subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

My favorite wine books, and why they’re so great

7 comments

U.C. Davis asked me to list the wine books that had the most influence on me, and explain why. I had a lot of fun yesterday writing this, and I’m pleased to share it with others who love to read.

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen (1932)

They don’t write like this anymore. In fact, nobody’s written like this for close to a century. Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was, like so many others on this list, a Brit and Oxford man, with a solid education in the classics, and a penchant for journalism. A friend of George Saintsbury’s, Allen was a novelist first, but his love of wine led him to write “Romance.” The Times of London said of Allen that his readers will but learn that wine is a glorious thing for man and prohibition an evil thing. Mr. Allen writes like a poet. He dresses his bottles with flowery garlands.” Flowery garlands indeed! Of 1869 Latour, Allen writes: “Beautiful to the eye, this great wine breathed forth a perfume worthy of the gods…compounded of a multitude of subtle fragrances, the freshness of the sun-ripened grape, etherealized by the patient work of Nature into a quintessence of harmonious scents. The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’” Perhaps it’s a good thing such extravagant writing is gone, but reading Allen taught me that I could have fun with my words, swim in them, wander in them as in a flower garden, write dense, compound sentences with literary allusions, and yet remain clear and humane. Churchill wrote in a similar style (albeit not about wine), and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury (1933)

Some argue this is the greatest wine book ever written. I wouldn’t go that far, but it deserves a place in every wine-loving bibliophile’s library. Saintsbury (1845-1933) was another of those Oxford polymaths whose interests spanned everything from French literature to British recipes of the 17th century to, of course, wine. Reading “Cellar-book” brings the reader into the clubby, rarified drawing rooms of late 19th-century gourmets, with their eight-course meals (washed down with old Champagne, Yquem, Margaux and Port), and described in the flowery, Victorian writing style that, for better or worse, has all but disappeared from the English language.

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel (1934)

Following the Repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, there came a spate of wine education books for an American public almost wholly devoid of any knowledge of wine and its culture. This was one of the earliest, and best. Schoonmaker (1905-1976), a wine merchant, writer, and importer of European wines (into New York), was one of the first Americans to call for honesty in California wine labeling, using grape varietal names instead of purloined silliness like “Burgundy” or “Chablis.” (I think co-author Marvel was what we might call a ghost writer.) “The Complete Wine Book” is factual, comprehensive and knowledgeable; if a little dull in style, it nonetheless gave post-Prohibition Americans what they needed: a solid foundation.

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon (1942)

Mabon was food and wine editor for Harper’s Bazaar, which for decades defined elegance and style to Americans, mostly women. She came from a good family, niece of an American minister to Ireland, wife of the president of the New York Stock Exchange. I’ve always enjoyed compendiums of California wineries from long ago, and Mabon’s Chapter IV, “California Wineries,” is a wonderful romp through how-it-was: the names of Bisceglia Brothers, Solano Winery, Alta Winery and Mont La Salle Vineyards have not been uttered for a long time, but reading of their Haut Sauternes, California Burgundies and Sherry Sacks transports you back to a time when FDR was President, the Depression was raging, and Americans were just starting to enjoy drinking without fear of getting arrested. Her book, too, contains helpful hints on storage, refrigeration, label reading and food pairing that must have been greatly welcomed by housewives of the time.

Wines, Julian Street, 1948

Street, a New York City reporter who ventured into Broadway playwriting, might today be called a metrosexual. Debonair, looking a bit like the actor Leslie Howard, he was “long interested in the twin arts of wining and dining,” as the book’s dust jacket explains. True to his journalistic roots, he interviewed men and women from all over the world for “Wines,” to tell the story of wine, and to explain the intricacies of the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and Alsace, Germany, Italy, Sherry, Port, Marsala and Madeira, not to mention Palestine, Persia and Greece. The question with which he leads off his chapter on California wines is one that no one would ask these days: “Why can’t we make better?” You come across gems like Street’s reaction to a Martin Ray 1936 Pinot Noir, from the Santa Cruz Mountains: “It was a remarkable wine, the first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure.” For a wine-loving history buff, that’s as good as it gets.

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries (1960s-1980s)

Waugh, who died in 2001 at the age of 97, was a British wine merchant who rose to the top of his profession. He was a prolific writer and speaker, and served on the Board of Chateau Latour. One little-known aspect of his career was his early championing of the budding California wine scene of the early 1960s, and the way he acted as a transmitter of California wines and ideas to his Old World colleagues in London; his Zinfandel Club, which he founded in that city, introduced the British wine world to the boutique California wines of the era. He wrote a series of Wine Diaries between the 1960s and 1980s. I discovered them one by one in used bookstores and have treasured each. I had the privilege of accompanying Harry on a wine tour of Washington State, when he was already close to 90 and the Washington Wine Commission asked me to look after him. The impact of his Diaries on me was in their writing style: Harry wrote very simply, with no elaborate flourishes and none at all of those florid, over-the-top preciosities that have infected modern wine writing. In his humbleness and aw-shucks manner, he has provided a model of scholarly propriety for generations who admired him.

