonic, near-Proustian description of Marco de Bartoli's Marsala alone.

6. Irish Whiskey Almanac - James Murray

My starting advice to people wishing to know more about what they drink is to just choose a very small subject, and get the hang of it: the enjoyment one can derive from knowing even a small subject back to front will encourage one to master larger more challenging subjects.

Irish whiskey is a very small, perpetually under-rated subject, and some of the greatest examples - i.e. Power's and Redbreast - can accordingly be tasted for a song. And honestly it's a refreshing thing to know well, since most people seem to concentrate all their attention on Scotch, a nigh-unfathomable subject, or hipster Japanese whiskey, all too easily fathomed (a fad).

No image for this one, for some reason, just a link: Irish Whiskey Almanac (Amazon.fr / Amazon.co.uk link: Irish Whiskey Almanac)

7. Perfumes: The A-Z Guide - Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

I would prescribe this book to anyone who has ever felt lost for words in describing a scent or flavor. Luca Turin is one of the best writers on any subject I've ever read, period. From memory, I can quote his review of a certain Roberto Cavalli perfume: "...Like an off-brand whiskey sour poisoned by your enemies." Every sommelier on earth should aspire to be so hilariously articulate. 

(Amazon.fr / Amazon.co.uk link: Perfumes: The A-Z Guide)

8. Professional Wine Reference - Frank E. Johnson

A tiny, surprisingly comprehensive wine reference book, admirably dry in style, that serves as kind of a more reliable tableside Google for those moments you're presented with an unfamiliar apellation on a bottle someone's given you. It's also good to keep around in case you need minor refreshers on what malolactic fermentation entails, or if you need a handy map of Burgundy, or if you're trying to come up with good questions for a trivia night.

(Amazon.fr / Amazon.co.uk link: Professional Wine Reference)

9. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen - Harold McGee

I will confess I haven't done the cover-to-cover thing with this tome. But everything I've read from it has been lastingly useful information. McGee investigated the actual chemical processes inherent in the classic cooking methods and in doing so produced what has become a kind of Bible for the contemporary chef.

10. Chez Panisse Vegetables - Alice Waters

I borrowed this book from my landlady about a year ago and have still yet to return it - and for once this is not out of forgetfulness, it's from near-constant use. I ought really to just buy one for myself. It's been a pretty indispensable accompaniment to my weekly trips to the street markets here. The recipes are of a very high standard, of course, but I use it mostly for the chapter introductions, which each describe the seasonality, proper preparation, and key symptoms of ripeness for a given vegetable. It's really kind of a repository for all the crucial food preparation information our micro-wave-era mothers failed to pass down to us.

(Amazon.fr / Amazon.co.uk link: Chez Panisse Vegetables)

You'll notice that only about half this list is actually wine-related. Partly this is because there just aren't very many wine books I like enough to recommend far and wide - most are dull or remedial or they evince, in some way or another,* an attitude to the subject that repels me. But it's also because I'm convinced that pretty much everything is relevant when it comes to the construction of one's personal tastes. I had to really resist including novels and various pop albums. The above books, finally, are just ones that have greatly informed how I go about drinking, and thinking. 

*Too many sentimental close-up photos of earth and vines and winemaker's craggy faces; too many bloodlessly polite profiles included merely to present a survey of a region's industry; too much subject-specific boosterism ('the uniformly spectacular wines of New Zealand!' etc.); too many vintage charts and scores out of a hundred; not enough actual criticism; too much didactic prescriptivism ('how to taste,' etc.); dry writing in general... The list of genre pitfalls is endless.  

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  1. I might just add kermit lynch's adventures on the wine route, AJ Liebling's Between Meals, (for real geeks only) Jamie Goode's Wine Science, and why not go ahead and add the twin peaks box set, it being christmas?

  2. the lynch book sounds good, haven't read it. the (david) lynch dvds are always worthwhile. i haven't read anything of jamie goode's beyond his blog. i find him informative, but often dull, and i'm told his nice-guy writing persona is a total beard. i don't have evidence - he's only ever been polite to me - but the habit of british wine critics to say nice things about Tesco selections inclines me to believe they are capable of any sort of falsehood.