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The Literate Wine Lover
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed November 26, 2001. For more information go to

As I often point out, you don't need a college education to understand wine, and it's entirely possible to enjoy a glass without knowing a thing about it.

But it's also a fact that, at least for those of us who've chosen to make the enjoyment of fine wine a hobby interest, a little effort spent on study can pay dividends in enjoyment.

While you certainly don't HAVE to know anything about the history, geography, geology, agriculture, wine-making or even the cultural heritage behind what's in your glass, it seems to me that paying attention to all these things adds nuance and context to what would otherwise be just another beverage. And in a world that seems increasingly dominated by "dumbed down" entertainment, I'm all for wine as a "thinking person's drink," one that pleases the brain as well as the senses.

In short, reading about wine can almost as much fun as tasting wine ... and as the holiday season nears, you can generally please the wine lover in your life with gifts of books.

Today, then, let me offer a few quick reviews of four new or revised wine books that I've enjoyed recently. Purely by coincidence, they're all by British authors; but they speak authoritatively to wine lovers everywhere.

HUGH JOHNSON'S POCKET WINE BOOK 2002. Speaking of "dumbing down," I'm not sure why the publisher changed the name from "Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine" for this, the 25th annual edition. But the contents remain above reproach. I've been faithfully buying each year's new edition since the early 1980s, and continue to update it annually. While you may need bifocals or a magnifying glass to peruse its tiny type, it's an indispensable companion at the wine shop, with Johnson's good advice on many thousands of wines from around the world, including his simple four-star wine-rating system and his opinions on which vintages are good and which are ready to drink.

REAL WINE: THE REDISCOVERY OF NATURAL WINEMAKING, by Patrick Matthews. Wine enthusiasts argue endlessly over the distinctions between "old world" and "new world" wines and the perceived impact of agribusiness and corporate domination on mass-market wines as compared with wines grown organically and made by hand. Matthews writes stylishly and with real passion about artisanal wines and their sometimes quirky makers in this enjoyable book.

HOW TO TASTE: A GUIDE TO ENJOYING WINE, by Jancis Robinson. Robinson, one of the most popular British wine writers (and editor of the massive Oxford Companion to Wine, another must-have reference), recently re-issued this basic but thorough wine- appreciation primer, an updated version of her 1983 "Masterglass," which she calls "a complete wine course for the thirsty." Loaded with colorful photos and concise, well-organized information, it begins with a sound "learning to taste" tutorial, followed by extensive discussions of red, white and sparkling wines and matching wine and food.

THE WORLD ATLAS OF WINE. The geography of wine never fails to intrigue me, and I love to study maps of the wine regions I've visited ... and those I would like to see. Hugh Johnson has produced several editions of this fine, large-format book full of maps and photos since 1971; now Jancis Robinson joins him as co-author of this latest, expanded and updated edition published last month. Similar in organization to the previous editions, it contains many of the same maps but much that is new, with expanded sections covering Eastern Europe and the New World in much more detail.


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