To really get the most out of a glass of wine, you need to think it as well as drink it.
Although many people believe that connoisseurship in wine is a function of how much money or how many bottles you've got, the truth is that it's determined by one's level of engagement with the stuff. Novice tasters engage wines on the level of likes and dislikes, and intermediates engage them at the level of particular aromas and flavors.
However, a true connoisseur is also driven by a desire to know why a wine tastes as it does. The term "connoisseur" ultimately derives from the Latin word cognoscere, meaning to learn. Thus, a fat cat with lots of money but no curiosity isn't the real thing, whereas an impoverished student with a $5 bottle and a wine book is a genuine connoisseur. My top picks from the current crop of wine books are listed below in alphabetical order. If your local bookseller doesn't stock what you want, try The Wine Appreciation Guild (call 650-866-3020) or Kellgren's Wine Book Catalog (Specialty Books Co., call 800-274-4816).
"Bordeaux and Its Wines," 15th Edition, directed by Marc-Henry Lemay (John Wiley/ Editions Feret, 1998, 2,111 pages, $250): A $250 wine book might seem like an absurdly poor investment until you consider the fact that a single bottle of a 1996 first-growth Bordeaux costs even more. Anybody buying such bottles had better know what's going on, and this is the definitive reference work on Bordeaux. It details virtually everything about how the wines are grown, made and sold. Roughly 8,000 producers are profiled, with entries ordered according to the editors' evaluation of their status within their communes.
"Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine," by Tom Stevenson (Wine Appreciation Guild, 1999, 335 pages, $50): This book will cement Stevenson's already solid reputation as the leading writer on sparkling wines. It offers comprehensive coverage and ratings of virtually every sparkling wine made on six continents. Although less than 100 pages are devoted to Champagne, this section is still so strong that the only better resource is Stevenson's own "Champagne" (Sotheby's, 1986), a classic that is now-- regrettably--an out-of-print rarity.
"The Oxford Companion to Wine," 2nd Edition, edited by Jancis Robinson (Oxford University Press, 1999, 819 pages, $65): When the first edition of this book was published in 1994, I wrote that it "may be the most important book on wine to appear in the past 20 years." Having used it almost constantly since then, I find my words actually seem insufficiently generous in retrospect, and I'm fully prepared to declare the revised edition the greatest wine book ever published. Ordered alphabetically in encyclopedia fashion, the book is largely written by Robinson herself, though she also draws upon the expertise of more than 100 other contributors. Nearly half of the 3,000 entries from the first edition have been revised, and more than 500 have been added, making this a worthy purchase even for those who already own its predecessor.
"Simply Wine," by Heidi Yorkshire (Duplex Media Group, call 503-335-3155, 1999, 120 pages, $13): This is an admirably wise and refreshingly direct guide to the practicalities of choosing everyday wines that offer strong value. Rather than a buying guide that lists specific wines, the book is a primer on what you'll need to know to go it alone--and whom to ask when you need help. Written with wit and appropriate irreverence, it is highly recommended for all novices.
"Wine From Grape to Glass," by Jens Priewe (Abbeville Press, 1999, 256 pages, $35): This absolutely beautiful text (from a publisher specializing in art books) offers an excellent overall introduction to wine. The 100-page opening section on how wine is grown and made is the clearest and most helpful account currently available.
"Wineries of the Eastern States," 3rd Edition, by Marguerite Thomas (Berkshire House, 1999, 224 pages, $18): This excellent book is absolutely indispensable for all those interested in learning about the rapidly improving wines of the eastern United States, whether by touring or tasting. Thomas (travel editor for The Wine News) offers detailed profiles of every winery from Virginia north to Massachusetts and west to Ohio. She brings these enterprises to life by introducing us to the pioneers behind the wines, and supplies accurate leads on the top bottlings of each producer.
In the coming millennium, the world needs peace, toleration and delicious cheap Syrah. A stellar example is Tatachilla "Wattle Park" South Australia Shiraz 1998 ($10), which offers very deeply flavored, strongly concentrated blackberry fruit backed by ripe tannins and just the right touch of oak. A terrific bargain to pair with winter stews and roasts. Watch for more moderately priced Syrahs and Shirazes here in two weeks.
Michael Franz will be answering questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.