For a country, and a generation, accustomed to immediate gratification, the idea of waiting for wine either to understand it or to enjoy it is only beginning to take hold. Even with the growing availability of wines by the glass or tasting flights, most Americans still know few words of winespeak beyond "Cabernet" and "Chardonnay" and still think them synonymous with steak and seafood. And the concept of drinking wines that were bottled before the Bastille fell or the 19th century turned, as I've been lucky enough to do, strikes many casual and perfectly contented drinkers as sheer pretension. But for those who may be increasingly intrigued by the subtleties of the world's wines, the Christmas season turns up several prime gift ideas.
Robert Parker is the 900-pound gorilla of wine criticism, and during the last few years has arguably become the industry guerrilla, as well. His own personal preferences and the undoubted power of his ratings, published monthly in the Wine Advocate, has clearly pressured many winemakers to alter their style. And his castigating of other wine writers who accept free samples is more than a little disingenuous ("I purchase more than 75 percent of the wines I taste, and though I have never requested samples, I do not feel it is unethical to accept unsolicited samples."). Although the latest (the sixth) edition of Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide occasionally falls prey to this sanctimony, it is yet another example of his thoroughness, bulldog bluntness and unexpected humor. His tongue-in-cheek translations of winemaker jargon are priceless, as are his comments on the distinction between consumers and mere "collectors." Nor is he a price snob: His lists of regional best bargains under $12 or $15 should be bookmarked for quick reference. Still, this may not be the best choice for someone just setting out to make respectable choices from restaurant wine lists. Parker's knowledge of seasonal affect, so to speak, may be more than many beginners need to know, although serious collectors will find his summaries of older vintages helpful. The book's subtitle describes it as "The Complete, Easy-to-Use Reference on Recent Prices and Ratings for More than 8,000 Wines from All the Major Wine Regions," and one can well believe it.
Michael Broadbent has been a Master of Wine for more than 40 years and head of Christie's wine department for 35 years. His Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wines (Harcourt, $50, 560 pages, ISBN 0151007047) is an unobtrusively erudite mixture of history and anecdote with personal observation and characterization it has an unmistakably British sense of propriety and, well, good sportsmanship. Broadbent writes with a fine painterly palate, to force a pun, and a sometimes surprising sensual abandon that fully captures each wine. Again, however, this is a fairly compendious reference aimed at the serious drinker, or at least the platinum-card diner.
The small but wide-ranging Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine Guide 2003 (Harcourt, $14, 320 pages, ISBN 0151008760) is disappointing only because the limited space allotted each entry Clarke covers regions, specific wineries and varietals alphabetically forces him to omit the pungent thumbnail witticisms that are his trademark. But it would be a fine volume to keep in the car's glove compartment for unexpected buying sprees. The revised version of Clarke's New Wine Atlas (Harcourt, $60, 336 pages, ISBN 0151009139), on the other hand, is very nearly what it sounds like a collection of maps but its glossy photos and labels and cut-to-the-chase intelligence are just the things to remove a budding connoisseur's terror of terrior.
Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher have made their career, and marriage, drinking as unabashed ordinary people, and their Friday "Tastings" column in the Wall Street Journal is democratically aimed at casual wine clubs and amateur collectors. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine (Broadway, $26, 304 pages, ISBN 0767908147) is ideal for novice wine drinkers, focusing on the basic flavors of various wines basic in description, too, which may reassure less experienced readers put off by "hints of tobacco" or "musty bookbindings." It's not a comprehensive guide, and is sometimes too conversational ("Whoa! the first blind flight of these [New Zealand sauvignon blancs] blew us away!"), but it would make a good gift for a neighbor you'd like to swap Friday dinners with. Eve Zibart is a writer for The Washington Post and author of The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.