The Year’s Best Books on Wine (and Whisky)
Wine, and spirits, have been with us for thousands of years, crucial to civilization and ever-changing. New styles arise, fresh points of view emerge and original voices offer provocative opinions. Here are five books on wine and one on spirits that I found most interesting in 2022, in no particular order.
‘To Fall in Love, Drink This: A Wine Writer’s Memoir’ by Alice Feiring
Alice Feiring is best known as the first and most assertive American champion of natural wines. She’s written five books that more or less focused on that theme. Her sixth book, “To Fall in Love, Drink This: A Wine Writer’s Memoir” (Scribner), is her best yet. It’s her most insightful, both tender and wry, yet powerful. Paradoxically, it’s the book least focused on natural wine, while the most successful in getting to the heart of the matter.
Ms. Feiring, who describes herself as “a pale, redheaded yeshiva girl who could never tolerate being in the sun,” may be the biggest paradox of all. How does this shy, almost introverted child grow to navigate a dysfunctional family, escape the clutches of a serial killer only to cross paths with him again years later, find herself drinking sparkling Vouvray with Nina Simone and become an authority on wine whose views are sought around the world?
The book does not try to answer this question overtly. It’s not so much a coherent narrative as a series of essays deftly woven together with wines that intersect in surprisingly appropriate ways.
Slowly, as the stories unfold, the deep meaning that wine holds for Ms. Feiring becomes clear. It’s not simply a matter of a beverage that smells and tastes good, or even interesting. She acknowledges that wine can seem frivolous in a world beset with deep, underlying problems. But she sees good wine as foundational to community and to our social bonds. It’s not merely ceremonial. It’s an active expression of a place and a culture.
That potent insight has informed her best work. This book, free of polemics and with wisdom presented in the context of her own life, is her most convincing.
‘Vino: The Essential Guide to Real Italian Wine’ by Joe Campanale with Joshua David Stein
The breadth and depth of Italian wines available outside of Italy has grown exponentially over the last 25 years. Despite its popularity around the world, Italian wine has been the subject of precious few guidebooks, with most of them well out of date. That makes “Vino: The Essential Guide to Real Italian Wine” (Clarkson Potter, $35) by Joe Campanale with Joshua David Stein, especially welcome now.
Mr. Campanale is a restaurateur and sommelier in New York who’s made a specialty of putting together excellent lists of Italian wines. Rather than flash his credentials, he introduces himself as “Joey from Queens.” That disarming quality infuses this genial, practical, unpretentious guide. It’s easy-to-read and digest, and is full of thoughtful observations and excellent recommendations.
“Vino” is not dispassionate. It does not pretend to be objective. It’s opinionated and refreshingly clear about its point of view.
Mr. Campanale pays lip service to the official structures of Italian wine, only to (correctly) dismiss them as useless. Instead, he proposes his own way of assessing quality, which he describes as an intersection of native Italian grapes, exceptional terroirs and artisanal winemaking. It’s a sensible approach and helps to make up for those insecure 20th-century years when many growers favored international grapes over their own indigenous varieties.
In his tour of Italian wine regions, Mr. Campanale pays attention to the lesser-known appellations as well as those already recognized as great. He cites favorite producers and preferred wines. They are rarely the obvious choices, which will make this book even more useful to readers searching for new avenues and flavors to explore.
‘The Wine Bible’ 3rd Edition by Karen MacNeil
When “The Wine Bible” by Karen MacNeil was first published in 2001, it almost instantly became my recommendation for the best single-volume reference for anybody wanting to learn about wine. It was concise and pithy, and Ms. MacNeil, while warm and easygoing, was also authoritative.
With the rapid pace of change in wine, it soon was out of date, and the next edition was not published until 2015. Thankfully, we did not have to wait so long for the revised 3rd edition of “The Wine Bible” (Workman, $40).
Ms. MacNeil is a pleasure to read. Her voice continues to be clear and inviting, and the book is organized in the inimitable Workman style, full of brief boxes, lists of grapes, appellations and producers to know, along with short discourses on foods, customs and other local curiosities. It does a wonderful job summarizing the key points about the historically important wine regions.
While the book takes note of contemporary issues, it’s often in passing. Natural wine, for example, which has had a profound effect on wine over the last 20 years, is barely noted.
In many ways, “The Wine Bible” is the very definition of conventional wisdom, whether on pairing wine with food; learning how to store, serve and taste wine; or in its choice of producers to highlight.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for beginners who are just trying to get their footing in wine. You have to understand the rules in order to know which can be broken. “The Wine Bible” will make newcomers comfortable with wine, which is the most important thing. Only with experience, which the “The Wine Bible” will help promote, does one gain the wisdom to understand what can safely be unlearned.
