Wine books make corking good presents, and this year's offerings run the gamut from info-packed to irreverent. George Taber's smart and highly readable To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle is firmly in the former camp. Taber, whose 2005 bestseller Judgment of Paris detailed the crucial 1976 victory of California's Stag's Leap and Chateau Montelena wines over their French rivals, takes a widely researched (as per the subtitle) but highly entertaining tale about how the issue of cork spoilage has roiled the winemaking industry and lifted the once lowly screwtop and other non-cork options to at least relative respectability. Not surprisingly, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm and Australian Riesling star Jeffrey Grosset come in for applause. Taber's chapter lead-ins are great anecdotes of how bad corks have spoiled great moments for winemakers, collectors and critics.
Just as screwtops regularly get the (Thunder)bird from wine snobs, Beaujolais Nouveau are routinely ridiculed as the $10 version of, well, screwtop wines definitely dernier cru. (Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil, who wrote the foreword for To Cork or Not to Cork, famously compared it to cookie dough.) Beaujolais wines are immensely food-friendly, fruity and light, which is why these wines were traditionally tasted as soon as bottled. The man who made this tasting into a worldwide event every year on the third Thursday of November is village winemaker turned importer George Duboeuf, hero of I'll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine by Rudolph Chelminski. He may have started out, in some eyes, as a simple peasant though his palate has repeatedly been validated but the Beaujolais Nouveau with his imprint now sells some 2.5 million bottles a year in this country alone.
Hip Tastes: The Fresh Guide to Wine, an oh-so-chatty primer by 28-year-old San Francisco sommelier-cum-social events organizer Courtney Cochran, is like one of those infomercials where you hear more about what you're going to learn than anything else but there's a much better, albeit very small book buried under all the cuteness. Cochran, who organizes monthly tasting parties for wine newbies, as she would say, seems to have taken a microphone to one of her events and simply transcribed her spiel, with bums me out, kick-ass and juvenile sexual innuendoes intact. Luckily, the useful explanations of terroir, flavors and aromas to look for and so on are in a much more straightforward tone.
For those who prefer the Year in Provence-style memoir (albeit with an R rating), Eric Arnold's First Big Crush: The Down and Dirty on Making Great Wine . . . Down Under is the choice book on this list. Would-be standup comedian Arnold takes a year's apprenticeship at Allen Scott's Marlborough winery, during which he nearly kills several people, drinks and eats extensively and occasionally imparts good information about the process amid the profanity and locker-room jokes. The two strains of the memoir becoming one of the wine boys, and the actual Wine 101 stuff don't always flow smoothly, but his workplace is a first-rate down-and-dirty winery, anyway. (Incidentally, there is a short and quite subjective but memorable explanation of the screwtop vs. cork debate included here.)
MADE IN THE USA
Wine Across America: A Photographic Road Trip, by husband-and-wife team Charles O'Rear and Daphne Larkin, took two years and 80,000 miles to create; but as a coffee-table book, it makes a pretty travel brochure. O'Rear, a longtime photographer for National Geographic, has already produced seven wine books; Lardin reports on the wine industry for various magazines. But here her reporting is limited mostly to captions, some useful and some simply descriptive. Ultimately, it seems the best way to use this book is if a friend has visited a particular winery included here, and wrap it with a bottle. There is a spread of American wine labels glossily reproduced that would make a great wall poster, ˆ la the pub signs of London or bottles of hot sauce; I'd order several myself.