Drinking In Words: Reviews of The New York Times Book of Wine & Windows on the World: The Complete Wine Guide
Sep 25th, 2012 by Jonathan Sills
Back in the days before blogs were afforded any of the current grudging acknowledgement they get from “proper” writers, one of the sticks used to beat them with was that their content was all too personal and scatological, lacking reliability, depth and, above all, readability. That they have been one of the principal conduits for this here today, gone in half an hour news cycle only serves to convince critics of this format that they were right all along. By contrast, the popularity of blogs among the public would seem to undercut these naysayers, and paint them, along with, serious TV actors descrying the popularity of reality TV shows, as dinosaurs who failed to adapt to a major change in climate. It is noticeable that traditional media sources, in an attempt to brand their content as premium and superior to that of hordes of pajama-clad scriveners, have recently begun hiding it behind pay-per-subscription pages.
If an echo of this formal-to-casual paradigm shift can be found in the wine industry, it might be in the seemingly unstoppable rise of inexpensive and highly drinkable New World wines at the expense of well-bred, distinguished Old World bottles. What used to be pilloried by aficionados for their lack of refinement and the brashness of their marketing approach, has progressively taken market share away from wines steeped in tradition and terroir, pushing vintages with a decade of more of cellaring even further beyond the reach of the public. If this comparison sounds tenuous, then it should. After pensively rinsing our teeth in two heavy tomes on the world of wine, in which preposterous aroma-based analogies seemed more numerous than snobs at a Bordeaux tasting, we were in the mood to propose something controversial and highly suspect.
A cursory leaf through The New York Times Book of Wine, an anthology of the last thirty years of writings about the grape from that esteemed publication (yours for $24.95, no subscription necessary), will provide more information about the world of wine than you may have thought existed. Unlike the Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, it is not aimed at beginners, nor at those still wondering how to differentiate Burgundy from Beaujolais, chardonnay from Chablis, instead it features stories as various as the latest trends in South African wine production, why you should take interest in Hungarian sweet wines, what happened to all the white Bordeaux, and, inevitably, tales of smug global wine cognescenti tasting excruciatingly expensive, pre-phylloxera vintages in candle-lit cellars. In fact, so comprehensive and readable are the columns from such devotees of the grape as Eric Asimov, Howard Goldberg, Frank Prial and Florence Fabricant, that the only gripe that may be made of this handsomely bound edition is that the entries resemble blog posts in their brevity. Surely, book format not just allows, but requires, greater length? It is unfortunate that these columns have been repackaged without reversing some of the sub-editor’s prunings.
Former sommelier at Windows on the World, Kevin Zraly, is a man who could be credited with having elevated the wine cellar more than anyone else. Both actually, given the former location of his restaurant, and metaphorically in the minds of the general public. In fact, it has been his life’s work to de-mystify wine and make it as accessible as possible. In the 25th anniversary edition of his guide, he is at it again, explaining the meaning behind the high Gothic script of German Riesling bottles, why the position of the vineyard determines the quality and price of certain Burgundies, and what you’re really getting in a bottle of Californian red marked with a merlot label. His punchy, school book format – complete with pictures, chapter-closing quizzes, and his candid advice on the offerings of commonly-found producers – is as useful to the novice drinker in their local wine merchant’s as it is to the uncertain diner being circled vulturously by an unscrupulous wine-waiter.
When Zraly’s first edition was written it was dominated by French and Californian wines with a smattering of northern Italians and the odd bottle of Rioja thrown in. Today, it has a more global approach, providing helpful detail on many of the lesser-known regions including Austria, Hungary, South Africa, New York’s Finger Lakes, and Argentina, with updated information on the vintages of traditional growing areas. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a single volume to be completely encyclopedic of a subject that is not just global but highly regional, but I still find Zraly’s book too heavy on traditional French wines and too light on these newer regions.
That so many of these parvenus are producing affordable, approachable wines which have helped induce millions to take wine as their beverage of choice seems to me to require him to cover them in more detail if this book is really going to be a “complete wine course”. For example, Portugal, source of most of the $7-12 red and white wine we’ve been quaffing lately, barely registers a page, in spite of its native grape varieties offering one of the most original winemaking styles around. Indeed, even Southern Italy and Greece don’t get much of a look-in, let alone the more remote and exotic, though still burgeoning, wine industries of Brazil and Uruguay, or those closer to home in Long Island, New Mexico, Colorado and, dare I say it, New Jersey.
Overall though, it is both an informative and useful guide, that few among us will not learn a great deal from. Tasted together with Kingsley Amis’ extremely witty vintage classic “Everyday Drinking” for some light relief, these two could form as much of a wine reference section to your culinary book shelf as you’ll ever need.
Edited by Howard G. Goldberg, with a foreword by Eric Asimov
Hardcover, 592 pages
Sterling Epicure, publisher
Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course
by Kevin Zraly
Paperback, 352 pages
Sterling Epicure, publisher
Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis
by Kingsley Amis
Paperback, 350 pages
Bloomsbury USA, publisher