ANY WINE enthusiast who has recently spent time in a bookstore has seen how easy it is to spend a small fortune on a collection of winebooks.
To guide the reader through such excess, here are the selections at the top of my list for high-quality reading. First, Burton Anderson's "Vino -- The Wine and Winemakers of Italy" (Little, Brown, $19.95), on the market for about a year, is a lovely assemblage of information about Italian wines and many of the personalities behind the wine. The style is open and candid, the coverage comprehensive. "Vino" is the definitive book on the current state-of-the-art of Italian winemaking, and the author's love for the subject matter is just as apparent on page 522 as it is on page 1.
Another fine addition to the serious connoisseur's wine library is Michael Broadbent's "The Great Vintage Wine Book" (Knopf, $25). Broadbent, the well-known English Master of Wine, is head of Christie's wine department in London. He has probably tasted more fine wine, particularly old vintages, than any living human being. This book extensively chronicles his tasting notes over an entire career. It is especially valuable to wine collectors who have old bordeaux, burgundy, champagne, vintage port or sweet German wines gathering dust in their cellars. The tasting notes on wines from these regions cover vintages as far back as the 19th century. An especially appealing aspect of the book is that Broadbent tells the reader how many times he has tasted the wine, the dates he tasted the wine, and his overall evaluation of the wine, which is expressed in a one-to-five star rating. Unfortunately, California and Australian wines are covered very briefly, and there are no chapters on the wines of Italy, Spain and South America.
Two updated classic textbooks on wine, which have just arrived on the bookshelves, are the second edition of the late Andre' Simon's "Wines of the World" (McGraw Hill, $35) and "Alexis Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits" (Knopf, $29.95). I am particularly impressed with the new version of "Andre' Simon's Wines of the World." Totally revised, edited and partially authored by Serena Sutcliffe, an English Master of Wine, this book should be required reading for all students of the grape. The chapter on French wines, written by Sutcliffe, is simply superb, distinguished by its absence of trade-oriented puffing. Other notable chapters include the coverage of German wines by Ian Jamieson, M.W., the fine chapter on Spanish and Portuguese wines by Jan Read and the excellent section on Australian wines by Len Evans.
Lichine's third edition of his famous encyclopedia has been revised and updated, but not nearly as much as the author and publisher would have you believe. Yet if you don't own either the first or second edition of this extensive treatise on the wines of the world, you really should invest in this classic wine book. Lichine's major revisions to the book are nothing more than several appendices dealing with recent developments in France, Italy and the United States, and a few updated evaluations of vintages and specific cha teaux of Bordeaux in the text.
"Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France" (Knopf, $25) is to French wines what Burton Anderson's "Vino" is to Italian wines. Comprehensive and loaded with information, this book is mandatory reading if you are visiting French wine producing regions for either a gastronomic or viticultural tour. Lichine's posture in the book is much more opinionated than his aforementioned encyclopedia. For example, there are candid personal glimpses of the leading personalities of the French wine industry. The book also suggests leading hotels and restaurants in the vineyards, with Lichine's own opinion often contesting the highly-revered ratings of restaurants by the Guide Michelin.
In addition to these textbook-sized volumes, there are also some very worthy wine books on the market which are printed in a convenient and popular handbook format.
The granddaddy of the "handbooks" is "Hugh Johnson's Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine" (Simon and Schuster, $4.95). First published in 1977, this book remains the most innovative and valuable wine book for consumers. It aims to and succeeds admirably in squeezing an encyclopedia's wealth of information into a 156-page vest-pocket-size booklet. Each page contains an astonishing amount of information and data about grape varieties, regions and vintages.
The book's best section is the "Cha teaux of Bordeaux," where brief, relatively up-to-date evaluations are given for all major and many minor cha teaux of Bordeaux. Only those vintage years which are listed next to a particular wine entry are recommended by Johnson. If the vintage is in bold black print, the wine is considered by Johnson to be ready to drink. The stars next to a wine vary from zero to four and relate to the wine's reputation.
The booklet is arranged by wine-producing countries and then alphabetically by subject matter. It is a very worthwhile book for wine enthusiasts with poor memories and invaluable for intimidating, overbearing sommeliers. While Johnson is more generous in his ratings of certain wines and vintages than I am, he is less benevolent than many of his peers.
"The Connoisseurs' Handbook of California Wine" (Knopf, $4.95) is the creation of three well-known California wine writers, Charles Olken, Earl Singer, and Norma Rody. The handbook has a wealth of relevant information in its 182 pages with chapters on grape varieties, vintages, wine geography, wineries in and outside of California, wine terms and tourist information for visiting California vineyards. It is very attractively packaged and neatly arranged. Its strengths are its excellent layout and comprehensive coverage of California wineries with a short description of each winery. The authors tend to generalize about a winery's cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, rather than state specific vintages in which a particular winery produced a highly successful wine. This is somewhat of a let-down considering the wealth of tasting experiences the three authors have had. Nevertheless, this book is a must for anyone interested in learning more about California wines and wineries.
One author who does take an opinionated viewpoint is Bob Thompson in his "Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines" (Simon and Schuster, $4.95). This book is intentionally identical to "Hugh Johnson's Pocket Encyclopedia," yet it differs in that it focuses exclusively on California wine. The California-based wine writer covers much of the same ground as Olken, Singer and Rody, yet his style is more direct and candid.
While Thompson's pocket guide is only 128 pages in length, the print is smaller, and there is more specific wine-buying information under a particular winery entry than in the "Connoisseurs' Handbook." For example, individual vintages of a winery's cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay are listed and recommended, making Thompson's guide very valuable to wine consumers.
His vintage charts for California wines are disappointingly brief, yet this is the only flaw in an otherwise very informative, consumer-oriented guide to California wine. While not as handsomely packaged as the "Connoisseurs' Handbook," I prefer it for specific and meaningful information about California wineries and their wines.
Lastly, Barbara Ensrud's "The Pocket Guide to Wine" (Putnam, $4.95) is a handbook which I cannot recommend. Trade-oriented, this book offers nothing original and appears to borrow extensively from many of the traditional treatises on wine. Aimed at promoting the myth that most wines are good and the most expensive wines are the greatest, Ensrud devotes each chapter in the book to a major wine-producing region. Seemingly out of touch with current wine realities, Ensrud's book is recommended to those readers who like to read about how many wines of wine-producing regions are "famous," "very good," or a "good value." Criticism of overrated estates or wines is non-existent. Members of the wine trade will no doubt arm themselves with Ensrud's little book for propaganda purposes.
In addition to these failings, Ensrud's factual information is frequently incorrect. For example, Cha teau Les Ormes de Pez is operated by the Cazes family, owners of Cha teau Lynch Bages, and not the owners of Calon-Seur, and the 1977 Quinta do Noval and Cockburn vintage ports which she recommends are impossible to obtain as these estates did not produce any 1977 vintage port. All things considered, this book suffers in comparison with many of the other fine books available, although the maps in this handbook are among the best available in this small reference size. WINE BRIEFS
Looking for some unusual values in wine? From Algeria, the 1979 Le Sable Cabernet Sauvignon ($2.99 to $3.49) is a warm, generous, peppery wine which reminds me of a hearty French Co tes du Rhone. A lovely white quaffing wine I recommend is the 1979 Vienna White ($4.59 per liter), which is faintly sweet but has lovely, racy fruitiness and fine balance. It has been selected and imported by a local wine enthusiast, Roman Leimer.