CF’s Christmas wine-related book reviews!

Eric Asimov's How to Love Wine, Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Guide, Wine & War

So, this is Christmas. Well, nearly. So you may well be thinking about presents for the wine-lover in your life, which is probably yourself. Of course the best gift for a wine-lover is wine, or failing that money so that they can buy themselves wine, but books about wine are another good idea. They may be less intoxicating than actual wine, but on the plus side it is more socially acceptable to consume them on a bus.

Of the enormous quantity of books published about wine, I offer my opinions on three. Sorry, it’s the best I can do.

So let’s start with a new one, or rather a new version of an old one. It’s Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2013! This is the 36th edition of this hoary classic, packed full of information in very small font. This is a book made for people with deep pockets, in the most literal sense. The RRP is £11.99, but it only costs £6.50 from your local tax-dodging internet book retailer, so it’s not exactly expensive, but I’ve checked all my belongings and there are only two items of clothing with pockets deep enough to fit this pocket book, and one of those is an old duffel coat from which two of the three toggles has fallen off.

There’s a nice, opinionated introduction and a bit at the back about champagne, and in between there’s a lot of very dense information about wine-growing areas and producers. My only quibble here is that some traditional wine-growing areas don’t seem to get the coverage their profile deserves, while most notable new world producers have their own entry. So to take Cote-Rotie as an example, there’s no independent entry for Jamet, or Ogier, or Clusel-Roch though each are mentioned in the main entry for Cote-Rote, followed by a one-word description of their wines in brackets, so it’s “Clusel-Roch (organic)”, “Ogier (oak)” and “Jamet (wonderful)”. This seems unfairly brief, when for example Jidvei in Romania, or Dvery-Pax in Slovenia, or a million other comparatively massively obscure wineries in the world over, get entries of their own. This quibble aside I like it, though my opinion may have been shaded by my admiration for the immense amount of effort that must go into its preparation.

The two other books are very different, having been written for reading, rather than for reference. First is Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine, the new memoir-cum-extremely-lengthy-rant from the wine critic of the New York Times. The problem is that I’m not sure if my busy life has room in it for the memoirs of  unexceptional people, even if their jobs are quite interesting. Not, at least, unless they write like an angel. Asimov writes acceptably well, but not well enough for me to relish his recollections.

Unlikely every other autobiography I’ve previously read, presumably because Asimov ended up with a job that involves putting stuff in his mouth and evaluating it, he writes at length about what he has enjoyed putting in his mouth in various parts of his life. So for example, a lengthy discourse on his childhood dislike of eggs ends thus: “Today I love eggs, though I almost never drink milk or soda. But back then, I drank Coke and Dr Pepper, 7Up and Hoffman’s Black Raspberry. I loved root beer, but above all I was a fan of Mountain Dew. This was just a simple lemon-lime soda, not the amped-up, hypercaffeinated beverage of today. But when I came in from a day of baseball, street hockey, or basketball, sweaty and parched, nothing was better than a cold Mountain Dew.”

Not only do I not find a list of the brands of soda that Asimov enjoyed drinking in his youth particularly thrilling, there is literally not one person on the entire planet alive or dead whose childhood soda-drinking habits would be interesting to me. It’s not that I’m not interested in other people’s lives, particularly if they (the lives, or the people, and ideally both) are remarkably exciting, but there is a basic point beyond which anyone’s story crashes into bizarre mundanity, and Asimov does not always tread the right side of it. It’s a shame, because some of his opinions about wine are very interesting, well-presented and hard to disagree with. Fundamentally, I think he could have written an excellent lengthy think-piece-come-feature, but boosting it into a book has involved the inclusion of too much stuff I don’t care about.

Lastly, and considerably less topically, a book called Wine and War, by Donald & Petie Kladstrup. This is a nicely-told yarn telling the stories of several key French winemakers during Nazi occupation, and the measures they took to keep Nazi mitts off their good stuff. Concentrating on Huet in the Loire, Hugel in Alsace, and the areas of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, it’s well researched and extremely readable. Inevitably I do have a quibble, and here it’s that it tells us almost uniquely about winemakers who sided with the resistance. I’m sure that former collaborators and their families must be considerably less likely to want to tell their tale, but I’m also sure that collaborators must have existed, and I’d have liked to know more about them, and what became of them post-war. This is probably, though, the most readable wine-related book I’ve ever read. If you know of possible rivals, I want to know about them. Thanks.

2 responses to “CF’s Christmas wine-related book reviews!

  1. Thanks for sharing these, Simon. I had an experience similar to your Asimov reading earlier this year in a book about British food – which had interesting bits but was mostly full of personal memoir of the feelings the author had while eating fish and chips as a kid or how you should eat it in a car etc., but comparatively a lot less about the cultural history of the iconic dish. This is perhaps more forgiveable in more biographical writing but soda drinking habits of kids are not that exciting to me either.

    Wine and War I have not come across – it sounds really interesting and as a historian by training I doubt I will be able to resist it.
    Cheers, Torsten

  2. Pingback: Two good wines and one good meal |

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