Two new wine books by Americans have recently appeared that offer the wine drinker diametrically opposed writing styles and often opposite opinions. Despite their differences, both books are strongly recommended. They sum up current trends in wine writing and wine appreciation, and still leave something to the reader's imagination.
One is Robert Finigan's Essentials of Wine (Knopf, $19.95), the other Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide, by Robert M. Parker Jr. (Simon & Schuster, $24.95). Finigan and Parker each achieved success in wine writing -- a profession once reserved for wealthy septuagenarians -- at a relatively young age; each writes with authority, and occasionally with passion.
These writers took opposing stances two years ago on one of those issues that can inflame only the most ardent enophile -- the '82 bordeaux. In their respective wine letters, Finigan and Parker exchanged veiled left hooks over this most celebrated of recent vintages, Finigan doubting, Parker extolling. Although the judges have yet to provide a final ruling on the '82 bordeaux, the vintage has become a kind of yardstick of the wine press, with those who doubt its excellence identified with the Californians and those in favor of it lined up with the French.
Here is Finigan on the vintage: "I have never favored it, finding most of the wines at once too ripe -- almost raisiny -- and yet diluted as the consequence of a vast crop." And here's Parker: "The greatest vintage since 1961 . . . masses of fruit . . . the huge structure and potential for extended longevity is obvious."
Predictably, the anti-'82 Finigan begins his book with a tour of wine country in America, and quickly focuses on California. His pace throughout is leisurely, his tone discursive. "Every time I open a bottle of wine," he tells us at the outset, "I feel a rush of expectancy." That simple statement captures the universal appeal of wine and suggests that a civilizing pursuit of wine will follow.
In his literate and authoritative introduction to wine, Finigan ambles through Napa and through foreign vineyards, detailing the best and allowing for the reader's shortcomings. You aren't expected to know the history of the Denominazione di Origine Controllata, for instance. There are no hard sells, and no numbers other than vintages.
Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide, on the other hand, is a book rife with ratings -- as you might expect from a writer whose reputation is based on the relationship between his palate and numbers. Parker explains his rating system in detail and asserts that "wine is no different than any product being sold to a consumer -- there are specific standards of quality . . . and there are benchmark wines against which all others can be judged."
Parker's first touchdown is Alsace, France, where his interest in wine began; the following chapters reflect the author's broad knowledge of the wine world and offer an assessment of its past and future. Parker predicts, among other things, stable prices for most French wines, increased sales and appreciation of California wines worldwide, and the elevation of pinot noir -- particularly that from Oregon -- to star status in the eyes of American wine drinkers.
Parker has the fortitude to rank wine producers according to his perception of their product and their seriousness; he gives them stars, like restaurants in a dining guide. That undoubtedly will cause him some headaches as a peripatetic wine critic, but he isn't to be kept from his global rounds. His book is crammed with information, vibrant with opinion and readable to boot. ::