A Wine Lover’s Gift Guide: Four Wine Books

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

While 2020 did not see a whole lot of wine travel or visits to tasting rooms for most of us, a lot of wine education happened anyway by way of ZOOM webinars, online classes, books, and more.

Which brings me to today’s Wine Lover’s Holiday Gift Guide: Four Wine Books published in 2020.

In March 2020, I was set to join the Napa Wine Academy’s Spring Break WSET 3 course. I was finishing up my packing to drive to Napa when I got the call from Catherine Bugue that because of the worsening pandemic, the class would be cancelled. I hoped I’d be able to do the fall Harvest class instead, but of course  that class was also cancelled. I’ve worked through a number of the online videos and read much of the book, but it’s just not quite the same. And while a great gift, taking on a WSET course text isn’t a recent publication and certainly not for everyone! 

Instead, I offer up four books published in 2020, as well as a link to six recommended by Eric Asimov (below). And no, these aren’t affiliate links; I’m not making any money off of these although I’d love copies of the books! 

  1. Nick Jackson, MW: Beyond Flavour: The Indispensable Handbook to Blind Wine Tasting
  2. Joe Robert: Wine Taster’s Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings and Wine Tasters Journal
  3. Arthur George: The Mythology of Wine
  4. Stephen Spurrier: A Life in Wine  

As a surprise member of the 2019 US Wine Tasting team when Sue and I came in second place which sent us to France, I wanted to increase my chances for making the 2020 team for the trip to Bordeaux. In addition to planning on taking the WSET 3 course, I sat in on their free blind wine classes on Facebook, I participated in a number of ZOOM blind tasting seminars with David Glancy of the SF Wine School, and paid for a few classes with Nick Jackson MW who wrote the 2020 release, Beyond Flavor which I just LOVE… and which leads me to…

WINE BOOK #1: Beyond Flavor 

In Beyond Flavor , Nick Jackson, MW analyzes wine in a way that really speaks to me but also gives me a language and tools to express and explain why I know a wine is what it is. His focus on the texture and structure of a wine, and finding words to describe and define that texture, really makes sense, because texture and structure is what I previous understood as what makes a wine just “seem” like the wine that it is– it was a seemingly indescribable experience on the palate. That does not help your team mates, except for Sue because we have tasted so many wines together, we have a short hand. 

Nick achieved his Master of Wine degree in 2019, and analyzed how he got there for his book,Beyond Flavour: The Indispensable Handbook to Blind Wine Tasting. Released in 2020 the book focuses not on the flavours of wine, but instead “advocates an approach based on assessing a wine’s structure. For white wines, that means acid structure, and for red wines, tannin structure. Nick argues that each major variety has a slightly different structure, and by assessing the structure, it is possible to distinguish varieties from one another without recourse to flavours, which can be inconsistent and unreliable markers.”

Wine Spectator says that Beyond Flavour is “quietly the best wine book to come out in recent memory” and it has received positive reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Times and others. During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, Nick started The School of Taste which offers a variety of live and pre-recorded wine webinar content using the ideas from his book and his experiences.

The book’s success is unexpected; in an email to me, Nick admits that, “To be honest I had very limited ambitions with the book; I just had all the thoughts knocking around in my head so I thought I might as well write them down, and sell a few copies to wine students I know. The response has been very surprising – in a good way! I’ve been amazed first, that so many people are interested in this niche subject; and second, that my sometimes curious approach has elicited positive reactions. If nothing else, I hope at least to have started a conversation about how to include structure more seriously as a tool for understanding wine.”

Indeed he has! Check out the School of Taste offerings here.

WINE BOOK #2 (well book 2a and 2b!)

My second book selection Wine Tasters Guide and Wine Tasters Journal came out in July 2020, and it’s by Joe Roberts, blogger at 1WineDude who I met at the Wine Bloggers Conferences over ten years ago. A writer, blogger, video personality, wine critic, and frequent wine competition judge, Joe’s writing has appeared in publications as varied as Playboy.com and Parade.  On his blog, he offers “Serious wine talk for the not so serious drinker.”

Before she became the best-selling author of A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, Deb Harkness was also a wine blogger, and Joe and Deb and I tasted together a few times. Of his books, she writes, “Consistently stunning writing.” And here’s a review from Leslie Sbrocco, Author and PBS Television Host, who I also met through these conferences:

“I’ve been writing about wine for two decades and Wine Taster’s Guide is one of the best books I’ve seen in years. Appealingly brought to life with photos, maps, and tasty tips, it’s a must-read for those who enjoy sipping and want to learn more. Covered with compelling precision from regional overviews to savvy wine picks and thoughtful tasting sessions, the overwhelming subject of wine is brought to life through Joe’s wit and wisdom. Begin your tasting journey with this impressive book in one hand and a glass of delicious wine in the other.” 

I was curious how Joe came to write these books, and when I asked him via Facebook messenger, he responded, “I was actually approached to write the books, I’m not smart enough to have figured out that the world actually needed another take on an introductory wine book. 🙂
 
What I really focused on while writing (and especially while editing!) the books was to make them insanely useful.

“What I mean is, anything that wasn’t potentially teaching the reader about wine didn’t make the cut. So my hope is that anyone who picks up the book is entertained, but realizes later that they actually took away a lot of useful stuff, no matter what page, tasting or chapter they happen to gravitate to first,” Joe told me.

