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Seeking a good wine reference

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I'm sort of ashamed to say I don't know much at all about wine and I'm sure I am often drinking the "wrong" wine with whatever food I'm eating (well, it tastes like it anyway because sometimes the same bottle of wine tastes great with my meal and then other times it's awful). I'd love to buy a book that will explain wine and grapes, and also some basic concepts for pairing wine with food, so that I can expand my horizons beyond pinot noir and zinfandel. I often see recipes that recommend specific bottles of wine, which for some reason I never can find, and then I don't know enough about wine to figure out a decent substitution. Do any of you have recommendations for a good wine reference? Thanks for any help in advance!

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  1. I am having a wonderful time reading Wines of the World, in the DK Eyewitness Companions series. It is nice and glossy with short descriptions of all the major wine producing regions of the world. It covers what grapes are used, and gives examples of the best or most well-known producers. It doesn't have a section on wine-food pairing, but the wines are usually discussed in the context of food, for instance you learn why Muscadet (from the Loire, France) goes so well with oysters and mussels. (I just tried it and wow it is true!) Highly recommend the book.

    1. Jancis Robinsons Oxford Companion is generally considered gospel by people in the biz.(Including me)

      1. There are so many good wine texts around and certainly as Winemark suggested, Jancis Robinson's The Oxford Companion to Wine is a fabulous resource. Prior to buying it I also utilized Hugh Johnson's Modern Encyclopedia of Wine.

        However, for the specific area you have indicated an interest in, pairing food and wine I have enjoyed a book by Andrea Immer.

        Great Tastes Made Simple..Extraordinary Food and Wine Pairing for Every Palate. Not a huge book like Robinson's text, just under 300 pages but well written and an easy read. Not too "over the top" and "complicated" nor "dumbed down". A little something here for everyone no matter one's appreciation and interest in wine or food.

        It may be what you want...mind you there is nothig wrong with pinot noir and zinfandel [smile]...

        1. Lots of great resources online as well. Strat's Place is one. And I like Karen MacNeil's Wine Bible. Gives a great overview of regions/grapes/etc.

          1. I've found Mark Oldman's "Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine" very educational, practical and interesting. Like you, I had limited wine knowledge and was looking to learn more, and understand food pairings. I found his guide helps de-mystify wine. Good luck!

            1. Before writing "Great Tastes Made Simple," Andrea Immer wrote a book called "Great Wines Made Simple." I have done a lot of teaching and training about wine, and I have a pretty good library, and this is one of the best approaches to learning about wine that I have ever seen. I still refer to it as a teaching tool, and think that there is no better place to start. I would recommend getting both of her books along with an excellent reference book.

              As for the reference books, I use several, but like "The Oxford Companion to Wine" best for detailed information. I keep a copy of "Wine Lovers Companion" close for quick questions. The Culinary Institute of America uses a book called "Exploring Wine" as its primary text. I don't use it as a reference any more, but it was great to read when I was starting out, and (as with many old text books) you can often find it used cheap.

              Have fun!

              4 Replies
              1. re: monday

                Thanks everyone for your guidance! I started looking around for Jancis Robinson's "The Oxford Companion to Wine" -- it looks like a revised edition is being released this coming September. Is it worth it, do you think, to wait for this, or should I just go ahead and buy the old one? Apparently there are an additional 500 listings--and this just shows the level of my ignorance--I wouldn't have thought there would be an additional 500 to add . . . ! I wrote down the other recs about food-wine pairing and I'm going to check them out when I'm at the bookstore later today, but I guess I'm leaning toward the Immer books. Thanks everyone!

                1. re: grubn

                  I would wait for the newer edition of the Oxford Companion. Things change so quickly in the wine world, and if you become a fanatic (warning!) you'll want the most up to date information.

                  Again, you won't regret buying the Andrea Immer books.


                  1. re: grubn

                    If you're going to buy the Oxford Companion and a new edition is coming out this fall, wait. While the basic info doesn't change much from edition to edition, specifics do. For example, recent DNA analysis has made huge strides in identifying the origins of grape varieties.

                    That said, I wonder if the Oxford Companion is the best book for someone relatively new to wine. Don't get me wrong: it's a wonderful book but it's very detailed and technical and more than a little dry. It's also so big and heavy that it's hard to hold in your lap for extended periods.

                    For a beautifully written overview of the various grape varieties, wine regions, main producers and winemaking traditions, I'd suggest *Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion*, the updated version of his *Modern Wine Encyclopedia.* Along with the *Wine Atlas*, it was the first serious wine book I read and I couldn't have asked for a better introduction. Moreover, it is so information rich, it remains useful to me today. The only drawback is that it doesn't contain much in the way of food-pairing advice. But I think you're unlikely to find a single book that provides everything.

                    1. re: carswell

                      Ok! You are the 2nd person to recommend Hugh Johnson, so I'll go check out that book too. Thanks!

