This was not a year for splashy coffee table books on wine. Instead, 1980 produced a small shelf of compact, generally soft-cover volumes crammed with information (not all of it conventional), a few maps and virtually no pictures.
If the year's main theme was "Small Is Beautiful," the counter melody was "California, Here I Come." Three of the books dealt primarily with the rapidly changing Golden State wine scene.
In "The Signet Book of American Wine " (Signet, $2.50), Peter Quimme admits the "wine industry hardly seems to stand still long enough to be discussed in print," a fact this third edition in five years seems to bear out. Still, he has managed to bring some order out of the California chaos of new wineries, wineries that have moved and wineries that have changed hands or styles, by offering capsule histories of the principal wineries, locating them on maps and evaluating those of their wines he has tasted.
Quimme also includes a short history of wine in the U.S., a glossary of wine terms, a section on other American winneries and, perhaps most valuable of all to wine newcomers, excellent descriptions of the grape and wine varieties and how they taste (the two pages on cabernet sauvignon are a model of their kind.).
"The Connoisseurs' Handbook of California Wines " by Charles Olken, Earl Singer and Norman Roby (Knopf, $4.95) and "the Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines " by Bob Thompson (Fireside Books, $4.95) are startlingly similar in both format and content.
Each book has packed between its 4 x 7 vinyl covers a lengthy alphabetical section containing thumbnail reports on the wineries (many more than Quimme includes), as well as evaluations of their wines, two-color maps and brief but telling material on grape varities, geographical areas and wine terms.
Differences between the two are more of style than substance, although the longer Connoisseurs volume does add sections on American wineries outside California and wine country touring, while Thompson provides a list of wine and food pairings.
All of the authors are longtime recorders of California wines and wineries, and their opinions are well regarded.
If we have trouble sorting out the wines of California without a program, imagine the confusion if all the names were also in another language. Picture that and you'll see the dilemma most of us face with German wines, which is why "The Wines Of Germany " by Frank Schoonmaker and Peter Sichel (Hastings House, $10. 95) is such a welcome revision.
Quite simply, this is the most indispensible English language book on German wines. Sichel completely updated the late Frank Schoonmaker's original text and added considerable new material, much of it pertaining to the sweeping changes brought about by the 1971 wine law.
Everything is here to take the mystery out of all those jaw-breaking German names, from what they mean to where they're from to how they taste. With this book in hand, no one need ever again plead ignorance for missing the pleasure of German wine.
Two general wine books were also revised this year: "The New Signet Book of Wine " by Alexis Bespaloff (Signet, $2.25) and "The World of Wine" by Creighton Churchill (Collier, $6.95).
Since it first appeared in 1971, I have been cheerfully recommending the Bespaloff book as the most informed, least expensive introduction to wine.
In a comprehensive but down-to-earth fashion he discusses how wine is made, labeled, pronounced (at least some of it), stored, served and toasted. And, of course, there are numerous details about all of the world's wine producing countries and their individual wines.
Nearly 20 years have elapsed since the first edition of Churchill's book, and in the preface of the new version, his recounting of the major changes that have occurred during those two decades makes fascinating reading.
The book itself covers the world's wines in a basic but much more personal manner than Bespaloff does. Sometimes this succeeds grandly, as in Churchill's very pointed list of good Burgundy shippers and the chapter on Portuguese wines. Other times it leads to statements I doubt could muster a great deal of support, such as that Chateau Beychevelle is "among the slowest [Medocs] to mature," and Chateau Pichon-Lalande "would probably lose face" in a new Bordeaux classification.
The one oversized wine book of 1980 stands out not only for its bulk but also for its highly unusual contents. In "The Great Vintage Wine Book " (Knopf, $25), Michael Broadbent seems to provide personal tasting notes for every wine ever made. (In fact, it is "only" some 30,000.)
What wine buff would not like to have shared with him the 1870 Chateau Lafite ("a wonderfully rich mouthful"), the 1921 Chateau d'Yquem ("surely the greatest"), the 1870 Terrantez madeira ("extraordinary flavor") or any of the hundreds of other fine bottles?
No doubt this book will become a major reference for settling some arguments and possibly starting a few others.
As head of the wine department at Christie's, the London auction house, Broadbent also edited "Christie's Wine Review 1980 " (Christie's Wine Publications, $12). This annual publication records the highest and lowest prices. paid for the major wines auctioned by the firm in 1979 and also features, among others, articles on wine related artifacts, wine in London clubs and Harry Waugh's notes on recent vintages.