Drinking wine is not the sort of activity known to inspire scholarship. The pleasures of writing and the pleasures of wine seem to work mostly at cross-purposes, despite the latter's renowned capacity for loosening tongues. But several books on wine's history, as well as its appreciation, hit the bookshelves this year, making an especially rich trove to draw from for the wine lover in your family this Christmas.
In Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, Master of Wine Joel Butler and biblical scholar Randall Heskett trace the role of wine through the ancient world, both as a historical beverage and as, you might say, a literary plot device. The book is broken into two halves, one reflecting wine's role in the Bible, the other exploring in a leisurely way the holy lands where vineyards and wine are still an important part of the culture.
Paul Lukacs' Inventing Wine also follows a historical footpath, one that frequently passes through biblical referents. Lukacs, a professor of English at Loyola University of Maryland, explores wine's role in history along various narrative threads, from an agricultural and technological standpoint, as well as its significance in social, cultural and mythological realms.
Ultimately, the book is about evolution -- wine's evolution in the winery, in the laboratory and in the culture at large. Lukacs places the enjoyment of wine squarely in the stream of advancing civilization, detailing how an ancient pleasure became a modern one.
There is one book this year that qualifies as an opus: the $175, 1,200-page, six-pound tome Wine Grapes, compiled by esteemed wine journalist Jancis Robinson, M.W., who's ably assisted by Julia Harding and plant geneticist José Vouillamoz.
The authors focus only on wine grape varieties currently in commercial use. But even with that constraint, the number exceeds 1,300 varieties, described and catalogued here with a level of detail never previously attempted. It includes, frequently, the latest data on DNA and parenting of those varieties that have been mapped to date, and even lists family trees for a select few major varietal lines.
The data are fantastically technical -- a project this comprehensive should be -- but the reason to own this impressive volume is far more practical. You will learn about a given grape's origin and parentage, as well as how it's grown, where it's grown and why and, most importantly, what it tastes like -- all plainly and helpfully subdivided. In that sense, the volume is wonderfully pragmatic. In fact, paired with two other volumes of which Jancis Robinson served as the principle author -- The Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine -- your average wine geek's reference needs may be sated for life.
If all of these choices seem a bit too academic, there are several books devoted to wine appreciation. Doug Shafer's A Vineyard in Napa (written with Andy Demsky) chronicles the evolution of Shafer's august Napa property. And local sommelier Caitlin Stansbury (with Heidi Shink) has written a clear-eyed how-to book on enjoying wine she's calling Wineocology.
Finally, New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov has written How to Love Wine, billed as a memoir and a manifesto: how one of the country's great appreciators has come to love and appreciate this elusive and grand subject matter.
Asimov's greatest skill as a wine writer has always been clarity. Whether speaking of the lowliest Beaujolais or the loftiest Grand Cru Burgundy, his opinions are delivered in comprehensible, unadorned prose. This is a remarkable achievement considering the subject, since wine has only one rival in its ability to inspire flowery language, and that's love. In a volume that's accessible to the novice and connoisseur alike, Asimov proves himself to be one of our most important populists for the medium of wine in America.
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Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.