So, another year nearly over, and thoughts might be turning to potential Christmas presents. Here are a couple of books that might be worth considering…
First, then, The Pocket Guide to Wine by Nikki Welch. There have been (approximately) a million primers written about wine for the curious but inexperienced, and here’s another to put on the pile. It belongs somewhere near the top. There might not be an obvious need for it, but it’s a nicely designed, very approachable and welcoming book written in a lively and generous style, and packed full of just the right information, without boringly sinking into the fetid swamp of steaming fact that can swallow up the less careful wine writer.
The book rotates around the Wine Tubemap®, which splits the world of wine into seven lines whose stops – grape varieties or regions – offer vaguely similar experiences, with some stops being visited by more than one line. Each line gets its own chapter, with a brief introduction explaining what links the stops, and when might be a good time to board this particular line, and each stop a couple of pages. I think it’s a really well written and judged book, refreshingly free of pretention, condescention, fluff and waffle. It’s small, which means there are ommissions, and if you’re the kind of person who’ll be right narked that the Hungarian hárslevelű grape doesn’t get a stop it might not be for you, but then it isn’t supposed to be. This is aimed squarely at the Christmas-stocking-filler-for-the-wine-curious market, but unlike many books published at this time of year to cater for the festive gift trade, it goes about it in a totally non-cynical way. Excellent stuff.
So to Thinking Drinkers, by Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham. A book that tries to cover the entire history of booze, with added jokes, in 200-odd hardback pages. This has the potential to go horribly wrong, but I think is pretty well-judged, nicely written and illustrated. Some will find it a little juvenile, with its descriptions of “grape-based giggle juice” that’s “sweeter than a puppy in a dress”, but I know from bitter experience how hard it is to condense oceans of research into a few drips of zingy prose, and the writers have done a very fine job here.
And they’ve done some proper work, too, not just describiing what booze tastes like and how it’s made, but also producing entertaining detours into history both ancient and modern, literature, cinema and sport. It’s very bitty with lots of pictures everywhere, which combined with the light-hearted tone makes it feel like a massively extended lads-mag feature. This makes it best when read in short bursts rather than extended sessions. In drinks terms, it’s more a tequila slammer than a vino da meditazione (ironically, as they’re not very keen on tequila slammers).
I did wonder why they devoted more pages to gin than to the entire world of unfortified wine, and what port and sherry did wrong to get just four pages when vodka and tequila get 22 apiece (brandy is afforded an only slightly less paltry six). Poor port, as they note, is traditionally passed to the left – but not normally quite so swiftly as this: there’s considerably more space devoted to the drinking habits of American presidents (they seem keen on that, with Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon and Franklin D Roosevelt all getting a look-in) than the powerful Portuguese hangover-magnet.
But I haven’t ready many (well, any) books about booze that gets across so much information while simultaneously having a lot of fun. “The chaps that built the pyramids were paid with 10 pints of ale every day – which is why they forgot to put any windows in,” they write. You can spell Whisky, they note, “with an ‘e’ like the Americans and the Irish, or drop an ‘e’ like the Japanese, Canadians and social drug-users of northwest England”. It’s a bit flippant, but it’s fun.