Wine Column: Books are a great way to learn about wine

11/29/2010 4:00 PM |

I love real books made of paper and ink. A well-chosen book is a wonderful gift, even for those who are wedded to electronic media.

There are many books for wine amateurs — perhaps too many. To sort through the best of the batch, we must consider whether the recipient would need a guide to pronounce pinot noir (pee-no noowahr) or is already snubbing Grüner Vetliner. In the first category, I like Oz Clarke’s ‘Let Me Tell You About Wine,’ a heavily illustrated, very basic introduction oriented around wine aromas and flavors. Clarke writes with flair, but his message is mainstream.

For someone who already knows that chardonnay is a grape grown in Burgundy, I like ‘Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine: Pleasure, Value, and Adventure Beyond Wine’s Usual Suspects’ by Mark Oldman. Oldman wants to help wine enthusiasts “jostle the jaded and slay the snooty.” This book focuses on less-familiar wines that deliver maximum flavor with minimal cost. Oldman knows something about value. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, he served on the Stanford board of trustees’ committee on investment responsibility; he also chooses all of the wine picks for the 15 million annual readers of Everyday with Rachael Ray magazine. He’s a highly verbal wine guru, an intellectual who is plugged into pop culture, and that’s what makes this book entertaining and informative, albeit somewhat annoying in Oldman’s attempt to be glib, trendy, cute and smart all at once.

For a narrative romp through the world of wine, try Wall Street Journal wine reporter Lettie Teague’s book, ‘Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot or How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert.’ Unless you can afford some of the bottles Lettie and her friend Peter drink, you may not end up being an expert, but the book is entertaining, and takes the edge off your own insecurity about either being a wine novice or being a dork. (Peter is more of a dork than you.)

There are several gift-worthy books by local authors for wine and food lovers. Paula Croteau, owner of Southold’s Farmhouse Kitchen cooking school and Croteaux Vineyards, has just published a gorgeous cookbook, ‘Farmhouse Kitchen Favorites.’ Designed by her husband, Michael, a graphic artist extraordinaire, and dedicated to her father, Chet Skwara, who tended the vines and chopped her mise en place, this elaborately visual book has simple, delicious recipes and a philosophical impetus to enjoy life’s pleasures.

More completely sui generis is chef John Ross’s book, ‘The Story of North Fork Wine,’ a follow-up volume to his first book, ‘The Food and Wine of the North Fork.’ Ross writes an opinionated but loving retrospective on the development of the North Fork’s wineries at the same time he was practicing nouvelle locavore cuisine at his restaurant, Ross’. Besides the tales he tells of the wine industry’s most relevant participants (full disclosure: I’m included), he offers some of his best recipes.

Chef Tom Schaudel, another pioneer of “Atlantic rim” cuisine, offers his hilarious but affectionate take on the crazy world of the restaurant culture in ‘Playing With Fire: Whining and Dining on the Gold Coast.’ After reading this book, you might think twice before walking out the door with the restaurant’s Christmas tree.

Another recent, charming publication with an eye on the East End is ‘Farms, Vineyards & Small Towns of the North Fork of Long Island: Watercolors by Bob Miller.’ Printed in a sketchbook format, complete with an artist’s red sketching pencil and three postcards, this small book of 70 original watercolor reproductions truly captures the spirit of the region, showing favorite landmarks in a deft, colorful style.

Going globally, a unique gift for lovers of wine, history and/or books is a membership/subscription to my favorite publication, Wayward Tendrils: a Wine Book Collector’s Society, edited by Gail Uzelman. For a paltry $25 you get a quarterly publication of reviews, anecdotes and excerpts, without advertising. The focus on wine is a fulcrum for far-reaching, witty, intelligent discourse. Every issue brings me “ah-ha” moments; every one reveals the depth of wine culture. For instance, have you heard of Black Jack, a massive, pitch-lined leather jug used in the 16th century, before glass was common?

“For when a man is at work in the Field,
Your Glasses and Pots, no comfort will yield;
Then a good Leather Bottel standing him by,
He may drink always when he is dry.”

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.