Whatever happens to its wines, 1978 will be remembered as one of the all-time vintage years for wine books. Old favorites have been updated, new authors have appeared and the "romance" of wine has been captured in a number of beautiful, if expensive, volumes.
The place to start, for anyone who intends to be a student of wine, is with the seventh edition of Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine (Hastings House, $12.95). The book was last revised in 1975, only a short time before Frank Schoonmaker's death. Julius Wile, a veteran of the wine trade, has taken over as editor and done just what should be done with this classic. He left alone what hadn't been outdated and tactfully patched or shaped new passages where they were necessary. The book is laid out from Abboccato to zymase with nearly 100 pages of appendix material.
For the coffee table book there is a choice between the fine revision of Hugh Johnson's The World Atlas of Wine (Simon & Schuster, $29.95) and Robert Lawrence Balzer's Wines of California (Abrams, $25). Johnson's is by far the more valuable of the two. It has the best collection of maps to wine regions available between two covers, a gracefully written text and a superb collection of drawings, prints and photographs. In place of an afterdinner drink, he offers a section on spirits, including "Kentucky's Bourbon." The book truly has been "revised" and is better than the first edition.
Why then consider Balzer's work? Because it is an extraordinarily rich and informative book about this country's most important wine producing region. It's full of fascinating wine producing region. It's full of fascinating people, and contains some of the most romantic photographs of wine and vineyard's encountered anywhere. (There are a few duds, too, and the book could have been more carefully edited. One full-page photo wrongly identifies Spring Mountain's Mike Robbins as Joe Heitz.) Balzer is not critical of his subjects. He finds something nice to say about the wines of each of the more than 100 vineyards he visits. Therefore his "sampler selections" can serve as only the most general purchasing guide.
Two other books on American wines that have attracted attention are The Wines of America by Leon Adams (McGraw Hill, $14.95) and Joyous Anarchy by William E. Massee (Putnam, $10.95). The Adams book, a second edition, revised, is the bigger and better of the two. Adams is a natural storyteller and he has taken his task seriously. The stories come from personal visits to vineyards not only in such an obvious location as the Napa Valley but in the far corners of the land. (For example, he writes of seven vineyards in Maryland, not just of Philip Wagner(s Boordy.) Adams has been involved with wine for four decades and the lore at his command is probably unmatched by any other writer in the field. He, Like, Balzer, is a booster. Don't look for harsh appraisals of wines, scandal or criticism of the industry.
Massee's book is subtitled "The Search for Great American Wines." It's breathy style gives a sense of immediacy that may attract some readers, but the work is so superficial compared with Adam's that, even given the price difference, buying it would be a false economy.
A book worthy of study is Howard Hillman's The Dinner's Guide to Wines (Hawthorn paperback, $5.95). There are no absolute truths in matching wine with food, but there are a lot of stodgy "rules" and more than few myths. Hillman's sugestions for "more than 500 international dishes" are thoughtful, sometimes inventive and pleasantly free of snobbism. This will prove a handy reference for the host or hostess who wants to make wine an integral part of meals.
One of the least explored wine regions-in literature at least-is the Rhone Valley. Jefferson passed through, and so have others. But the best documentation on the present day Rhone comes from two Englishmen, John Livingston-Learmonth and Melvyn C.H. Master. Their The Wines of the Rhone (Faber, $21.95) is thorough and detailed enough to be of interest to the wine trade as well as to consumers. (The same publisher has produced Vineyards in England and Wales by George Ordish, a volume that some might consider a candidate for yeat another "shortest book in the world" joke.)
Considering the popularity of white wine, White Wines of the World by Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman (Stein and Day, $8.95) should be just what the somerliere ordered. It's not. It talks about wine grapes, wine regions and even specific wineries, but the priorities aren't clear. Three "notable" wines are listed for Maryland's admirable but tiny Montbray Wine Cellars, while Chateau St. Jean and Souverain, important California white wine producers, aren't mentioned at all. The rare white wine of Musigny (annual production about 100 cases) rates a detailed entry, about a third the length of the entire description of Spain's white wines.
Another book geared to a wide segment of the wine-buying public is The Whole-World Wine Catalog by William I. Kaufman (Penguin, $5.95). The author presents a massive collection of wine labels in this outsized paperback. Under the label's photograph he lists details about the wine including its price range and a general commentary on its characteristics. The concept is a sound one.The problems are that no such collection could be complete and the information is very sketchy. Nonetheless, Kaufman's concept is a bold one and he is to be applauded for reaching out with guidance to the consumer who isn't a wine buff.
Of the coffee table books, the one that's least useful to the American reader is Cyril Ray's Book of Wine (Morrow, $12.95). There are photographs, some of them lovely, and a literate text. But the sectio on American wines (including Canada) is painfully inadequate. Having decided to invest in the English original, the publisher might at least have staked the author to a tour of U.S. wine regions.