Following is a highly selective list of books that I’ve read or consulted that I consider particularly worthwhile. If I haven’t read or consulted a book, I do not recommend it. Alas, there are more that I’ve not read than have—I’ve only 140 books on wine in my library, and some are still waiting to be read, though nearly all have served as references.
Grapes, Wine, Wineries, and Vineyards
There are seven general wine books that one should own in order to be truly well- and completely informed:
1. Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. (2015) is just indispensable, with a comprehensive coverage of just about every topic bearing on wine that one can think of, a true Abbocatto to Zymase encyclopedia. All articles are signed, all cited references noted. Robinson was both the editor and a contributor. The 4th edition adds 300 additional, new terms, though many will only be of interest to wine professionals. For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.
2. Equally indispensable is Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, 8th ed. (2019). How else could one find the way around the vinicultural regions of the world, including NY State? The maps are in full color, ranging in scale from street-level for the Champagne towns and the lodges in Oporto, to 1:45,000 and larger for wine regions. The text for the many regions is the very model of pithy, clear writing. For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.
3. In 2013, two new, serious reference books on wine—sure to become indispensable and classic are: Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States (a very useful feature is its summary of each AVA, including the best grapes grown, and listing the top wineries by category); the other must-have is Jancis’s encyclopedic Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours, written in collaboration with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. See my post, The Three Indispensable Wine Books, for a complete review of Wine Grapes.
4. Emile Peynaud’s vital and perennial The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation (trans. Michael Schuster, 1987). Originally written in French as La Goût du Vin in 1983), it is considered definitive by many in the field.
But then, there is always Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste (2000), which is both a how-to for tasting and a guide to the aromatic and gustatory sensations of the different varieties and how they can differ from place to place (i.e., from terroir to terroir). Robinson’s is certainly the more approachable for most readers.
5. WSET students and graduates, anyone interested in wine certification, and indeed, even winemakers can benefit from David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology: The Science of Wine Explained, 3rd ed., which has been required reading for all WSET students, is a very clear and lucid explanation—in laymen’s terms—of what goes on right down to the molecular level of yeasts, viruses, and chemistry generally. It’s also a very good read.
6. I very much enjoyed and admired Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: toward natural and sustainable winemaking (2011), which has many really interesting insights into what really goes on in a vineyard, a winery, and what it takes to be a sustainable winegrower and producer. Much food for thought, though some may cavil about a few of the authors’ conclusions.
7. If one wanted to carry as much information about wine in a portable package, there’s one that I cannot live without: Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2020. It is pithy, witty, thicker than ever, and claims to be the Number One Bestselling Wine Guide, which it deserves to be. I’ve bought every edition since the very first one, published in 1977 (it was rather slim then). Also available as a Kindle Book from Amazon.
8. A book not to be overlooked is Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, Revised, Updated & Expanded Edition (2018). Zraly is a truly gifted instructor and virtually anyone can benefit from his guidance. His approach is original and his book is the most popular wine book of its kind, with over three million copies sold worldwide.
New York and East Coast Wine
Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is an useful guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries. Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves. In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though it would be followed geographically. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, although it’s now rather out-of-date, given that it was published in 2009.
Louisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery. One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal. Now out of print, it may be available, used, on Amazon or AbeBooks.
In Marguerite Thomas’s Touring East Coast Wine Country: A Guide to the Finest Wineries (1996) we have the first important guide to the wines and wineries of the East Coast, from Maine to Virginia, replete with useful insights and a good background on the history of the viniculture of each state. It also provides biography capsules of some of the most important or interesting winemakers. Given that the book was first published in 1996, a good deal of its information is now more of historical interest, and it needs, and deserves, a new edition.
More recent is Carlo DeVito’s East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia, published in 2004. Still, even this needs to be brought up-to-date, but its value lies in its own take on East Coast wineries, with listings of the wines offered by each estate with brief descriptions, recommendations and excerpted tasting reviews of the wines. Let’s hope that, like Thomas’s guide, DeVito’s will also receive a new, updated edition soon. For the serious wine tourist, one guide complements the other, so why not buy both?
An interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries. A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region.
Vital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history of LI viticulture and winemaking–is the excellent Wines of Long Island, 3rd edition (2019) by José Moreno-Lacalle, based on the 2nd edition by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo. It includes profiles of the most important personalities in the LI wine world as well as all the producers, with descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines–both past and present–and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region. Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines. (Is this called self-promotion?)
