Three Wine Books that Ably Bridge the Abyss

Three Wine Books that Ably Bridge the Abyss

During an appearance on Martha Stewart Radio two years ago, then-host Mario Bosquez taught me an expression that has continued to resonate.  When I told him that I was hopelessly immersed in writing my most recent wine books, he, an author himself, issued a knowing chuckle:

“Ah, yes, you’ve fallen into the page.”

Exactly, I thought.  That’s the perfect way to describe the inevitable and socially compromising black hole that envelops many authors during the writing process.  It is a self-inflicted Hanoi Hilton of creative exertion requiring the stamina of an English Channel breaststroker and the ability to stave off the delirium of so many hours laboring alone, the kind of bleary-eyed desperation portrayed memorably by Taxi’s Alex Reger’s in his stint as a security guard.

It is doubly difficult writing a wine book, because friends and family assume that focusing on such a glorious subject must make the process pleasurable, if not downright sozzling.  Not so, I say, writing on wine is more like pulling endless an all-nighter in the basement office of a vacation resort: it doesn’t matter how close you are to the beach, you are there to toil.

And toil it is, if you want to add something fresh to the oceanic body of wine writing.  Because the complexities of wine can be difficult to distill, a good wine book requires extra thinking and contouring on the part of its writer, laboring to find just the right combination of words, tone and structure.  Like a mountain guide, a wine writer’s mission should be to smooth out the experience for those who follow, sweating out the details and potential perils before the journey ever begins for his audience.  You fall into page, so you’re readers don’t have to.

The following are three recently-released wine books, each different in approach, but all admirable for their ability to bridge the abyss of wine complexity:

The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg (Little, Brown, $35)

Authors, sybarites, and culinary chroniclers, Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg produce another masterful and boundlessly useful tome.  Powered by dozens of interviews with top sommeliers around the world, the book provides encyclopedic coverage of over 200 wines types, each described in terms of the wine’s essential flavor components.  Four-color and sleekly designed, it is supercharged with nuggets advice, tips, and original features such as a time-line of historical wine events.  It is a must-have for the novices, connoisseurs, and restaurant professionals.

Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines (Berkley Publishing Group, $24)

Canadian wine star Natalie MacLean’s fine and self-deprecating prose reaffirms my penchant for all things Canadian.  Her new book details her adventures in locations both far-flung and within the Great White North, stalking value wines and winding up in helicopters over the Niagara Peninsula and in a car zooming down the Autobahn.  The reader gets to ride shotgun with her and learn about Malbec, German Riesling, South African wine and other key wine values.  Her chapter-ending “Field Notes from a Cheapskate” provide a satisfying summary of these types.  A must for those seeking to learn about affordable wine through the entertaining adventures of a vital, charismatic wine expert.

Bouquet by G.B. Stern (, $85)

The eternal, gnawing question for me is what book to get a wine aficionado that she already doesn’t own or know about. Problem solved: Bouquet is a small-batch, re-release of a charming 1927 travel adventure of the author, her husband, and another couple who tour Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire, and other wine regions of France.  During their romp we learn that the many of the questions seizing wine lovers today — Old World vs. New World, Burgundy vs. Bordeaux — were just as germane some 85 years ago.  The book’s fondle-worthy, cloth-bound cover and eggshell finish text will have you breathing in its pages like they were a fine Volnay – and think back to a simpler, more refined era of publishing.

The Traumas and Triumphs of a Book Tour

Book Tour Traumas and Triumphs

While the idea of a book tour may seem glamorous to the uninitiated, it often involves challenges both large and small, though sometimes they are counterbalanced by grace-saving pleasures. Take this past Friday, when, on three hours of sleep, my assignment was to get from New York to Oakland, California for a 6:30 pm appearance that night. This trip by itself wouldn’t be too terrible, except that after Oakland I needed get to Austin for a 12:30 pm talk at the Texas Book Festival the next day.  With no nonstops from the Bay Area to Austin that night, I rushed back to the airport at 9:30pm for the last flight down to Los Angeles.  The trauma began.

book tourTrauma:  It’s 45 minutes before my flight to LA and the United Airlines line for the metal detector at SFO inexplicably snakes longer than it does even before Thanksgiving.  It takes 20 minutes just to get to the first ID check, where the robotic, red-jacketed demon won’t let me through unless I find a way of stuffing my suit bag into my overstuffed tote bag.  I try halfheartedly to plead my case, soon realizing that these people are Ninja assassins of non-negotiability.  I pull the rip cord, hustle half a terminal over, and coast through the American Airlines checkpoint, three bags intact.

Triumph: My seatmate is named Adriaellis, a blonde Bikram instructor on the last leg of her journey from Hawaii to Los Angeles.  She’s tan, preternaturally relaxed, with what looks like a Runic symbol around her neck.  She shows me pictures of her verdant bungalow on Kauai.  She is the human equivalent of Xanax.

Trauma:  I arrive at the LAX Marriott at 1 am only to find an inert line of thirteen mostly Dutch travelers queued up in front of reception like Soviets on a breadline.  The Dutch are patient, probably thinking that this is normal in America, while I’m feeling my inner-McEnroe starting to tantrum.  The two receptionists couldn’t be less concerned at this ghastly traffic jam, showing the same heartless indifference you find at your local Best Buy.

Triumph:  After three hours of sleep (and six over the past two nights), I throw on a sports coat and baseball cap, and head back to the airport.  The crack-of-dawn flight to Austin arrives without delay.  Listening to Busta’s “Fire it Up” fires me up as we pull into the gate.

Trauma: The taxi driver approaches the festival from the wrong direction and leaves me and my bags several blocks from the festival.  It is 12:30pm, showtime, and I’m yanking my bags towards the festival, hotter and messier than Snooki after a night of Smirnoff.

Triumph: I scramble over to the lecture tent and am literally rolling my bags to the stage as the moderator is poised to give his introduction.  Like a hot potato, I’m mic-ed up and taken to my chair on the stage.  The moderator — Mark Sayre, sommelier at the Austin Four Seasons’ Trio and just named one of Wine & Spirits’ 7 Best Sommeliers — provides a masterful introduction.  It is soon evident that my book tour co-speaker, the Austin Chronicle’s Wes Marshall and author of the terrific What’s a Wine Lover to Do?, has a practical, anti-snob approach like my own, and we mesh well.  The audience can feel the love and responds in kind, with smart questions and generous enthusiasm.

Trauma:  Wes and I are booked for a post-lecture radio interview in the Senate Hearings Chamber of the nearby Texas State Capitol.  I haul my bags over to the building, up innumerable steps, and into the marble lobby, where security is tight as a knot, likely because Karl Rove is also on the grounds to speak at the festival.  One of the many policemen – actually, a Texas Ranger, craggily, Stetson-ed and fully exuding the words “lethal force” – spots me and demands that I open my suitcase for a search.  As tourists stream by, I drop to my knees ands struggle to open the suitcase, grateful that I left my foil-covered cuke at home.

Truimph:  The interview is great fun and Wes, his wife Emily, and I repair to Max’s Wine Dive.  It’s the end of this leg of the book tour. All is made right by the combination of a Nickel + Nickel Chardonnay and the restaurant’s signature “Texas Poutine,” an orgy of grit fries, bacon gravy, cheese curs, and house-made pickled jalapenos.

book tour