The New Books
My favorite book of the year on France was French Wine: A History, which I consider to be a Must Have for any wine lover. It is composed of exceedingly good information - a well researched substantive book that is a very satisfying read. I dare you not to underline half of it (like I did). It's $35 and well worth every penny. I wrote about it glowingly earlier.
Although the highly illustrated But First Champagne, A Modern Guide to the World's Favorite Wine by David White came out this year, it's a mixed bag. The first half is a beginner's book, which repeats much that has already been said before in countless other books about Champagne. But the second half offers real value for the beginner and non-beginner alike with a chapter on the growers revolution and listings of dozens of the biggest producers and as well as the small, grower champagnes, who are listed by appellation. It includes an overview of the wineries and the individual wines from each producer.
The back cover promotional copy says the book provides details on organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture, but this is really limited to two pages and the information is not accurate. I have been in touch with the author about factual errors that hopefully will be corrected one day.
The definitive volume on the greener wines among Champagne's grower movement is Terroir Champagne by Caroline Henry, a Belgian living in Champagne. Subtitled "The Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees," Henry's book is the best guide to grower champagnes that discusses organic and Biodynamic producers in Champagne, a region that is more widely known for aerial pesticide spraying than for being green, although a vanguard of a few producers is slowly changing that.
Terroir Champagne is available on her web site and can be purchased as either an ebook or a book.
Below is a map from the French TV documentary Cash Investigations showing the most heavily pesticide regions in France. The wine growing regions of the Loire, Bordeaux and - in the upper right - Champagne are the places where pesticide use is the most concentrated.
Another book that came out this year on Champagne is Alan Tardi's profile of a year at Charles Krug, Champagne, Uncorked. Again this is another misleading title as the book is not so much about Champagne the region, as it is about a year in the life at Charles Krug (which, forgivably, is mentioned in the subtitle of the book).
It flips back and forth between Krug today and days of yesteryear, and though it is well written, I would argue that it makes it sound, as Krug would like you to believe, that the wine has an unbroken lineage. If you have even the faintest knowledge about viticulture, you would know that the way vines are grown - including the fertilizers, the herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other toxic chemicals - has of course changed enormously over the past few centuries. Failing to mention that is, to me, a grave omission, and one that made me suspicious that this book might be considered a bit too much of a commercial. However, many fans won't mind.
Still, it was interesting to go behind the scenes, the writing is very good, and it had my rapt attention as I read it while waiting at my mechanic's for a car repair.
The OBG Books
Two older books about French wine which I enjoyed this year are also worthy of your consideration for gifting. Well preserved copies of each are available online.
The Wines of the Rhone by John Livingston-Learmonth and Melvyn C. H. Master, published in 1978, is a gem. It harks back to a time of better wine writing as well.
Another treasure is Richard Olney's Romanee Conti, published in 1995, which goes down well after you've read French Wine: A History and gotten the broader picture. Olney writes so well; it's a pleasure to read pretty much anything he writes, including this lovely book. It's out of print but available online on Amazon from used book bookstores. Olney lived and cooked and drank in the south of France and was a mentor to wine merchant Kermit Lynch.
The best new book of the year on Italy is not another broad view of the land of many varietals, but quite the opposite - a very focused and specialized book on the women and families behind some of Piemonte's greatest estates. Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte by Suzanne Hoffman (self published, $55).
This gorgeous and very personal coffeetable book is the perfect way to learn more about the families who make Piemonte's most celebrated wines.
Though Barolo lovers will swoon over the details, it's also the perfect gift for someone who knows nothing about wine, but is interested in northern Italian wine and culture.
Many of these women live in gorgeous castles, in what many may imagine to be a fairytale life. However there are stories of the hard times as well as the good times. Warning: you may be tempted to buy a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco if you read this book - one way to get to know the subjects.
There's also a new book on Chianti - Chianti Classico - but I haven't read it yet.
The best book of the year about California wines was also the one I felt the most conflicted about - Patrick Comiskey's American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink (UC Press, $35). Comiskey is a fabulously talented writer, but the book is uneven and I had a constant love-hate relationship with it all the way through.
Comiskey's at his best chronicling the various players who began growing Rhone grapes in California in the 1960's counterculture and beyond, but he had a maddening bent for occasional hyperbole which keeps throwing you off the horse you were willing to ride. (He also uses the word "pantheon" excessively - where was his editor?) Even the title of the book suggests hyperbole - the Rhone Rangers didn't exactly "change the way Americans drink" - that's more than a bit of an overstatement. It did introduce the American wine industry to broader possibilities, but we still primarily drink Cabernet and Chardonnay. (Alas.)
However, Comsikey's work will stand as the essential book documenting the Rhone movement in America and it is one that should be widely read. For it is very good, entertaining writing in its best sections, and the story of the winemakers is a compelling one that will hold you in its thrall.
Those who don't yet know about California's fabulous Rhone wines will want to get acquainted with these wines for several reasons. One is that they offer far better value than the usual Napa or Paso Cab, generally costing $30-50 for the very best bottles (versus $75-100 for your average Napa Cab).
