I don’t have a formal wine education and while I’ve thought about pursuing a certification of some sorts, I have acquired my limited (I think wine is a lifelong journey) but growing knowledge of wine through reading books, sampling wines and sharing wine experiences with other people (and readers of this site), especially those who are more knowledgeable than me.
Sampling wines is a no brainer
You have to try new varietals and regions. Almost every time I visit a wine shop, or come across something interesting at Costco, I’m looking for something I’ve never had, and preferably something I’ve never heard of before. If you make notes, or have a good memory for the wines you taste, soon you build a context for them in the broader spectrum of your tastes and preferences. And then you begin building upon that.
The minute I hold a glass of wine in my hand for the first time, a few things happen automatically. I look at the color and check the aromas and begin to build a profile for the wine. Upon first drink, the fruit and the wine’s influences start to jump out and I look for its sense of place (where did this wine come from, its terroir?). And lastly I observe the finish, the stickiness and its pervasiveness.
This happens every time, automatically, and I’m sure quite a few of you out there who taste and review a lot of wine have similar experiences. Much of this is from building a context around the wine, and for that, I do believe you have to taste them and you have to read about them.
Books Provide Context
Reading books on wine is often much less expensive than tasting a range of high caliber bottles from around the world. And while I think you need to do the latter sometimes, books can provide a massive amount of context to your wine education and experience.
So here are a few of my favorites, books that influenced me, and helped me grow and develop an appreciation for wines from around the world (and I still feel like I’m in the second or third inning of the game, so I can update this list as I go).
Thomas Jefferson on Wine (2009) by John Hailman
In addition to loving wine, I’m a bit of a Jefferson fanatic, so this book was right in my wheelhouse. Jefferson was, according to many, America’s first wine connoisseur and he tracked his wine consumption and purchases in remarkable detail. The author digs up countless letters from Jefferson as he shares his thoughts on various wines from around the world with his friends and colleagues.
He gives shipping orders to boat captains on how to transport wine after he looses some precious bottles during transit. These rules live today as standards for wine transport and storage. But more than anything he paints a picture of wine’s role in life at an important time in history with a number of historical figures we all know very well.
A delightful read, especially with a glass of first growth Bordeaux (if that’s in your budget), which were among his favorite wines in the world. [Read my full review]
The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine (2009) by Benjamin Wallace
They are currently making this into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, and after you hear this (true) story, you’re going to want to read and watch everything you can about it. And this is a nice follow on to the Jefferson book above.
The gist is this. A German collector, Hardy Rodenstock, mysteriously turns up a collection of wine hidden behind a brick wall in a house in France, and the bottles were inscribed with the letters “Th. J.” Speculation ensues that these bottles belonged to Thomas Jefferson and they are later sold for a record price at an auction in 1985.
But soon people begin looking into Mr Rodenstock and the wines that he had been selling including the famous “Th. J.” wine. Questions arise as to the origin of the bottles and soon fraudulent wines are discovered. And the wealthy, powerful owners of those bottles are not pleased. I’ll leave it there for you….a fun read.
Judgment of Paris (2006) by George M. Taber
This is a story many people are already familiar with as it was depicted in the 2008 film Bottle Shock. But the film in my opinion was unable to bring the full essence of this historic event to light. So I would recommend you read the book even if you’ve seen the movie.
This true story centers around the Paris Tasting of 1976, and marks a turning point for wine appreciation around the world. In this blind tasting of red and white wines, French wine judges chose little known (at the time) California wines over wines from France’s top estates. This includes the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet and 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.
This is the crazy and sometimes unbelievable story of how Napa wines got on the map.
Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine (2015) by Maximillian Potter
I’m including this book because it contains such a rich and inspired history of Burgundian wine and that just happens to be attached to another remarkable story. The story around the poisoning of the grapes only makes up about 20% of this book, and it’s a fun story, don’t get me wrong. Another one that’s hard to believe.
But in the end, this book is about Burgundy, one of the most important and I think, more challenging areas of wine, to grasp. If you are ready to begin a journey into Burgundian wine, this is a great place to start. It will wet your appetite for these amazing wines, and spark your curiosities about the history and practices of this all important wine region.
Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine Paperback (2015) by Madeline Puckette, Justin Hammack
Here’s a shout out to some fellow bloggers who have done an amazing job with their website and perhaps an even more amazing job with this book. If you’re starting out in your wine journey or are simply looking for a refresher on wine basics, this is the book for you. If you are a reader of the Wine Folly site, then you already have an idea of what you’re getting into.
This is a polished, straightforward and super easy to digest book about wine. The illustrations and visuals could not be done any cleaner. This is a textbook example of how to take an intimidating, complicated subject like wine, and present it in a way that makes every reader feel like a rock star. And for that reason, it’s a good fifth book to end this list on.
But wait, I’ve got one more…
I will throw out one more book that I just finished because it gives a nice historical perspective to wine, and that’s The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond (2015) by Oz Clarke.
This is a fun read and Mr Clarke brings a rather unique perspective that I haven’t found in other books. I read one page of this book a night and looked forward to it every day. You’ll gain knowledge that doesn’t seem relevant the moment you read it, but someday you’ll be in a wine discussion with someone and be able to pull out some great facts that will surprise them, and maybe yourself too.
And that’s it. Keep trying new wines. Drink and share your thoughts with others. And I hope you found a new book or two to further inspire your own wine journey.
PS: share any other books about wine that you’ve enjoyed in the comments below.