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What I’m reading


A few new books to recommend for summer reading before summer ends.

Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail From Genesis to the Modern Age [Joel Butler and Randall Heskett] is, as its title states, an encyclopedic narrative of the story of wine from its misty origins at the dawn of time. The authors trace wine’s appearance on the human scene from pre-Biblical days, basing their history on archeological and other physical evidence, and then turn to Biblical exegesis to explain the Noah story of the planting of the vine, followed by wine’s steady penetration of Jewish culture. Then they trace wine’s path through ancient Greek and Roman societies, and end with an amusing chapter: Seriously, What Wine Would Jesus Drink? [You’ll have to read it to find out.] It’s a good book, a little dry, but packed with scholarly information. Joel Butler is one of the first two Masters of Wine in the U.S., and an old friend of mine. Randall Heskett is a Ph.D biblical scholar and president of Boulder University. Read their book for a solid background on wine’s role as nurturer of the culture.

Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food & Wine [Ken Arnone and Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan]. I can hear you thinking, “Oh, no, not another wine and food cookbook!” Well, yes…and no. It’s laden with recipes that are more conventional than exciting (tandoori chicken, cheese ravioli, beef bourgignon); if your library resembles mine, you probably have a dozen cookbooks with the same recipes. But what makes Pairing fun and useful is its treatment of wine. The authors recommend one wine for each dish [moderately priced and relatively easy to find), but they devote considerable energy to explaining just why that particular wine works so well, so that if you can’t find it, you have enough information to substitute something similar. For example, they recommend a Cantravelli Taurasi Riserva for grilled lamb chops with mint emulsion. I might not have the time to look all over town for this Italian Aglianico, but reading that the chops want a wine that’s “full-bodied, dark fruit (blackberry), earthy, grilled meat flavor, gripping tannin, slightly rustic,” I might choose a dry, cool-climate California Syrah. Surely that wouldn’t lead to disaster?

The authors also do something I’ve never seen before: they pair each dish with several wines that didn’t work, and explain where things went south. With the lamb chops, Washington Merlot and California Chardonnay are no-no’s because they clashed in some way with the food. The Chardonnay, they write, worked well on several layers with the lamb, but ultimately “the dish and the wine end up canceling each other out.” That’s an interesting take on wine and food pairing. Ken Arnone, by the way, is a Certified Master Chef (whatever that is), while Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan is a Master of Wine.

I’ll mention also Doug Shafer’s new reflection on the story of Shafer Vineyards, A Vineyard in Napa. Some great personal histories here of his Dad, John Shafer, himself and the inimitable Elias Fernandez, everybody’s favorite winemaker (I gave him and Doug a chapter in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California). And, when I have a chance, I’ll try Amarone: The Making of an Italian Wine Phenomenon, just out from The Wine Appreciation Guild.

Never stop reading! (And I don’t mean tweets.)

  1. I am currently reading “The Juice” my Jay McInerney, which is entertaining but extremely self indulgent; and Wine Journey Along the Russian River (don’t know why it took me so long to get to it). As a side-note, I just gifted a bottle of Robert Young Scion 2007 as part of a wedding gift to some friends and loved to read the section of your book on the vineyards and history of Robert Young and Scion (the winery compares their 07′ to the 97′ on the website and I drank it at the winery last year). I tend to have an insatiable appetite for educational but entertaining books on wine (strictly reference material is a bit tough sometimes) and find that the search is sometimes daunting. The local bookstores seem to have a thousand books on simplifying the subject of wine or wine/food pairing for beginners, but very little on the history or philosophies of wine making regions, wineries, and winemakers. If I want a review of a specific vintage or bottle, I will look online or in magazines; I believe books should be reserved to topics that are a little less transient. Let me know what you think.

  2. Dear GrapesRGreat, thanks for reading “Journey.” That book was a joy to write and I think people will be reading it 100 years from now. (Is that too self indulgent?) — that is, if anyone’s reading in 2112. Far be it from me to tell a writer what to write. Suffice it to say that with “Journey” I refused to write a book that would be here today, gone tomorrow, like 99% of the wine books out there. I wanted something that I, myself, would love to read, something with substance and style.

  3. steve, i don’t believe Joel’s book is out for the rest of us. all book sites point to a November release date, and dry or not, I can’t wait!

  4. I like the sound of ‘Divine Vintage’… I’m guessing Jesus wouldn’t drink anything fruity. Think I may order that one. I recently bought The New York Times Book of Wine, which includes many great wine articles from 30 years ago to today. Highly recommend!

  5. Stephanie, yes, you’re right, I should have said that they sent me an advance copy. Sorry.

  6. Steve,

    What would be your choice for the best book on wine and food pairing?

  7. Bob: There are so many good pairing books, I don’t know where to begin!

  8. Top 3? I tried a few a number of years ago and was not impressed with any of them…

  9. @Bob, well you can start with the one I wrote about today!

  10. An important book for the wine industry, but not about wine; I just finished David Wessel’s ‘Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget. Wessel is Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, his short easy read is about as non-partisan as you will find about the current state of our economy. This new book should be required reading for every American, if any Americans still read. It should especially be read by anyone who believes that the U.S. will avoid fiscal calamity simply by cutting taxes and cutting spending. We’ve got maybe a decade before we will be selling wine in an economy that resembles Greece, and it is obvious today we have positioned the can for another kick down the road.

  11. I love the “Pairing With the Masters” idea of providing more context with the food pairing, Steve, thanks for the tip. And what do you know, Certified Master Chef is actually a thing.

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