My roommate Alex just finished an ultramarathon–the JFK 50 Miler–yesterday, coming in 41st out of 1050 competitors. (Congrats, Alex!) Needless to say, he’s pretty intense when it comes to running. He subscribes to running magazines, plots out his training schedule months in advance, and reads books upon books on marathoning.
I harbor no similar aspirations of athletic greatness, but I do read a lot on my own passion, wine. The first book I read was Karen MacNeil’s excellent, excellent Wine Bible, which is a must if you’re at all interested in wine. Other books I liked were Mark Oldman’s Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine, which is a very accessible primer with useful recommendations on everyday value wines, and the haughtily entertaining tome on French wines from the British wine writer Clive Coates, MW, An Encyclopedia of the Wines and Domaines of France, which though published in 2001 is still an exhaustive overview of literally every appellation of France. (He writes like how I’d imagine General Cornwallis would have written had he been a wine critic in addition to being commander of the British troops in the Colonies.)
A few weeks ago I received via the post an advance copy of Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s new book, Drink This: Wine Made Simple (Ballantine Books, 2009). I was sort of skeptical about the bold claim printed on the cover, “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the most wonderful drink on Earth.” I’m also generally skeptical of wine experts who claim that they are wine experts (as Ms. Grumdahl does when she points out that she has “so many wine writing awards that the heavy bronze medals are the first thing” she reaches for to use as weapons when she thinks she hears burglars at night). However, her book is not condescending at all, and though I was afraid the book would simply be a soapbox for her and her achievements it actually is full of witty, self-deprecating humor and very useful information.
The wine is divided into twelve sections, with nine on specific wine varietals and three on general topics like the economics of wine and how to order wine in restaurants. The varietals are zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, sangiovese, tempranillo, and pinot noir. I would have liked to see malbec in there because it’s become such a ubiquitous grape, but Grumdahl covers the nine she did select very well.
I particularly enjoyed her chapter on chardonnay because it highlights the book’s key strength, which is that it has something for everyone regardless of their level of wine sophistication. For instance, it talks about relatively simple concepts like tannins and oak, but then delves into greater detail about barriques and the difference using French, American, and Central European oak makes in the final product. She talks about the cost of making those barrels and how that factors into the price per bottle. She doesn’t only focus on Californian chards or just white Burgundies, but differentiates between appellations such as Meursault, Chablis, etc., etc. And she hits the issue right on the head when she declares “[i]f Chardonnay has one problem it’s that it’s too well loved.” Its popularity gave rise to a sea of horrible, cheap chard, the stuff that leads so many wine drinkers to denounce ALL chardonnay. According to Grumdahl, this is like “[judging] the Beatles by listening to car commercials with soundtracks by Beatles cover bands.”
The book is also practical. For each varietal she talks about the “holy trinity”–namely, the grape, its terroir, and the winemaking–that gave rise to its constituent wines, and she provides tips on putting together wine tastings. She gives recommendations at every price point, and provides a five-second cheat sheet summarizing what she wrote about each varietal. As a bonus, she also puts in excerpts from wine industry “bigwigs” that all wine nerds will be able to appreciate.
Grumdahl also advocates a “two at a time” tasting method, which she states is the fastest way to learn about wine. It consists of tasting two wines of the same varietal which are made in a similar style. She builds upon this baseline and puts together tasting flights for each varietal that are designed to provide the optimal contrast between regions and price points. There are tasting tips, as well as a table of possible scents/tastes for each grape.
All in all, Drink This is an entertaining, informative, and ultimately very useful book. It is especially useful for beginners who want to learn more about the why and how of wine, or for those who want to start hosting wine tastings. It is also a nice reference for those with a bit more wine knowledge. The only critique I have of the book is in terms of layout. It is standard-novel sized, so many of the sidebars included in the book are broken up by page breaks. This makes the book nominally harder to follow. Mark Oldman’s book, which is oversized, avoids this problem and therefore flows better. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book–it would make a good present for the nouveau oenophile in your family or social circle.
Drink This: Wine Made Simple by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl comes out November 24!