                2. I strongly second the Andrea Immer (now Robinson) book as a wonderful place to start. He cuts through much of the pedantic writings of so many others, and offers a "tasting course."

                  Her suggestions for wine/food pairings are very good, and well thought-out. This part of it is more of an "art," than a "science," and she gives some broad guidelines.


                  1. Another suggestion would be to grab your news reader (Usenet, not Internet) and head to alt.food.wine (the news group). There are many international wine experts in that news group, and they are always happy to help you with pairing suggestions.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      I grabbed my Immer book and here is the ISBN: 0-7679-0477-X. Two other tomes that I highly recommend are: "Windows on the World - Complete Wine Course," by Kevin Zraly, ISBN: 0-8069-7649-7 and for food/wine pairing (almost 100% US wines), "The Wine Lover's Cookbook," Sid Goldstein, ISBN: 0-8118-2071-8. Lastly, I also recommend "Wine for Dummies," Ed McCarthy & Mary Ewing-Mulligan, ISBN: 1-56884-390-9. I do not like the "Dummies... " series for most things, and this book was a gift to me. After reading Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson, Andrea Immer-Robinson, Kevin Zraly and most of the rest, I picked this book up, read it, and was amazed! Really a good overview without much "fluff." The authors also do a Red Wine and a White Wine book within the series, but I have no experience with either of those. They are probably as good as their general volume.

                      One note: unless you are looking for reviews of the current vintages, or the very latest appelations that might have come on-line around the world, there really isn't much need to get the latest edition of a wine book. The basic info will be unchanged. What changes will be the addition of a few new areas around the globe, and some newer producers. If you want a good book on California/US wines, James Laube (Wine Spectator) does an update of his "California Wine" every couple of years, and Robert Parker, Jr. does his "Wine Buying Guide," annually. These focus more on the producers, and their vintages (that, of course changes), than on the basics of the wine world.


                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        There is one exception: DNA testing has been resulting in fairly rapid changes in identification of various grapes around the world as related or the same.

                    2. Evan Goldstein's new book Perfect Pairings sounds like just the thing you're looking for. Lots of great wine and food ideas.

                      1. There are some good recommendations for books here, but what I learned a long time ago is that there's a real limit on what you can learn about wine from a book.

                        Wine is about tasting.

                        The way to learn about wine is to taste it with people who know more about it than you do. And I mean really know, not just the folks who talk a good game. Telling the difference isn't always that easy.

                        First I would recommend that you find a good wine store. I don't know where you are located, or I might know of one. Even people who work in wine stores aren't always that knowledgeable, but at least they usually have wine!

                        Another place to look is a good restaurant. A good sommelier can help.

                        But finding a good tasting group can be the best long term way if you really want to learn about wine.

                        1. jancis robinson's "wine course" is very well written and laid out for the "wine layman". i also liked oz clarke and hugh robinson's stuff when i was coming up.
                          agree on the tasting group note--befriend some people in your favorite restaurant, especially if you like to eat well.

                          cardinal rule, though, as someone who's been in the wine biz for 10 years-- drink what you like. all the pairings don't matter if you don't like what you're drinking. that's not to say that the "ahaa" moment when something really clicks on your palate isn't awesome--just don't worry about doing the "right" thing so much.

                          1. It's been a couple of months since I asked for your recommendations, and here's my report.

                            As a recap, I bought the Andrea Immer books, Jancis Robinson's Oxford, and because I saw it used in a bookstore, Hugh Johnson's Wine Encyclopedia.

                            Mostly, I've been the perfect case of what not to do when wanting to learn about wine.

                            First mistake: I sat down and read Andrea Immer's books front to back all at once (like it was a novel!) without actually tasting any wine at the same time. Of course I didn't retain anything, and when I arrived at the wine store ready to make my first purchase with all of my supposed new knowledge, I was completely at a loss! (I do really like her writing style though, good rec.)

                            Second mistake: I then subsequently bought a case of my favorite every day Zin and a case of my favorite every other day pinot noir. After spending $400 on wine, I had very little desire or motivation to buy any other bottles.

                            Third mistake: I went to a wine tasting and tasted too much on an empty stomach (crazy day at work and I skipped both breakfast and lunch and probably gum doesn't count as food). Through my very pleasant haze, everything was tasting pretty good and I came home with 6 bottles of Torrantes, of all things. It's not that I don't like it, but it's definitely its own taste and I'm having a hard time finding the right food for it or the right way to drink it or something. I'm not sure that was the right wine to bring home as a beginner.

                            So I'm sad to report that I'm still in my Zin and Pinot rut. But I'm determined to change my ways and I'm definitely going to do things a bit differently next time. I think I might benefit from actually writing stuff down so I'm more prepared the next time I go to the wine shop.

                            Oh, just want to ask, do you ever serve wine you've never had before to guests? Is that too risky? (We're entertaining this weekend.)

