This year’s harvest of wine books offers a wealth of gift-worthy titles. In February and November, I wrote about “ American Wine,” by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy, and the seventh edition of “ The World Atlas of Wine,” by Hugh Johnson and Robinson: two coffee-table-size reference works any wine lover would appreciate.
Here are three others guaranteed to please:
Yawn. Not another wine primer, I thought when I picked up Katherine Cole’s “Complete Wine Selector” (Firefly; $25). Yet I was immediately bowled over by how Cole, wine columnist for the Oregonian newspaper and author of “Voodoo Vintners” (2011), has figured out a new way to present a familiar topic. By using Web publishing techniques — heavy use of infographics and short snippets of text — she manages to convey an impressive amount of information on a single page. In “Cracking the Code” of regional labels and “Masterclass” presentations that delve deep into a particular aspect of wine, Cole has created an essential reference for novice and aficionado alike.
She doesn’t just stick to the basic information but clues us in to various trends in the wine world. Orange wines, natural wines: Yep, they’re here. She offers advice on how and where to shop for wines, listing stores in Europe and East Asia. (Addy Bassin’s MacArthur Beverages represents Washington.) She enlists a global array of sommeliers to help us match food and wine, includes strategies for navigating restaurant wine lists, and summarizes details of wine service for dinner parties at home.
Cole will have readers thirsting for more varied and expensive wines. Those of us with tighter budgets might want to stick to “ The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine,” by Jeff Siegel (Vintage Noir Media; $12.95).
Siegel, author of the award-winning Wine Curmudgeon blog, is a friend of mine and co-founder with me of Drink Local Wine, which he styles here as “the first locavore wine movement.” He financed the publication of his book through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign.
Throughout the book, Siegel never loses sight of a simple fact: Americans spend about $7, on average, for a bottle of wine. The problem is, most cheap wine is banal, and the wine industry and what he calls the “Winestream Media” look down on consumers who favor the inexpensive stuff. Siegel gives us the confidence to drink within our means and the wherewithal to find the cheap gems in a sea of labels. Consumers who drink only cheap wine might believe they don’t need a wine book, but Siegel offers practical advice on navigating wine stores and the industry marketing onslaught in search of value.
Jess Jackson was another proponent of cheap wine. His Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay revolutionized the U.S. wine industry in the 1980s and solidified the American taste for slightly sweet wines. A litigator in his first career, he fought high-profile court battles against wine industry giants such as E&J Gallo and even his own winemaker.
By the time he died in 2011, Jackson owned prime vineyard land up and down the California coast and had built a family-owned empire of wineries. (That empire is still growing, having expanded into Oregon this year.) He also took on the clubby horse-racing industry, claiming his big prize with Rachel Alexandra, the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years, in 2009.
Jackson’s tenacity, hard work, charm and temper are on full display in Edward Humes’s fine biography, “ A Man and His Mountain ” (Public Affairs; $27). Humes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, recounts Jackson’s rise from an impoverished childhood, during which he had to help support his family from a young age, and his risky abandonment of a successful law career in his early 50s to plant a vineyard. A fermentation problem with his first chardonnay nearly ended that venture, but he and winemaker Jed Steele created the wine that quickly became all the rage in America. Success was costly: Jackson had to sell his home to keep the winery alive, and his first marriage ended in divorce.
We don’t quite learn why Jackson turned against Steele when the winemaker wanted to form his own company. But the answer might lie in Jackson’s tendency to treat any disagreement as disloyalty. Hume writes compellingly of the legal battles Jackson engaged in: the trademark infringement lawsuit against Gallo over its Turning Leaf wines that ended in a legal defeat but a public relations victory, and his efforts to weaken the antiquated post-Prohibition distribution system that grossly favored wholesalers over producers and consumers.
Whether or not KJ Vintner’s Reserve was ever your house wine, this book will show you how Jess Jackson influenced the wine you drink and the way you buy it.