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell (1969)

Another of those highly-educated Londoners of the mid-20th century, Penning-Rowsell (1913-2002) was friends with everyone who mattered in the British wine trade. His masterly account of Bordeaux isn’t for everyone. The history is detailed and lovingly told, with accounts of how many French francs individual chateaux sold for in real estate transactions, how many francs the resulting wines went for (going back centuries), rainfall totals in the Gironde, the rise of the once all-important negociant houses, and, of course, the vintages, starting in 1795 and ending in 1978.

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg (1971)

Just as the 1930s brought a spurt of wine books for Americans desperate for wine knowledge after the 13-year long disaster of Prohibition, so the 1970s witnessed a new phase of that education, this time for the burgeoning Baby Boom generation. Blumberg and Hannum were both young law students at the University of California when they were bitten by the wine bug; together, like many students before and after, they toured Europe. They began their book by asking the pertinent question, “Why another wine book?”, and answered it this way: “While there have been many excellent treatises in recent years on viticulture and enology, there has been nothing dedicated to a consumer-oriented description and analysis of California wines.” What they produced was somewhat anodyne, but their descriptions of wineries are another valuable source of historical research. They divided that into two parts: larger, better-known wineries (Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Souverain) and “A sampling of smaller wineries.” This is, for me, where the meat is: at the dawn of the boutique era, wineries like Davis Bynum, Freemark Abbey and David Bruce were up and running.

The Wines of America, Leon Adams (1973)

No history of American wines, especially one written in 1973, could remain current for very long. Adams’ book was outdated, it’s fair to say, the moment it was released; California wine history was on overdrive, and nobody could have kept up. Still, for the modern historian, it’s an important resource. How many times over the decades did I turn to the Index to discover, say, the origins of Fountain Grove Vineyard, or some detail of the old La Questa, or who was using new French oak in the 1940s?

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman (1975)

The book came and went with hardly any notice from anyone. Gorman was not a wine professional, nor did he have any connection to the industry. As he himself wrote, “My book…is the record of a personal voyage of discovery into the premium wines of California.” I’ve always liked personal books: my first one for the University of California, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, was a deeply personal book. Gorman wrote about California Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and other varieties at a time—1975—of great ferment in the industry (no pun intended). The boutique movement had started, yet this was still a period when Napa growers planted every variety cheek-by-jowl with every other variety, and Americans were still drinking so-called “Chablis” and “Burgundy” from jugs. It’s a fascinating take on the time, and Gorman’s vertical tasting notes make for interesting reading even today.

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen (1975)

Not the greatest wine book ever, but it served its purpose for budding amateurs like me. A solid overview of the grapes and wines of the world, with vintage charts and recommendations. We need a good compendium like this every few years.

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques (1975)

Henriques was, oddly enough, an Episcopal priest, who lived and pastored in the Sierra Foothills. He said he wrote his little encyclopedia out of “a fond regard” for his subject. He also claimed to have “the most extensive notes on current wines…of anybody in the world,” which may have been a slight exaggeration; did he know what Michael Broadbent was up to? The New American Library, an imprint of Signet, published this in soft cover for a mass market; it was not the most promising format. But it’s a good and at times fascinating volume. Where the Reverend Henriques got the wherewithal to taste Lafite from 1806 on, or Petrus back to 1946, or seemingly every wine Robert Mondavi ever produced, is unknown; perhaps he “borrowed” his reviews from others, although that’s a terrible thing to imply about a man of God. Nonetheless, no detail was too small for Henriques’s scholarly eye. Especially noteworthy are the retail prices Henriques cites for every wine: you might want to invent a time machine when you learn that Heitz 1968 Martha’s Vineyard sold for $11.

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson (orig. 1971, second edition, 1977)

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson (1993) [inscribed]

I bracket these two Atlases together, although Johnson’s preceded Thompson’s by nearly two decades. What they have in common, besides their Mitchell Beazley connection, are elegant structure and, especially, the maps, a Beazley specialty. Anyone who loves wine will have studied with the greatest interest and delight the detailed, color-coded maps of towns, vineyards and geographic and geological features, which make “wine country” come alive. Both books were instrumental in my education, particularly in understanding appellations and the lay of the land.

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson (1977)

I loved this book from the moment I bought it. Benson offered what was, for the time, the most penetrating glimpse into 27 men (and one woman!) who dominated the California wine scene in the mid-1970s. At a time when other writers were focusing on grape varieties, vineyards and wineries, Benson was interested in the person. He roamed the state with a tape recorder, did his interviews, published the transcripts, and voila. I used the same technique for my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. It was my homage to Benson; both books, I think, remain of interest to historians and amateur wine buffs.

