Summer Books for the Wine Lover

Times Wine Writer

Before sitting on that suitcase and clicking it shut for the last time, traveling wine lovers may want to toss in reading material devoted to passing the time entertainingly, and two new wine books do just that joyously.

One I can recommend without hesitation is "Thinking About Wine," subtitled, "Insights for the Enthusiast," by Elin McCoy and John Frederick Walker ($18.95, Simon & Schuster).

The book has a marvelously casual approach, as well as sensible organization that permits you to read sections of it in bare minutes, and other sections may take half an hour. Divided into seven general topics, the book actually has five dozen minichapters on literally dozens of subjects ranging from aeration of wine to general thoughts about California wines and even what to do when you go to a dinner party at a home that always serves crackling rose.

The authors, wine editors for Food and Wine magazine, write engagingly and without pretense, show their sense of fun when appropriate and debunk enough myths for the book to have another subtitle: Fun reading and certainly worth taking on vacation.

Foodies will absolutely flip over "Jancis Robinson's Food and Wine Adventures," ($17.95, David & Charles), not least because of the (intentionally) supercilious tone.

I have dined with Tony and Jancis Robinson and know them to be delightfully unpompous folk. She is the British Master of Wine whose BBC "Wine Programme" is respected in England.

Creativity, Excitement

So the fact that she talks here about how to match taramosalata (mullet roe paste) and Zinfandel, red wine with fish, Vin Santo and biscotti belies the fact that what's up here is creativity and excitement in dining.

Few of the food-wine combinations listed are traditional, and many of the 27 small chapters (crammed into less than 90 pages, illustrated, no less) seem as if they would have received an A+ had they been graded by the late Prof. George Saintsbury, after whose "Notes on a Cellar-Book," considered the classic wine-food work of all time, this appears to be patterned.

Except where Saintsbury was a pedantic writer, Robinson is bel canto and the result is a pure joy of sensual delights.

Another book worth seeking out for the truly dedicated wine-nut is "From Vines to Wines," subtitled, "The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine" by Jeff Cox, ($10.95, Garden Way Publishing).

To be sure, this is a somewhat technical book, but if you have ever considered making wine at home, either from grapes you grow, grapes you buy, or from grape juice concentrate, this book will give you every step of the process, with diagrams, charts and drawings.

If you're planning to visit the wine country of the Pacific Northwest, two new books are out, "Northwest Wine Country," by Ronald and Glenda Holden ($12.95, Holden Pacific) and "American Wines of the Northwest," by Corbet Clark ($19.95, William Morrow & Co.). The Holden book is the better of the two, but probably not as easily obtained.

Both books rank the wines of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, but the Holdens, longtime residents of Seattle, include label reproductions and directions on how to visit each property. They even rate the quality of the visit.

'Parker Guide'

Another recent wine book release is "Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide," by Robert M. Parker Jr. ($25.95 hardcover; $15.95 paperback, Simon & Schuster). It's hard to recommend this book because of what I feel are some major inconsistencies in its premise.

Parker is a former attorney and probably the most influential wine evaluator today through his privately published publication, the Wine Advocate.

In this massive book (900-plus pages), Parker essentially reviews wines, rating them on a 100-point scale. I have problems with numbering systems, so won't discuss this aspect of the book except to note that Parker typically likes a style of wine I find too ponderous.

However, I feel Parker's ratings of some wines may be based, to a degree, on expectations. Some wineries seem to get very favorable treatment (for what I consider to be eccentric styles), and other wineries are treated poorly even though the wines have received wide plaudits in other forums.

My main criticism with this book, however, is with the research on the California wines. It appears sloppy, and errors pop up frequently. A few examples:

--Much material is out of date. (For example, Cassayre-Forni is listed as a good producer. The winery has been out of business for six years.)

--Some statements are made that are simply wrong. (For example, Soda Rock Winery is listed as "a new winery." It was founded in 1880.)

--There are some holes in the text. (Schramsberg Vineyards and John Culbertson Winery, two of California's top sparkling wine producers, are not rated at all.)

--Many vintages evaluated are long since off the shelf and unavailable, which in a buyer's guide is little help.

Barrel Tastings

Also, it's widely known that Parker does a lot of his tasting of red wines out of the barrel, and from that he makes judgments about such wines--including numerical ratings and even a guess as to the longevity of a wine. This is a feat even wine makers have a hard time doing.

(Said one California wine maker: "I suppose the next thing is for someone to taste the grapes when they're being harvested and tell us when the wine will be ready to drink.")

Moreover, when someone is trying to be this numerically precise, perhaps he should state when each wine was evaluated, and where and under what conditions. Were they tried with the wine makers present, across the table? Or in solitude in a white-tableclothed chamber? Were they tasted alone or in a flight of a dozen? Did the evaluator know who the producer was, or was the tasting done double-blind? Was the evaluation done earlier this year from a bottle or three years ago from a barrel?

Also, in this book Parker lists wineries with minuscule production, whose wines are unavailable. In some cases, such wines are listed as "not available," which is mystifying for a "buyer's guide." Other wines, like the Chardonnays of Stony Hill, are listed with ratings, even though the wines are all but unobtainable.

In some cases Parker admits that he has tasted no recent wines from a winery, yet he makes judgments about the property nonetheless.

Also, I find the pricing system inexact and vague. Parker lumps into one price category wines that sell for $8 a bottle and wines that sell for $15.

Almost all of these criticisms have come to me, without solicitation, from California wine makers who complain that Parker simply hasn't done enough homework in the West. (Except, perhaps, in Oregon, upon which Parker lavishes great praise in a 38-page discourse. By way of comparison, the entire state of Washington, a most dramatic region for fine wine, is summed up in two pages.)

Wine Makers' Complaint

Wine makers' major complaint about Parker is that he has had virtually no contact with them, to chat about grapes, styles or methods. Some two dozen wine makers interviewed in the last three months have said they have never spoken with Parker, not even by telephone.

"He spends weeks each year in France judging French wine, and then he makes detailed analysis of California wines based on infrequent and very short visits here," said one California wine maker, who asked for anonymity. "I don't want my next releases to get slaughtered," he said.

He added, "We've invited him over (to the winery), but I understand he doesn't visit very many wineries when he's out (in California)."

Another wine maker, also speaking anonymously, said, "He likes some wines that have problems with spoilage. I think that sends the wrong message to the consumer."

I don't dispute Parker's research or tasting notes about wines of Bordeaux or the Rhone, and for those who would like a guide to those wines, this book will be helpful.

Still, the same question arises: Were some of these wines evaluated while they were still in the barrel? If so, were they evaluated again after bottling?

A book of this sort is, clearly, a monumental undertaking and requires a tremendous amount of research and tasting. Perhaps it is simply too much for one person to do without problems creeping in.

Wine of the Week: 1988 Benziger Fume Blanc ($8)--Delicately floral tone that is only faintly grassy, with a more melony lilt. This wine is soft, not at all sweet (as are some Sauvignon Blancs these days), and a marvelous excuse not to drink lackluster, overpriced Chardonnay.

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