‘The World of Natural Wine: What It Is, Who Makes It and Why It Matters’ by Aaron Ayscough
For an excellent counterpoint to “The Wine Bible,” read “The World of Natural Wine: What It Is, Who Makes It and Why it Matters” by Aaron Ayscough (Artisan, $40), an overview of the subject that makes the case both for its importance and for how it has changed the conventional approach to wine.
One of the beauties of natural wine is its recognition and acceptance of complexity. Simplifying ideas to black and white is marketing, something most natural wine producers with integrity stubbornly resist.
The book presents natural wine in a clear and comprehensive way that recognizes its complexities. That’s an achievement, and it ought to be warmly received by anybody who is curious about natural wine or already a fan.
Mr. Ayscough, a former sommelier who writes the natural wine newsletter “Not Drinking Poison,” has immersed himself in the subject for years, or rather, has immersed himself in what he calls the “wine counterculture” in France, where he lives. Not surprisingly, the book is francocentric, but Mr. Ayscough makes the case that natural wine arose in France, which set the standards and values that guide it around the world.
He is an affable and firmly opinionated guide through the history of natural wine, who makes it and where it can be found throughout France, with smaller sections on the rest of the world. Along the way, he will make you think about wine in general and perhaps reconsider many hidebound beliefs, like what constitutes a flaw in wine.
Referring to the history of wine fraud, he writes: “To prefer natural wine is to recognize that transformative modern enology is the new wine fraud. It plays the same role that blending foreign wines and sugar addition once played in correcting for, and enabling, destructive farming.”
‘Drinking With the Valkyries: Writings on Wine’ by Andrew Jefford
For years Andrew Jefford has been one of the English language’s most thoughtful writers and stylists on wine. He never settles for the cliché or recites old saws. Almost always, he is original and provocative, though not at all a provocateur.
“Drinking With the Valkyries: Writings on Wine” (Academie du Vin Library, $35) is a collection of his works that have been published in wine periodicals over the last decade or so. Mostly short and easily digestible, they can be consumed here and there, but it’s even more fun to sit down with them over time to grasp the full extent of his curiosity and insights.
“The Japanese salvage beauty from nature’s disdain,” he writes of koshu, a grape and wine grown primarily in the Yamanashi region of Japan. He reflects on the mystery of a Lebanese white wine from the renowned Château Musar that at first smells like “bandages and green beans,” but over the course of four days evolves: “At last I like the smell of it, fresher than ever now, as if dusk has come around to dawn, and bakers are baking, and sprinkling olive oil on their bread and squeezing lemons.”
Mr. Jefford, who is English, has been all over the world and now lives in France. When he’s not writing about wine, Mr. Jefford is a poet, and he’s far more interested in the poetry of wine — the transporting thoughts and dreamlike reveries it induces — than in the technical details. Occasionally the language feels a bit forced, as if he’s decided clarity is worth sacrificing for original imagery. But he’s on target most of the time and is a pleasure to read.
‘A Sense of Place: A Journey Around Scotland’s Whisky’ by Dave Broom
“A sense of place” is a phrase most commonly attributed to a wine that expresses the qualities and character of the area in which the grapes were grown and the people and culture there that produced it. “A Sense of Place: A Journey Around Scotland’s Whisky” by Dave Broom (Mitchell Beazley, $50), makes the case convincingly that it applies equally well to Scotland’s single malts.
Mr. Broom, who was born in Glasgow and has been writing about spirits for decades, is the perfect author for this beautiful, evocative book. He knows the whisky territory intimately and the people well, and he has the senses of wonder, empathy and history to tie them altogether, as well as the skill to conjure up the smell of the salt air, the sound of barley shimmering in the wind, the vibrations of hammers shaping copper into stills and the singe of the oak staves as a cooper bends them over fire.
This is not a guide to whisky or an atlas, though you may want to refer to a couple of Mr. Broom’s other books, like “Whisky: The Manual” and “The World Atlas of Whisky,” for this book’s journey around Scotland. Mr. Broom ranges from the Orkney Islands in the far northeast to Islay in the southwest, visiting craftsmen, start-up distillers working in garages and megadistilleries. He sketches characters and environments and finds the connections, with whisky as the centerpiece and linchpin connecting past and present.
With beautiful photography by Christina Kernohan, this is the book to give any lover of single malt, along with a bottle of their favorite whisky.
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