Book Review: New Bottles + Old Wine = Good Reading

A review of Howard G. Goldberg (editor), The New York Times Book of Wine (Stirling Epicure 2012) and Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course (Stirling Epicure 2012).

Two new wine books have arrived on The Wine Economist doorstep. What they have in common is that they revise or repurpose some “vintage” wine writing. Does old wine [writing] in new bottles [books] work? Yes! And I recommend both books. But refilling bottles isn’t as easy as it looks and both books could have been a bit better. Herewith two brief tasting notes.

The Big Book of Wine

The New York Times Book of Wine is a real treat. It’s a big book (about 550 pages of text) that contains more than 150 articles taken from the pages of the New York Times over the last 30+ years, starting with some of Frank Prial’s wine columns back in the 1980s and stretching through Eric Asimov’s 2011 contributions.  It commemorates the 40th anniversary of regular wine writing at the Times and is, therefore,  a chronicle of my generation’s embrace of wine seen through the eyes of Asimov and Prial as well as Florence Fabricant, R.W. Apple, Jr., William Grimes, Frank Bruni and several others.

This is a fascinating collection and makes great browsing. Goldberg organized the pieces around themes such as “Wine Writing and Writers,” “What You Drink with What You Eat,” “South of the Equator,” “So, There You are in a Restaurant” and “A Magnum of Miscellany.”

At first I headed straight for the older articles because I love wine history and I see these columns as windows on the world of the past. I was going to skip the most recent articles because I read them all when they first appeared in the Times, but sure enough I was sucked in by the topics and the writing and the chance to contemplate them along side the older accounts. I spent a very pleasant summer afternoon in this book’s embrace.

Story-Telling Challenge

It’s a fine book, but it could have been even better. I have some experience with books like this, since I was editor of the New York Times 20th Century in Review: The Rise of Globalizationwhich appeared 10 years ago. I was given 100 years of everything in the Times — articles, editorials, op-eds, photos, cartoons, obituaries, etc. — and asked to tell the story of globalization from 1900-2000. My first impulse, given the vast quantity of material at my disposal, was to put things in piles — all the international trade stories here, all the financial crisis stories there, and so forth. But then I realized that I wasn’t telling a story, so I threw everything in the air and started over, trying to draw out the key threads that made the whole story make sense. I’m not sure how well it worked — there were more than 500 articles — but I tried to go beyond collecting and organizing to also tell an important story.

That’s what I miss in this wine volume. It’s great reading, but what’s the point? What do we learn about wine or about our society’s attitudes towards wine when we read 30 years of wine columns? Maybe there is no big story (although Asimov’s Foreword suggests that there is), just a collage of the individual authors and articles — a feast of tapas and sherries, as Goldberg writes in the Introduction. But I’d like to think that all this good writing adds up to something more. That’s the challenge I toss out for the expanded volume that I hope to see when the Times wine column celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Updating a Classic

Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Compete Wine Course is a big book, too, but in a different way. Zraly presents us with the vast panorama of whole world of wine. The book isn’t long (although you get your money’s worth in its 300+ pages) so much as heavy. The heavy paper stock that allows the color illustrations to be so clear and clean gives the book a real physical heft.

Zraly has been helping people learn about wine for more than 35 years and this book has been in print for as long as I can remember. The cover says that more than 3 million copies have been sold. The book is certainly comprehensive and interesting — the result of many years of fine tuning, I suspect — giving both the beginning and more advanced wine student something to master and something to think about. There’s a reason why it has been around so long.

I was interested in this new edition because it includes a number of features designed to appeal to today’s smart phone enabled wine enthusiast. This seems like a great idea — aren’t all publications moving in this direction? — and so I wanted to see how it would work? The answer is that it is a good beginning, but more work needs to be done to bring the iFeatures up to the level of the text itself.

There are three types of electronic features that can be accessed by scanning codes or entering URLs: introductory videos for the nine main sections, 1300 vocabulary audio files (to remove the fear of pronouncing Viognier) and links to the Sherry-Lehmann wine store’s online catalog to shop for the wines you have just read about.

Devil in the Details

The Sherry-Lehmann shopping links were the most successful and I think this is a nice service to provide readers, although I can understand why competing wine merchants might disagree. The audio files were more hit and miss. Most worked fine, but some were clearly mislabeled showing a lack of attention to detail. There were two “Willamette” links, for example, one of which pronounced the AVA “Yakima” instead of the Oregon name.  And although the “Chelam” link clearly pronounced the word “Chelam,” I am almost certain that “Chelan” — a Washington State AVA — is what should have been there.

The brief introductory videos were great to the extent that they gave me a real sense of Kevin Zraly himself and the passion he brings to his teaching. Really made me want to take a seminar from him. But they were just 60 seconds each and therefore hopelessly superficial.  They added something to each chapter, but they did not nearly rise to the potential that streaming video offers.  This needs to be better done or not at all.

While I am picking nits, I would like more documentation of the data (which is generously provided) in the book so I can track down the source and date for the many tables and charts provided (the footnotes could be provided via web link to keep the book from getting any heavier). Some of the data is dated and some of it needs more explanation — the footnotes would let the curious reader dig a bit deeper without getting in the way. OK, I’m a university professor, so naturally I would want more documentation. But I really think some readers would appreciate it.

Just as I challenged the Times editors to tell more of a story with their columns, I’d like to encourage Kevin Zraly and his team to try to more fully realize the potential of apps and web links and streaming video to expand, enrich and transform the wine education experience.

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