Organic and Biodynamic Viniculture
Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method, is the foundation text of the biodynamic movement. A compilation of eight lectures delivered in Germany in 1924 provides, in Steiner’s own words, the basis for what he called a new science based on the natural rhythms of the world and the cosmos, as recovered from the traditional practices of the peasant farmers of yore. It is meant as a healthy antidote to the rise of farming methods based on industrial chemicals and fertilizers. Many leading vineyards are farmed by this method, from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy to Shinn Estate in Long Island. You owe it to yourself to read the lectures if you wish to really understand what Biodynamics is about.
Nicolas Joly is a leading proponent of Biodynamic viticulture, and he practices his preaching at one of the greatest vineyards of the Loire, the Coulée de Serrant. Joly’s Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine, is a true believer’s panegyric to Biodynamics. His ideas and those of the founder of Biodynamics®, Rudolf Steiner, are put into practice at two vineyards that I know of: Macari Vineyards and Shinn Estate.
Lon Rombough’s The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture, is an excellent introduction to how to grow grapes organically. It’s also very practical, as the guide is really intended for the novice who wants to start a backyard vineyard or even a commercial one. It takes the reader step-by-step on establishing an organic vineyard, imparting along the way a good deal of knowledge and savvy advice.
Other Wine Books of More than Passing Interest (or Not)
- Tyler Colman, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (UCal Press, 2008). I highly recommend this book for its clarity and scholarship. The subject of politics in the wine world proves to be fascinating, and the author chose to approach it by comparing, for example, the AOC laws of France (and by extension, much of the EU) with the AVA regulations promulgated by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). There are surprising insights into how and why wine is grown and made in different countries, why labels look the way they do on each side of the Atlantic, and the effects of custom, religion, crime, regionalism, nationalism, and so forth on the wine trade. Eminently worthwhile for the serious wine-lover.
- John Hailman, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (UMiss Press, 2006). Another book that is based on sound scholarship and research, also well-written, but one may wish to skip all the tables and lists, which are difficult to grasp at times simply because the wines of Jefferson’s period (1743-1826) varied so much in name, currency, weights and volumes, that clear comparisons with our own period are so difficult to make. Still, if one has the patience, there is reward in seeing how all-encompassing were the interests and tastes of the first great oenophile of the United States of America.
- Thomas Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade (Thunder’s Mouth Press, NY, 2006) A work with great potential written by someone who has long been in the wine trade but whose sense of history is lacking in scholarship and critical acuity. Some of what he writes is couched in such vague or confused historical terms as to be virtually useless, especially when dealing with antiquity and the Middle Ages. The writing style is breezy and casual, but it lacks polish and lucidity. Such a shame.
- A far better foray into wine history would be the classic Gods, Men, and Wine, (1966) by William Younger, or the more recent Story of Wine (1989)—or the New Illustrated Edition (2004)—by Hugh Johnson, both of which are better-written and historically more reliable. Neither of the latter books is available in Kindle versions, but they do enjoy the virtue of been on real, durable paper bound in hardcover.
- A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage (2005), is more than just about wine. It tells its story by means of six beverages: beer (Mesopotamia & Egypt), wine (Ancient Greece & Rome), spirits (Colonial America), Coffee (Europe in the Age of Enlightenment), Tea (the British Empire), and Coca-Cola (Modern America and the Age of Globalization). It’s both amusing and informative, but I’d put the emphasis on the amusement. Unless you’ve utterly uninformed about wine or the other beverages, this is really History 001, rather lightweight.
- Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, edited by Barry C. Smith (2007), with essays by experts such as Paul Draper, Jamie Goode, Andrew Jefford, and others, with an enthusiastic Foreword by Jancis Robinson. The contributors also include a couple of philosophers and a linguist. The language of wine as presented in this book is clearly academic. A worthwhile but challenging book, well worth the time to read.
- Wine Wars, by Mike Veseth (2011), which, with chapter headings like “The Curse of the Blue Nun,” “The Miracle of Two-Buck Chuck,” and “The Revenge of the Terroirists,” is an interesting and amusing way of treating the effects of globalization on the modern world of wine. It is also rather informative, and occasionally provides some surprising nuggets of information (such as the fact that Trader Joe’s is actually a German company).
I find it curious when “serious” wine pros haven’t read Peynaud.
He clearly shows why the difference in quality between (say) Yellow-Tail & Ch. Ausone is not totally subjective, but has clear objectivity. Too bad more “pros” don’t comprehend this, & can’t be bothered to taste properly.
As far as Jancis, even though I do have respect for her, I can’t seriously recommend How to Taste from someone who seemingly takes away “style-points” from great wines because she doesn’t approve of the style (’05 Pavie = 16.5/20?!? ’03 Pavie = 12/20!?! ’00 Pavie = 17/20?!?). This is as much of a joke as Parker giving ~ 20 2009 Bordeaux 100 points.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rob. You’ve made some important points that deserve attention from discerning readers.
Well done, as usual. Thanks