                            Thanks everyone for your recommendations and help. I'm probably never going to be an expert about wine, but I'm hoping that I'll at least be a little better rounded at some point in my life.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: grubn

                              If you're not making mistakes, you're not trying hard enough!

                              You are correct, buying those cases was a mistake, but that's OK. One thing you could do is run off head-to-head comparisons between this wine, which you presumably know fairly well now, against a variety of other things. Compare and contrast. I find it's much, much harder to "learn" anything about wine in general, assuming such a thing is possible, from one bottle in in isolation.

                              Serve an unknown wine with friends? Of course! Resist the temptation to turn your enjoyment of wine into a competitive display of tastefulness. If your guests are wine experts, talk to them and learn. Tell 'em straight: "I dunno anything about this, but I wanted to try a ____ with this. Let's have some." If they're wine-illiterate boobs like you and me, what's the possible harm? The only people who are EVER going to belittle your knowledge and taste level because you served them something that was somehow "wrong" are nasty people, experts or not. As in most endeavors, it's better to not know but want to learn than to know and feel superior about it. What I mean is, your curiousity is a more attractive trait than pedantry.

                              If you spend more than five dollars a bottle, and there's nothing actually wrong with it (corked, for instance) the chances of serving something that's not good is vanishingly small. It might not be the best food combo, if you serve a Vinho Verde with a porterhouse steak, or something, but that's the worst of it -- "hmm, something with a little more heft to it might have been better". No one's going to die. Make an experiment out of it. Most of the "pairings" books are going to recommend specific wines that you can't find locally anyways, so you'll be approximating.

                              Don't worry about building a cellar and all that stuff. You're better off spending your money in a friendly, knowledgeable shop on lots of different things, in order to learn what you like and why.

                              My favorite wine book is Clive Coates's <i>An Encyclopedia of the Wines and Domaines of France</i>, because I'm a bit of a French wine bigot, and I'm addicted to his incredible, detailed maps. If you want a broader approach, there are several outstanding wine atlases out there. I find the geographical approach to be by far the most interesting.

                            2. A lot of my friends are big wine nuts so anything that's interesting to me will be interesting to them. But I've got lots of stuff in the cellar so I can always open something else.

                              The three books I consult most often are the Oxford, Robinson's "Wines, Grapes and Wines" (for information on varietals), and Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine (for geographical information).

                              1. I can sympathize with the "same bottle is sometimes good, sometimes not" problem. I find that it often has to do with not just the food, but what I've been doing with my mouth recently (get your mind out of the gutter!) I've learned from experience that if you've recently been nibbling on sour candy or jellybeans, whatever wine you taste immediately afterwards is going to taste absolutely foul for at least the first glass. More than once I've found something that I started off thinking was seriously gone bad turned out to be a special favorite once my palate got "reset". That's what appetizers (and bitter, bitter cocktails) are for!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: fnarf

                                  Cocktails aren't good for the palate.

                                2. For the most part, I think pairing wine with food is a personal preference. You're obviously not going to match a huge tanin-ball from Australia or the Rhone with something delicate like fish or match a light white like a German Riesling with a huge sauced red slab of something that had parents. I see nothing wrong with matching a big white wine with red meat or a light red with seafood. Of course, you really need to have some idea of what a wine is going to be like before you open it and the only way to achieve that is to take up drinking wine as a hobby.

                                  If Robert Parker had a buyer's guide more recent than 2002, I'd say to buy that. I urge you to subscribe to his newsletter called "The Wine Advocate". It's $65/year for 6 issues. 2 of the issues also give you a more transportable buyer's guide synopisis of the previous 6 months. Once every year, he does an issue that lists good wine values. He doesn't accept advertising so his ratings and reviews are much less biased than the glossy rags. Many wine people won't agree with his assessments but I find it works for me.


                                  Any decent wine shop will have a ring binder of Robert Parker Wine Advocate back issues and will be happy to let you look at it. I think it's a useful buying tool.

                                  The ways to learn about wine are:
                                  * Go to tastings
                                  * "Buy & Try"
                                  * Expand your social circle to include some wine junkies

                                  In my experience, most wine at tastings is bad but it's still a valuable way to learn. Tastings are everywhere. Every wine shop has them. Restaurants have them. Groups of wine junkies stage them. Every winery does them. If you ask at any good wine shop, they can give you a comprehensive list of tastings that are coming up in your area. That's where you'll meet your birds of a feather who also have tasting wine as their hobby or, in many cases, as their obsession.

                                  A Parker subscription will help point you to the best quality wines at your price point. There are lots of really good wines that don't cost huge dollars per bottle. Unfortunately, you can't tell wine quality from the label so you need a way to get objective quality ratings. If you develop a good relationship with the wine junkies at your local wine shop, they can also help. That's how you become self-taught on the "try & buy" plan.