A friend recently asked me to recommend a wine book. An avid beer drinker, he can talk porters and stouts and IBUs of IPAs until somebody’s blue in the face, but he admits he has no real working knowledge of wine.
“I don’t need an encyclopedia or an atlas,” he says. “I just need a quick read that will help me make good choices in a restaurant and not sound stupid at dinner parties. I like wine, and I’d like to know a little more about what I’m drinking.”
Jancis Robinson to the rescue. Wine lovers know Robinson as perhaps the world’s most prolific wine writer, but her name might not be at the top of the list for authors of basic wine primers. After all, Robinson is associated with massive and indispensable (for wine geeks and writers, at least) tomes such as The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition), The World Atlas of Wine (Seventh Edition), with Hugh Johnson, and Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,386 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours, with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. She has also posted thousands of wine reviews and hundreds of articles on her subscription website, Jancisrobinson.com.
Now Robinson has written “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” (Abrams, 2016), for my friend and others who, she writes, want to learn about wine “without devoting the time and money needed to understand every minute detail and becoming wine professionals.” In a mere 112 pages that are not all dense with text, she covers the expected ground of how to taste, store and match wines with various foods. She defines “vino-lingo” to help novices know what the wine-obsessed are babbling on about, and she pokes holes in (and fun at) various pretensions and myths about wine.
This wouldn’t be a Jancis Robinson book without her dry British wit, of course. In a sidebar titled “What your choices say about you,” she includes “Wine in heavy bottles: marketing victim,” and “Hefty Australian Shiraz: bet he does the barbecuing.” And in a rundown of 10 common wine myths, she takes aim at “Pink wines and sweet wines are for women” with a simple “puh-lease.”
My friend will be happy to learn he needn’t buy a lot of fancy-shaped wine glasses, nor be embarrassed to appear in public with a bottle that has a screw cap instead of a cork. He’ll also find good advice for shopping in wine stores. “Forge a relationship with a local independent wine retailer,” Robinson advises. (Though a few pages later. she also suggests taking your smartphone with you so you can check ratings online, something that might annoy your retailer friend.) Avoid buying bottles of wine in window displays, where they have been exposed to harmful light. When choosing wine at a restaurant, “Don’t be ashamed of ordering some of the cheaper wines on the list; only oligarchs and oil magnates who positively relish spending over the odds head for the most expensive end of the list.”
Throughout the book, Robinson suggests tasting exercises to illustrate the differences in wines or their attributes. One is to taste lemon juice and cold tea to understand what acidity and tannin feel like, respectively, in your mouth. Another compares two vintages of the same wine to assess the effects of aging. Or taste an Alsace pinot gris along with an Italian pinot grigio, two very different expressions of the same grape.
In its pages we hear the authoritative voice of a master of wine who has been educating us about it for four decades. Don’t expect gospel — just an invitation to learn the basics and fall in love with wine on your own terms.
“There are no rights or wrongs in wine appreciation,” Robinson writes. “I can explain how to get the most out of a glass of wine, but it’s up to you, not your supposed ‘wine expert’ friend, to decide whether you like it or not.”
My friend will appreciate that. He might also like to know something not in this book: After a long day of wine tasting, many wine professionals prefer to refresh with a beer.
Margrit Mondavi died Sept. 2, at age 91. She was the second wife of Napa Valley wine pioneer Robert Mondavi, whose winery celebrated its 50th anniversary in July. As director of events at the winery, and later as Mondavi’s wife, Margrit initiated concert series, cooking classes and other events emphasizing wine’s connection to the finer things in life. She was a talented painter, an author and an engaging storyteller. Wine’s image as part of a luxury lifestyle resulted in large part from her hospitality efforts.