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman (1979)

Every student of wine eventually learns about the Hungarian “Count,” who more or less birthed the California wine industry in the middle of the 19th century, after he was sent by the State Legislature to Europe and brought back with him more than 100,000 vine cuttings of at least 350 grape varieties, many of which he planted on its 118-acre Sonoma Valley estate. The book is in two parts: a useful, rather workhorse biography of Haraszthy (1812-1869), and his 1862 report to the California Legislature on “Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine-making.” Haraszthy dedicated his tome to “the agricultural public…hoping that… it may prove a valuable and an enduring source of wealth to the American horticulturalist and farmer.” It does that indeed, and is delightful to read, especially when you consider that English was Haraszthy’s second language.

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent (1980)

In all likelihood, no one in history (except for Rev. Henriques?) has ever tasted the world’s great wines as thoroughly as Broadbent, nor is anyone ever likely to in the future. And he kept every note, assembling them into this hard-covered classic. 1799 Lafite? 1947 Cheval Blanc? 1959 Romanée-Conti?  1653 Rüdesheimer, from the Rhinegau? 1851 Stibbert’s Port (“the most magnificent old Port I have ever drunk”)? Mr. Broadbent has notes on them all, plus thousands of others. You and I will never have these opportunities, but fortunately, because of Broadbent’s diligence, we can at least have some idea what these wines tasted like.

New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, Alexis Lichine (1981)

I absolutely devoured this book when it came out. It may in fact have been the single most influential wine book for me early on, its arrival coinciding with my nascent interest in wine. Lichine, who owned Chateau Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux, was a Bordeaux man, but his interests in wine were global. His knowledge of areas beyond France and Germany was perhaps a little second-hand. But for Bordeaux, Burgundy and German wines, the New Encyclopedia was the alpha and omega of the times.

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot (1982)

Something of an oddity. DeGroot (1910-1983) was a British, Oxford-educated gourmet and wine critic, who became a U.S. citizen in 1945. He called his book “the first classification of the best vineyards and wineries” of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York State. It was an idea no one was particularly asking for, and his classification (and those of others) went nowhere. Still, it provides an interesting, eccentric take on the wine scene at the birth of the boutiques.

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein (1982)

Bernstein (not that one) was a freelance, suburban New York City writer with a passion for wine, who wrote about it in a satiric way that did not mask his thorough understanding of the issues. From chapters on “letting the wine breathe” and “etiquette” to “which wine-which food?” and “understanding oak,” Bernstein skewers the pretensions of wine snobs, while educating readers to the most acute subtleties. I recently reread the book and it remains as fresh and funny as it was 40 years ago.

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine (1984)

This was the It book of the year, the Bible. I well remember the buildup to its release, and how I rushed to buy it (for $55, a lot of money at the time!). Everything you ever wanted to know about the Golden State’s wines, written by some of the most authoritative personalities of the era (Gerald Asher, Bob Thompson, Paul Draper, Maynard Amerine, Alice Waters, Timothy Mondavi and many others). Sumptuously packaged, it was the reference point for a generation of wine aficionados.

On Wine, Gerald Asher (1986)

These are reprints of Asher’s famous essays for Gourmet magazine, written in the 1970s and 1980s. The British-born Asher, whom I knew when he lived in San Francisco, was one of those internationalists, as comfortable writing about the wines of Piedmont and Chablis as those of his adopted state, California. His chapter on California Cabernet Sauvignon laid down the marker for acute, lively and creative wine writing and analysis.

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud (introduction by Michael Broadbent. English translation, 1987)

Professor Peynaud (1912-2004) was a leading light of Bordeaux enology. Trained as a scientist, he brought an academic approach to the making and appreciation of fine wine. “The Taste of Wine” is a deep dive into viticulture, enology, wine chemistry and vocabulary, as well as professional tasting techniques. It could have been tedious, but Peynaud keeps it accessible and interesting. His concept of “cru,” as opposed to “terroir,” is marvelous, and informed my own understanding of the influence of place, practice and person on wine.

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson (1989). Another must-have, another Beazley book, and another Johnson masterpiece. No one has ever told the story of wine, from its mythic beginnings in the Transcaucasus to the Paris Tasting, as compellingly, or with more beautiful graphics.

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube (1989)

Nineteen-eighty-nine was the year Wine Spectator first let me write for them. I got to know Jim Laube, their California reviewer, fairly well, and treasured this book for a while. It was, for its time, the most complete and authoritative volume on Cabernet, with Napa Valley, of course, dominating. Jim, like De Groot seven years previously, attempted to classify the wines, in this case into 5 Growths, an effort doomed to fail, as was De Groot’s. But his descriptions of the wines, historical details on the wineries and vertical tasting notes were greatly welcome back in the day.