But the book's biggest shortcoming, in my humble opinion, is that these "maverick" winemakers were also those who have most fully embraced organic and Biodynamic viticulture and were among the first to do so. There's nary a mention of that in the entire book. I would say their "maverick" farming approach is definitely worth a mention, if not a whole chapter and it is what has contributed greatly to their best wines.
In addition, Lindquist of Qupé notably makes his estate wines at the Biodynamic Wine standard, a Demeter certified wine that is made without additives except for sulfites. These wines are among America's finest (so says Eric Asimov of the New York Times, not just me) and yet no one ever mentions that they are being vinified in such a pure manner. You are really tasting wines of terroir under this standard. No acid, no sugar, nothing added that would affect the flavor. My point is that it wasn't just the varietals that were pioneering - it was also the farming and the vinification that should have been part of the story. At the least - mentioned?
Biodynamic Wine by Monty Waldin (published by Infinite Ideas) is a worthy addition to the green wine book shelf, although it wasn't what I was expecting from the title. It should probably have been titled "A How To Guide for Biodynamic Wine Grape Growers"or at the very least "Biodynamic Vines."
It's an excellent compendium about the substances involved in Biodynamic viticulture - the preparations, Biodynamic compost, etc. - but it has very little to do with wine from a consumers' perspective in that no wines or producers are covered.
While Biodynamics is deeply dependent on the Biodynamic preparations and Biodynamic compost, many Biodynamic experts and growers that I know think much more holistically about their vines than the application of these substances. They often argue against presuming that the use of the preps and compost is what Biodynamics is about.
I would have liked to have seen more about what makes a property unique and how Biodynamic growers work with their terrain in different and compelling ways to make their wines as expressive as they can be.
While the preparations and compost are certainly part of that, the way land is managed is also an important concept - the use of animals, the biodiversity on the property, pest control, and more. I guess I'm looking for a different book than this one - one that profiles many different properties and the approach the growers take using all the tools at their disposal. And I would hope that a book about Biodynamic viticulture would make the point, even for consumers, about the broader aspect of this approach. It would be better to talk more about regenerative agriculture.
It's also not fair, as Waldin does, to pigeonhole organic and Biodynamic growers as very distinctly separate groups. Waldin makes it sound like organic growers don't approach things from an overall ecological perspective, which is not the case. There is a wide spectrum of organic growers and an equally wide spectrum of Biodynamic growers; there is often a great deal of overlap between the two.
And while I admire the use of horses in the field, as depicted on the cover photo, it's not a defining aspect of Biodynamics and I know of no Biodynamic growers in the U.S. who use horses to plow their vineyards. It's a perpetuation of a romantic myth about Biodynamics. More accurate would be to show (rented) sheep running through vineyards in the spring since most American Biodynamic producers don't have the space or the money to keep animals. The best use electric or biodiesel powered vehicles for cultivating. Most use cultivators that run on fossil fuels - which doesn't make for a beautiful cover photo.
Vin Bio, written in French, which is an overview of 1,500 French wine from organic or Biodynamic vines. Its authors, the Carité's have been writing this annual guide since 1984.
One can find it on the U.S. Amazon.com web site.
I had the pleasure of hearing the couple at the Soil Not Oil conference in Richmond this year and was even more fascinated by the emerging science on the micro biome and soil and the parallels with the human gut micro biome.
There were three great autobiographies that made my recommended books list.
The first is Mike Grgich's autobiography, A Glass Full of Miracles. Though many have heard of Grgich for winning the Tasting of Paris in 1976 for his Chardonnay and have heard the broad outlines of his Croatian immigrant story (now enshrined in the Smithsonian), this book fills in all the fascinating details.
Another title I'm happy to recommend is Peter Sichel's autobiograpy, The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy, which I wrote about it earlier this year. It's a fascinating story of 20th century Europe for a well to do Jewish wine merchant family and Sichel, who fled to America and continued his wine career here. His most successful and well known venture was Blue Nun wine.
I have saved the best for last. My favorite autobiography by far is Richard Petersen's The Winemaker, now considered by some to be a masterpiece - and rightly so. In 2016, it won a Gourmand Award as the best wine book in the world - a high honor indeed.
Writes Edward Cointreau, who started the Gourmand Awards (a prestigious international wine media competition), "I have read The Winemaker many times. It should be required reading for winemakers, all who want to invest in wine, and wine writers." He ranks it among his top 5 wine books (out of more than 1,400 in his California library).
Petersen, who still makes wine - including his own from Wrotham Pinot Noir as well as a lovely, Biodynamically grown Cabernet for the Lake County Red Hills producer Hawk and Horse -
calls his book not an autobiography but a personal history of California's wine industry.
Petersen worked for Gallo in the Central Valley, he worked for Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu (and recounts the tragedy of the Heublein takeover), and he worked on the Central Coast. He writes candidly about working for six different wineries and many of the larger than life personalities who worked in the wine world. It's a must have for anyone on your Christmas list - wine lover or not.
You can read an excerpt from the book, the chapter on Gallo, on his web site here.
There's one more option for gift giving and that's Hugh Johnson's compendium On Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of Scribbling which is sure to be a delight.
Alas, it is now available only in the U.K., but you can order it online and have it shipped to you in the U.S. (I just ordered it on Amazon UK).
The U.S. edition, available for resale on Amazon.com now, will be released in May.