Theise’s annual catalogues of the wines he imports from Germany, Austria and Champagne through Skurnik Wines and Spirits of New York have become cult classics of wine writing. They led to his first book, “Reading Between the Vines,” published in 2010. “What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking” is less memoir and more think piece, but Theise’s fans, as well as those just meeting him for the first time, will revel as he leads us on an existential tour of wine.
Just don’t be looking at your watch. As a tour guide, Theise has a Dr. Who quality about him, and a corkscrew is his TARDIS. We never know what adventure is coming on the next page. He frequently turns off his mental GPS to take us on a detour to some thought-attraction a little out of the way, which may lead even further afield before ultimately delivering us to our destination. For Theise, it’s all about the journey.
Take this description of a wine he greeted with skepticism before tasting it. “It smelled at first like decomposing leaves, a sweet late-autumn smell I’d just experienced several days earlier, on a walk through our nearby arboretum. When a fragrance is evocative yet indistinct — when it doesn’t specify its cognate (such as lemons or peaches or salami or whatever) — it seems to bypass the normal analytical faculty and go straight to your imagination, and from there . . . to your soul.”
Theise’s reluctance to taste that wine is the subject of the chapter. His description of it is a reminder that while we should have and understand our preferences, we should never trust our preconceptions. Wine will always surprise us.
Novices who may not yet be ready for Theise’s time-bending tour of the vinous galaxy will enjoy the down-to-earth treatment of “Wine Folly: Magnum Edition ,” by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack (Avery, $35). They are the creators of the popular Wine Folly website and authors of 2015’s “Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine,” which I called “the best introductory book on wine to come along in years.”
The magnum edition is an expanded version of the original, and it’s beautiful. Puckette and Hammack are masters of infographics, and they present the essential information anyone needs to know about grape varieties, wine regions and those indecipherable terms on wine labels in a simple and visually appealing way. Best of all, they don’t dumb it down. As they say in the introduction, in a brief section under the subhead, “Why Love Wine?”: “There is so much to know, including how wine is made and the science behind its tastes and flavors. Not to mention the health benefits, cultural traditions, and how wine fits into our history and evolution. In short, wine is interesting because it is complex.”
All of that is here, with just enough depth to get a new wine lover to want to jump in deeper.
Kevin Begos jumped in, with the zeal of a seasoned journalist, after he was entranced by an Israeli wine he found in his hotel room minibar while reporting from the Middle East. The result of his subsequent quest is “Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine ” (Algonquin, $27).
Don’t let the unfortunate subtitle scare you. Begos veers off into sensory science once in a while, but when he escapes the laboratory and starts trekking the mountain vineyards of Israel, Georgia and elsewhere, he weaves a fascinating story that mixes personal exploration with cultural enlightenment. By searching for the origins of wine, Begos brings its past to us in the here and now. Along the way, he helps us understand how that wine we tasted on a long ago vacation still resonates in our memory, our palate and our cultural identity.
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