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (2010)

Parr, the famous sommelier, partnered with Mackay, the San Francisco writer, to produce this insidery account, a sort of “day in the life” of a wine pro. It’s heavy on name-dropping, and while the somm trade has perhaps lost some of its glamor in recent years, Mackay’s breezy style makes it a good read.

In Search of Pinot Noir (2011) and Claret and Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon (2013). Both by Benjamin Lewin, MW.

These are pretty much the last wine books I bought. I mention them together because they’re both great books, and for the same reasons. Lewin, a much-respected wine writer, is high-class. To me, he comes from the Hugh Johnson-Gerald Asher school of writing, which is scholarly, precise, knowledgeable and elegant. In both books, he demonstrates his mastery of the subject matter, and brings new twists in his interpretations, giving fresh insights into areas like cult Cabs and “The Holy Grail,” the Grands Crus of Burgundy. Explaining terroir, in all its complexities, is a Lewin specialty. His tasting notes are a delight, on a par—mirabile dictu!—with Broadbent’s.

  1. Gary Cowan says:

    Steve,

    A terrific list and nice comments on why these books influenced you.

    I know all of them well from my 40 plus years in the wine industry. There are a couple of books not on your list that I also found very useful in their day.

    Burton Anderson’s Vino published in 1980 was one of the first books to profile the merging Italian wine scene and later his Italian Wine Atlas did for Italy what Hugh Johnson did for France.

  2. Thanks Gary. I have Anderson’s books and others on Italy, but my interests gravitated more towards France and (obviously) California.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Steve, I concur:

    Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson (1977)

    “I loved this book from the moment I bought it. Benson offered what was, for the time, the most penetrating glimpse into 27 men (and one woman!) who dominated the California wine scene in the mid-1970s. At a time when other writers were focusing on grape varieties, vineyards and wineries, Benson was interested in the person. He roamed the state with a tape recorder, did his interviews, published the transcripts, and voila. I used the same technique for my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. It was my homage to Benson; both books, I think, remain of interest to historians and amateur wine buffs.”

    Benson was a colleague of mine at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. (He on the faculty; me in the administration.)

    I always enjoyed our chats on wine, once he learned I had a shared passion. Was so saddened by his premature passing.

    Few folks in or outside of the industry know of his contribution to the drafting and passage of “consumer protection” wine labeling law identifying a bottle of wine based on its highest percentage composition variety grape. (The “75% rule.” Up from 51% in his day.)

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Likewise concur.

    The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot (1982)

    “Something of an oddity. DeGroot (1910-1983) was a British, Oxford-educated gourmet and wine critic, who became a U.S. citizen in 1945. He called his book “the first classification of the best vineyards and wineries” of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York State. It was an idea no one was particularly asking for, and his classification (and those of others) went nowhere. Still, it provides an interesting, eccentric take on the wine scene at the birth of the boutiques.”

    There are some long-form profiles in this book worth reading . . . starting with Joe Heitz.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    The first wine book I ever read.

    “Borrowed” from my father, who was gifted it on his birthday by one of my older brothers. (He never ventured beyond Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I thankfully did.)

    The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg (1971)

    “Just as the 1930s brought a spurt of wine books for Americans desperate for wine knowledge after the 13-year long disaster of Prohibition, so the 1970s witnessed a new phase of that education, this time for the burgeoning Baby Boom generation. Blumberg and Hannum were both young law students at the University of California when they were bitten by the wine bug; together, like many students before and after, they toured Europe. They began their book by asking the pertinent question, “Why another wine book?”, and answered it this way: “While there have been many excellent treatises in recent years on viticulture and enology, there has been nothing dedicated to a consumer-oriented description and analysis of California wines.” What they produced was somewhat anodyne, but their descriptions of wineries are another valuable source of historical research. They divided that into two parts: larger, better-known wineries (Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Souverain) and “A sampling of smaller wineries.” This is, for me, where the meat is: at the dawn of the boutique era, wineries like Davis Bynum, Freemark Abbey and David Bruce were up and running.”

    I would take the book to the (now defunct) Liquor Barn retail stores in the greater Los Angeles area, and use it as a buying guide.

  6. Love the compendium, Steve. Early on, Frank Schoonmaker was a “go-to” reference source for me. So few today have the slightest sense of the influence/impact he had on America’s sense of wine post Prohibition

  7. Cathy Hansen says:

    My local winery mentioned a book published from 1905 from New York. It had beautiful pictures that showed the differences between Norton and Cynthiana. But I can’t remember the name of the book. I would love to know if anyone knows of this book. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

*

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives