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Best Wine Book for Novice

I read a few wine blogs -- but none of them beat this board for best, fastest, soundest advice, in my opinion. You wine aficionados here are terrific. Thank you for all your past advice, and now: what wine book (the ONE best) would you recommend to someone who wants to have a ready reference for varietal characteristics, tasting tips, and general wine knowledge? I picked up a Hugh Johnson at a yard sale, but it's dated and limited. Help!

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  1. I didn't have high expectations when I picked it up, but I thought Mark Oldman's "Guide to Outsmarting Wine" was very good and readable ->

    2 Replies
    1. re: Frodnesor

      Just ordered Oldman's book. Thanks for the tip.

      1. re: The Chowfather

        I second the recommendation of Oldman's book. I grabbed it while on a trip, ended up reading it cover to cover on the plan, and find myself constantly using it for reference.

    2. A great beginner book is Great Wine Made Simple by Andrea Immer.

      8 Replies
      1. re: Deborah B

        Andrea Immer has a couple of very good books. She is able to take any percieved snobbery out of wine and puts in terms that are easy to understand.

        1. re: jpc8015

          I, too like Andrea Immer's books.

          1. re: DaKing

            I, three . . . but these, too, are not of the "one-size-fits-all" variety.

        2. re: Deborah B

          Another vote for Andrea Immer aka Andrea Robinson's Great Wine Made Simple. I like her book because of how it is concise without lacking the basics. At the same time you should definitely go to your local bookstore and compare wine books so you can get a sense of how much depth you like or want.

          Last year I also bought her Annual Wine Buying Guide because I found myself preferring her writing style more than the competition. I haven't drank as much as I want to since, but when I've used the guide it has been spot-on.

          Happy reading and drinking!

          1. re: Deborah B

            Deborah B,

            You beat me to the punch. This is one of the best books out there, for one just starting out in the world of wine. The book (unless Mrs. Robinson has updated it) is a tad dated, regarding the recommendations for the various tastings. Still, with a bit of "reading between the lines," one can do their own updating of the suggested wines.

            I love the way that she breaks down the "mystery" of point of origin, and then offers tastings to exemplify the differences.

            Also, the "homework" is great fun. When I am structuring a tasting event, I always do a bit of re-reading, especially if I am including a "contest" into the event.

            Her mentor, Kevin Zraly, also did a great starter book, "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course." It's as much fun as Mrs. Robinson"s.

            Andrea Immer (now Robinson), "Great Wine Made Simple," Broadway Books, ISBN: 0-7679-0477-X

            Kevin Zraly, "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course," Sterling, ISBN: 0-8069-7649-7

            These would be two great starting points.


            1. re: Bill Hunt

              Ditto Zraly. The German section is so simple, yet so effective. I recommend it to all my students.

              1. re: Bill Hunt

                Immer Robinson did release an updated version of the book a couple of years ago. I bought a copy as a gift for someone just starting out in the world of wine just prior to the new version coming out. Unfortunate bad timing on that one! I also have her Great Tastes Made Simple on wine pairing and Everyday Dining with Wine which are also nice books.

                1. re: Deborah B

                  I'll have to look for the update. I'm sure that the gist of the book is the same, but it would be nice to have updated producers and wineries, especially if I'm doing a class, or similar. Yes, I can read between the lines, and interpolate, but I enjoy her work (and her company), so I'd like to hear more current thoughts on some of the wines.

                  Thanks for pointing this out to me,


            2. There IS no ONE book . . .

              No one size fits all. Honest. But if you can talk more about what it is you are interested in learning about, I am sure you will get a number of specific recommendations.


              1. These are the top two in my opinion:

                Wine for Dummies -- say what you will of the "Dummies" books, but this Wine book is one of the very best beginner books around. It is exceptionally clear, and friendly,
                and non-pretentious. Written by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan.

                The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil -- this is another exceptionally clear book about wines, regions and flavor characteristics. Very readable. Terrific sidebars.

                Both are in paperback, and under $15 on Amazon and elsewhere.

                3 Replies
                1. re: maria lorraine

                  Hmmm -- I like Karen, but I'm not crazy about her book . . .

                  Mary Ewing Mulligan IS wonderful.

                  1. re: zin1953

                    <I like Karen, but I'm not crazy about her book . . . >

                    Love to hear your thoughts as to why...

                    I think both these books are great beginner books...

                  2. re: maria lorraine


                    I had been "gifted" the "Wines for Dummies' book many, many years ago. It languished in my library, untouched, un-read. I was not a fan of the "___ for Dummies" series, but that was mainly in regards to things digital.

                    Finally, I had re-read every wine book on my shelves, even the Signet "Book of Wine" from about 1970. I picked "WfD," and was I ever surprised. I had not expected it to be half of what it was, hence the dust and cobwebs. OK, the authors did get a tad light in spots, but it was GOOD! Who knew? Mine is the "First Editon," and I would assume that it has been updated.

                    I also have, and have read, MacNeil's book. It is a good reference tome, and I recommend it for that purpose. Still, I like Immer and Zraly for the interaction.

                    Last, there are dozens of great reference books, besides MacNeil's, and I have many of these. I do consult MacNeil more often, than say Oz Clarke, but I like the "learn by tasting" philosophy. There are few (one, by my limited knowledge) who can learn wine, wine appreciation and wine-pairings, if they do not actually drink the wines.

                    I do need to second "WfD" as a good resource. They also have/had a "White" and a "Red" addition to the set. I have not read either of these.


                  3. Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy by Joseph Bastianich (Author), David Lynch (Author), Lidia Matticchio Bastianich (Contributor), Mario Batali (Contributor) is a totally useless but very fun book to read.


                    3 Replies
                    1. re: RicRios

                      agree with you on the useless nature of the book

                      1. re: RicRios

                        CLEARLY not a "one-size-fits-all" book, regardless of its useless/useful qualities.

                        1. re: zin1953

                          It IS one size fits all, definitely!
                          Fits all books, that is.
                          In the sense: it's the only one wine book I've ever bought, I decided totally useless, end of story.

                        1. re: SteveTimko

                          Since someone is reviving this old thread, I third Mark Oldman's books -- Oldman's Brave New World of Wine and Oldman's Guide To Outsmarting Wine. They are both very readable and not in the least pedantic. Plus, he got me to try wines that I would have never considered drinking -- like Lambrusco.

                          If you buy Outsmarting Wine -- and you should -- just beware that the book was published in 2004 and his pricing is a little off -- he tells you how much you should expect to pay for each wine he discusses and I don't think I've ever been able to find a wine for what he says it should cost. I chalk it up to increase in prices since 2004. Still a great book, as is his second book, published in 2010.

                        2. Jason's point about what, more specifically, you are looking for would be helpful to those who'd like to help you. Hugh Johnson's annual wine books (rather inexpensive to boot) are chock full of bits of helpful information but you probably need more than that. The Oxford Companion is a a great resource but may be well beyond what you are hoping to find. There's loads of free stuff on the Internet if you have the inclination to use that resource.

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: ibstatguy

                            My goodness folks, how much specificity do you need? OP wants a wine book ->
                            - for a novice
                            - a "one book" resource for
                            - varietal characteristics
                            - tasting tips
                            - general knowledge

                            1. re: Frodnesor

                              AND . . . as I firmly believe there IS no "one book," I am asking the OP for more info.

                              He lives in New York. The market there is more heavily weighted to imports than California. A book that focuses primarily on domestic wines will miss over half, possibly two-thirds of the wines available to him. But if he LOVES California wines, then that would be fine. We know we don't need to suggest a book on dessert wines, but what of sparkling wines? And so on and so on and so on . . .

                              OTOH, if he chooses not to respond, that's his problem.

                              1. re: Frodnesor

                                And your rec. for said book is... ?


                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                  I already gave mine above - Oldman's "Guide to Outsmarting Wine" - which, as I said, I didn't have high expectations for it (probably was a gift) but was pleasantly surprised. Good explanation of basic thinking about wine tasting, good descriptions of varietals, their characteristics, and primary production areas, some good tips on wading your way through a restaurant wine list, some basics on food pairings, enough examples of particular wines/producers to use as a starting point for a shopping list if you so choose. Very enjoyable writing style.

                                  I have not read any of Immer's books or the "Wine For Dummies". Some of the more encyclopedic works are handy to have around as a reference but even I glaze over if I try to just read them through.

                                  1. re: Frodnesor

                                    Oldman's book is one (of the few), that I do not own. Based on your rec., I'll seek it out and add it to my library.


                              2. re: ibstatguy

                                FWIW, when I started getting into wine in the late 70s, I found Hugh Johnson's
                                Pocket Wine Book quite handy. It was concise and full of useful tips.

                              3. Andrea Immer "great wines made simple" and Kevin Zraly "windows on the world wine course"

                                1. I asked for one book to make yall experts THINK hard. And I wanted your suggestions before I got specific because really, if I don't have a go-to wine book to start with, I don't know what I need or lack in it. And I really can't afford to browse and buy what strikes my fancy in the moment. So far, I hear three that pique my interest-- Great Wine Made Simple, Wine for Dummies, and Guide to Outsmarting Wine. I like Robinson's title, because I don't want to "outsmart" anybody or anything, just enjoy wine more. And I know the Dummy series well, and would have to see who the author is first. But hey! I got three strong reco's to choose from, so far-- terrific to know what's WORKING for others. Thank you! And don't stop now, if you have other suggestions. (I'm in CA. Was married for 20 years to wine merchant/broker. had yquems, la taches, petruses, amarone, CA reserves on reg. basis. Never learned a thing but how to taste. Easy when it's just handed to you. Now I want to know what I'm tasting in my grocery store wines. 2nd husband is a chef., cute but poor.)

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: pickypicky

                                    Sorry about the New York reference; I obviously confused you with someone else! ;^)

                                    Of the three books that have piqued your interest, I would recommend "Great Wine Made Simple" and "Wine for Dummies" without hesitation.

                                    Andrea Immer (now Andrea Immer Robinson) earned a Master Sommelier degree in 1996, only the third American woman to do so. (There are still only 91 Americans who hold this degree, 10 of whom are women.) Prior to that, she worked with Kevin Zraly at Windows on the World, and is now a consultant to a number of companies ranging from Target to Starwood. Her second book, "Great Tastes Made Simple," address the issue of food-and-wine pairings. Both are excellent. You can find out more information at http://andreaimmer.com/

                                    "Wine for Dummies" is written by husband and wife Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan. While I don't recall ever meeting Ed, Mary is someone I've known for 20+ years. (I've met Andrea a few times, but I can't really say we know one another.) She holds a Master of Wine degree. As of 2007, there were only 227 people in the world who hold an MW diploma (25 or 26 are Americans, I think), and she was the first American woman to earn this degree. She runs the International Wine Center in New York (http://www.internationalwinecenter.com/), has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, and has judged various wine competitions around the world (we've judged together several times).

                                    As an aside, I *think* there are only two Americans, Ronn Weigand and Doug Frost, who hold *both* MW and MS degrees.


                                    1. re: zin1953

                                      God, I love you Chow winos. No blather, just the facts mam. Thank you, Jason. Ms. Robinson sounds like my lady.

                                      1. re: zin1953

                                        I consider Ed McCarthy to be the main author of the Wine for Dummies books. The books are written as he speaks -- a former English teacher -- clear, accessible, very well organized into segments. Mary is the exceptionally well-trained, brainy half of the duo, and her voice is not the prevailing one in the book, though she is an extraordinary wine teacher. (I have spent a great deal of time with both of them, tasting and talking.)

                                        The book is not fancy with lots of colorful pictures, but it's amazingly solid and clear, and a complete intro wine class within its covers.

                                        Picky, go to a bookstore, and leaf through a few books. See what appeals to you.

                                      2. re: pickypicky

                                        Dang, CH Web site did it to me again. Lost the entire post!

                                        OK, let me attempt to start it all over.

                                        The "WFD" was a big surprise to me. I am not a fan of any other in the "Dummies" series, but this was so very much better. Other than a bit of "folksey" references, and the normal "Dummies" side-bars, it was a good book and worth the effort and $.

                                        If I only could do one, it would be Immer. Let me add another and it'd be Zraly. If I get to choose one more, it would be "... Companion," for reference. Then, "WFD."

                                        This is not meant to dis' Robinson, Clarke, or any of the rest. They are great writers, and offer some wonderful books. I own most, if not all, and reference them monthly.

                                        OK, I probably missed a few points, that I tried to make on first attempt, prior to CH doing its normal "hiccup" thing, but you should get the point. Posting before I loose this one too.


                                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                                          Agreed. "Wine for Dummies" is decidedly a "cut above" the rest of the line of the "_______ for Dummies" books . . .

                                      3. My one book suggestion would be:

                                        The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson

                                        Our copy has been turned to more often than any other wine book we have.

                                        6 Replies
                                        1. re: souvenir

                                          I was just going to ask if anybody has read that. We are looking for a wine book too, but something more ... encyclopedic. Like the LaRousse, only for wine. Our Matt Kramer guide to Cali wines is great reading (we like to read aloud pertinent passages as we are driving through wine country in the Subaru), but it obviously says nothing of vinho verde or nero d'avola or Stellenbosch whites. Bagel!

                                          Does Jancis' book cover these varietals/places? We'd like a reference that covers geography as well as winemaking processes and key figures.

                                          1. re: iwantmytwodollars

                                            Larousse DOES make a wine book . . . get Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion, Third Edition.

                                            1. re: iwantmytwodollars

                                              I received the first edition as a present, shortly after it was published. One of my favorite gifts, ever. To answer your question about whether the book has entries about vinho verde, nero d'avola or Stellenbosch- yes, all have entries.

                                              In the past, we have used it as you described, referring to it during wine tasting drives, as well as during dinner party discussions. We've turned to it countless other times as well. I can only remember one time when we didn't find an answer and turned instead to the web to find the answer. Perhaps if we had the 2nd or 3rd edition, we wouldn't have needed to do this...? Unfortunately, I can't remember what the topic of discussion was that time; I should have written it down.

                                              I haven't compared first edition to the current third edition. I have read that there are more entries, and earlier entries updated. Does anyone have both or all three editions, and would you recommend a purchase of the third if one already has the first?

                                              1. re: souvenir

                                                I do not. About the only books that I try to get every edition are Parker and the WS guide. These are go-to books for me, and I retain all of my older copies.

                                                The afore mentioned "Wine Lover's Companion" probably has been another, but I replace them with whatever edition is out, when the pages all fall out from use. I do not know what my first edition was, but I'm about to shop for a new one - will be #3, IIRC.


                                              2. re: iwantmytwodollars

                                                Both LaRousse and Oxford are great reference books. I have both and use them often. Still, for reference material, I like the "Wine Lover's Companion," mentioned with ISBN above. I've now worn out three copies. Maybe the size is just easier to use. It, however, is limited in depth, and the first two come into play then - plus another half-dozen reference tomes.


                                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                  Thank you souvenir, Jason and Bill for your thoughts. Sounds like I have my Christmas list all wrapped up!

                                            2. My husband and I are both wine novices and just returned from a wonderful trip to Napa. We bought the "Wine for Dummies" book and it really helped us both. While we don't consider ourselves experts or even intermediates, it did help us on what to look out for when tasting.

                                              1. My new husband found his old copy of Zraly's Windows on the World Wine Course in his boxes of reject books bound for the local library, so we pulled that out. Yea! It's a little too workbook-ish and juvenile for what I wanted, but hey, it was free and will be a another voice in our wine library. It will also be exactly what I need for German and Italian wines, about which I know 0. Now we're off to Barnes and Noble (which I just learned is a major contributor to Democratic party) with two ancient Christmas gift cards to peruse their wine books. I'll be looking for Oldman, Immer, Wine for Dummies, and the Jancis Robinson to compare-- but the Oxford Guide might be a nice complement to what we have. Thanks again to all and will let you know what we bought.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: pickypicky

                                                  Good luck in your shopping.

                                                  The thing that I like about the "workbook" style is that they get you tasting, and that is what wine appreciation is mostly about. If one is starting down a wonderful road with wines, academic reading is one thing, but actually tasting wines should be "job one." The structures of the two workbooks is great, even for experienced tasters. I usually incorporate elements from each into my events for the International Wine & Food Society tasting that I host.

                                                  Of the big "reference books," I do like the "Oxford... " a lot.


                                                2. We finally did it. After a Gruet-infused luncheon, we went to Barnes and Noble with our fistful of xmas-past gift cards and found we had $57 to spend. They had in stock almost all your suggestions (but not Oldman) so we perused very carefully. We ended up buying Robinson's Oxford Guide ($65)-- finally, because it was an investment in our wine library. A "cornerstone" my husband called it. I was very tempted by a nice little handbook whose name I can't remember with its information laid out by region (like Hugh Johnson) but handier, more concise, and more user-friendly. That one we could maybe afford on our own, but the Robinson we'd never be able to buy otherwise, so we did. I tested all the books by looking up Aglianico, a word I'd found on a recent bottle, and Brettanomyces. Robinson's entry on Brett was simple enough even I could understand. Thanks for all your help. It's like a Christmas gift that will never stop giving. (My husband was very tempted by the Dummy book, so maybe at Christmas, Santa will bring that one.)

                                                  5 Replies
                                                  1. re: pickypicky

                                                    GREAT choice! Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion is encyclopedic in its scope, and one that truly is an "investment in [any] wine library." Indeed, it is my most-used wine book . . .

                                                    1. re: zin1953

                                                      One book which I haven't heard mentioned, but I like and refer to a lot is
                                                      Oz Clarke's Grapes and Wines. It may not be the most in detail book, but the fact that it gives descriptions of so many grapes is very handy.

                                                      1. re: vanillagorilla

                                                        Jancis Robinson's "Vines, Grapes & Wines"

                                                        1. re: zin1953

                                                          I've been looking for a copy of that, isn't it out of print?

                                                  2. I LOVE our new Oxford Book of Wine. It's perfect. Robinson's writing is brilliant, just brilliant. Last night I looked up "merlot," to see what she said, and before I knew it, I'd looked up 10 other entries, each inspired by the last. My favorite: "garagiste." Her entry on Michael Broadbent is priceless. I've never know anything this encyclopedic to be so entertaining. I could read it straight through.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: pickypicky

                                                      As sick as this sounds, I have never been able to part with the First- or Second Editions of the Oxford Companion -- I have all three! ;^)

                                                      1. re: zin1953

                                                        Not really so "sick." I have the last 6 editions of Parker, and I am not a really big fan. Still, I find the older editions useful, when someone brings, mentions, etc., an older vintage, that might not get coverage in the later editions. One can never have too many wine reference books, regardless of what their loving, enduring wives say.


                                                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                          I do too, and I, too, am "not a big fan," but a wine library isn't complete without some OLD reference books! ;^)

                                                    2. You know what was actually a good one besides "Windows to the World"...if you live near a Total Wines, they have these great wine books that are free. Great info with recs and what not.

                                                      1. Here are my Top 5 favorite wine books:

                                                        1. Ron and Sharon Herbst's "Wine Lover's Companion" - from the makers of the equally informative Food Lover's Companion. Economically written, highly informed wine dictionary and reference book. Hard to leave home without it.

                                                        2. Kevin Zraly's "Window of the World Complete Wine Course" - it reads like a transcript of a great wine class, like you're there sitting in front of him. Great reference guide, with invaluable advice, user-friendly diagrams, entertaining sidebars and excellent photographs.

                                                        3. Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page's "What To Drink With What You Eat" - alas, I've only seen it in hardcover, otherwise it would go with me to restaurants. Not only does it contain great advice and gorgeous photos, but it contains two brilliant and expansive lists: (1) of wines (both varietal and appellation) and non-wines what foods correspond with those beverages; and (2) of foods (meats, cheeses, ethnic food) and what beverages go well with them.

                                                        4. Karen MacNeil's "The Wine Bible" - MacNeil is one of my favorite wine writers, because her tasting notes are so beautifully written and entertaining. A lot of wine writers read like they use the same descriptors ad nauseum. She injects each description with infectious enthusiasm. This book is also expansive and informative without being weighty and lofty. I keep it by my bedside!

                                                        5. DK Publishing's "101 Essential Tips: Wine." I bought this at an airport while I was waiting for a connecting flight. It's not even 1/2 an inch thick and can fit into a pocket, but it's packed with information (e.g., Tip #85: "the correct wine storage temperature.") . The combination of succinct text, clear diagrams and nice color photos makes this the easiest guide I've read and it doesn't overwhelm the newly converted wine enthusiast. I like to pick it up at home just to refresh myself with basics.

                                                        Anyway, hope this helps!