Joe’s book

Joe’s Wine Taster’s Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings has a companion to it, a Wine Tasters Journal to help you keep track of what you are tasting and what you think about it.

If you’re just starting out on your wine journey, this could really help!

So enough about WINE TASTING! Because there’s a lot more to wine than drinking it… although admittedly that’s at least half the fun. 

But you can’t drink all day so during COVID there’s time to get deeper into it which is the topic of the next two books.

Wine Book #3: The Mythology of Wine

Santa Barbara resident and retired lawyer Arthur George has a new book, The Mythology of Wine, which came out in November 2020, just in time for holiday gift giving.  With details from wine-related myths in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel, as well as in early Christian Europe, Arthur says his book shows “how these stories ultimately influenced today’s wine culture and our religions and culture at large. It is fun, not long or technical, easy to read, has lots of illustrations, and is not expensive (ebook $9.99, paperback $14.99).” 

The Amazon description for The Mythology of Wine says: “In ancient times, wine, vineyards, and grapevines were thought to have supernatural qualities, enabling people to experience the divine. Naturally, wine, vines, and vineyards featured prominently in myths. This trailblazing book details the wine-related myths and legends in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Israel, Egypt, and early Christian Europe, showing how they have influenced our own wine culture, and filling an important gap in our knowledge about wine.” 

As Arthur and I are Facebook friends, I reached out to him to learn more about his book, and he directed me to this quote: “Of all our beverages today, only wine has sacramental status,” he writes on page 1. 

“This is a legacy of wine’s sacred status in the ancient world,” shared Arthur with me. “To the ancient mind, wine was divine and transcendent, and thus for humans was a means of transcendence, a connection to the divine.”

About Jesus, Arthur says, “He called himself ‘the true vine,’ he was the best winemaker who made superior wine, his blood was wine, and in Christian art the cross was portrayed both as a grapevine and a wine press, making his crucifixion a grape crush, after which he was enthroned in heaven, which was pictured as a vineyard.”

“This explains the front cover of my book,” he says, “it alludes to the various biblical and artistic connections between Jesus Christ and wine and grapes.”

In response to my question about why he wrote the book, Arthur says, “First, it combines two major interests of mine. I’m a mythologist, and write books and blog about mythology. But I’m also a longtime wine enthusiast who has built up a good knowledge about it over the years, and more recently became a viticulturalist and winemaker (now on my 5th vintage), which really deepened by knowledge of the subject and allows me to appreciate and evaluate wines better. That in turn led me further into wine mythology and history.

“Second, being a cultural historian, I also saw that most wine enthusiasts, as well as certified wine professionals, don’t know much about how wine was the subject of so many myths in the cultures of the ancient world, and how they in turn ultimately influenced today’s wine culture and culture in general. There is a gap in wine education as currently practiced; it just doesn’t address the subject. I wrote the book in part to fill that gap.

“And third, for most people this is a novel subject, and is both interesting and fun to talk about. The new things that the book talks about can make for good conversations at dinner and at cocktail parties. For this purpose, I wanted to make the book not too long or technical, and easy to read. It has to be the kind of book that can be sold at wine tasting rooms, so visitors can take that home with them along with the wines.”

 

 

Arthur’s been having fun promoting the book, showing up in podcasts, Zooms (see below), and doing guest columns like this one on the Academic Wino; you can read her review of his book here.

Honestly, this the kind of book I’d like to have written. Like Arthur, I have an interest in Depth Psychology; I even have a Masters in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and I wrote a paper about the phenomenology of wine tasting. I look forward to getting and reading this book and interviewing him myself — hopefully over a glass or two of wine, possibly at Clos Des Amis or at his home vineyard. 

Read more about the topic of the mythology of wine on his blog.

Finally, a myth of a different “flavour” if you will. 

A Life in Wine is the autobiography of Stephen Spurrier, the man who created what became known as the Judgement of Paris in 1976, and who is portrayed by Alan Rickman in the 2009 film  BottleShock. 

Spurrrier is quoted by wikipedia as saying, “Having read the script, Spurrier stated, “There is hardly a word that is true in the script and many, many pure inventions as far as I am concerned.””

With the re-release of Stephen Spurrier’s autobiography A Life In Wine in 2020, and with COVID closures, Spurrier has been on the ZOOM circuit with two recent tastings and interviews, one featuring English sparkling wine with San Francisco Wine School and the second with Burgundy with Napa Valley Wine Academy — and you can order his book this way too. During the Burgundy one which I listened in on, he talked about the film and meeting up with Alan Rickman after he portrayed Spurrier. The two had met previously and enjoyed wine together in Tuscany, and Rickman said he worked to bring Spurrier’s humanity to the character that was on the page. 

In A Life in Wine by Steven Spurrier shows why he’s one of the wine trade’s most important figures having taken the role of wine merchant, buyer, wine educator and lecturer; he has written books, wine courses and over 300 columns for Decanter magazine. This updated and revamped edition includes two new chapters. If you’re just curious about the Judgement of Paris, check out George Tabor’s 2006 book.

Looking for more good books about wine to read? 

Check out New York Times columnist Eric Asimov’s “Six Books for Thinking, Drinking and Changing the World” his list of a few of the best wine and spirits books of 2020:

 

 

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