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Wine books for a refreshing read

A new crop offers colorful history and essential pairing advice. Jon Bonné reports on what's worth leafing through

Summer isn’t a perfect time for wine reading, but there’s something to be said for an afternoon on the porch, deep in a book with a glass of wine to keep you company.

It’s been about half a year since we books about wine.  We've found a new crop of books to consider that cover wine topics both historical and practical:

Anthologies tend to suffer from clip-file shortcomings, but “History in a Glass: Sixty Years of Wine Writing from Gourmet” (Modern Library, $25) is the most compelling wine book this year. In part, that’s because the writing in Gourmet magazine is usually thoughtful, and these are essays written for serious food people. They skip most of the the usual “rolling hills, sun-drenched vines” vineyard porn.

“History's” best pieces are its older ones. A series of essays by Frank Schoonmaker offers illuminating lessons on the wines of both post-war Europe (“the French did an extraordinary job of hiding and protecting their stocks”) and California, and makes a compelling case in 1941 for Americans to call wines by their grape names — a plea that seems to have worked. Writing in 1966, Frederick Wildman Jr. is ebullient about California’s potential, gushing about rising stars (Almadén, Paul Masson) whose reputations have long since tumbled.

And yet so much remains unchanged. Schoonmaker’s 1947 description of travel down the Rhone Valley reads almost as though it was written last year.

Many writers will be familiar. Hugh Johnson rhapsodizes about sherry; Ray Bradbury offers an ode (not a terribly coherent one) to dandelion wine; James Beard details a gluttonous tour through France, replete with three-hour luncheons and such dizzying wines as an 1881 Mouton-Rothschild. (“While it was a remarkable wine, it lacked the distinction of the 1865 Potet Canet which we had tasted at lunch.”) But lesser known writers shine too. From Everett Wood, an American pilot living in Germany through the 1950s, there is a wistful profile of the stubborn cellarmaster at Schloss Johannisberg in the Rhinegau. So devoted was Wood's subject to his wines that he refused to take even a day’s vacation — after 31 years on the job.

More recent essays are less compelling (perhaps because they don’t have the benefit of time) but the collection, assembled by Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, shows why truly illuminating wine writing has nothing to do with 100-point scores or copious adjectives.

So stylishIt’s difficult to break wine knowledge into easily digestible chunks. Most books go the easy route and offer a survey of grape varieties. “Wine Style” (Wiley, $25), by Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy, tries something trickier.

The couple has devised 12 wine “styles” — four each for red and white, plus rosé and sparkling — and group bottles by taste rather than geography or grapes, not unlike what some wine lists have started doing. The apparent goal is to help drinkers learn what type of wine they prefer rather than remain stuck in the usual one-variety ruts. Hence why German riesling, Argentinian torrontés and American viognier hang together as “aromatic whites.”

Sometimes these boundaries work remarkably well, sometimes the lines seem fuzzy — and the authors readily admit as much. Cabernet sauvignon is listed in three of the four red categories.

You might expect the authors of “Wine for Dummies” to dumb things down, but Ewing-Mulligan and McCarthy are clear here without being simplistic; difficult topics — the difference between grape tannins and oak tannins, for instance — are explained deftly.

“Wine Style” is reminiscent of Jancis Robinson’s useful “How to Taste,” which launched many wine lovers’ obsessions. I’m not sure I buy their styles, but drinkers hoping to connect the dots between grape types will be grateful.

Of a pair
If the food part of the equation has you stumped, you might instead turn to Evan Goldstein’s “Perfect Pairings” (University of California Press, $30). Goldstein, a master sommelier and wine teacher, aims not only to offer pairings but to explain why they work.  He breaks down the flavors in each grape variety and outlines what foods will pair best. Key elements like acidity and texture get thoughtful consideration.

Even better, he has commissioned recipes from his mother, cookbook author Joyce Goldstein, to match with each type of wine, and lists specific wines under a range of price categories (“Everyday,” “Premium,” “Splurge”). I’ve always admired Joyce Goldstein’s recipes for their precise, clear flavors, and that asset becomes doubly valuable when the goal is to make the dish and the wine into more than the sum of their parts.

My only wish is that the Goldsteins had included a list of pairings by food so that readers could launch a pairing quest for a menu they’ve already planned. The index does this somewhat, but incompletely. That said, I'd choose theirs over most pairing books on the market. It's not hard (though it is helpful) to offer a list of pairings, far more difficult to explain what makes them work.

For sake’s sakeThe realm of sake is so unexplored even by studious wine drinkers that anyone who has ordered a bottle of warm sake with their sushi will be dazzled by the detail in “Sake: A Modern Guide” (Chronicle, $19). Author Beau Timken, who owns a San Francisco store devoted to this ancient rice beverage, cautiously details the elaborate brewing process, including the crucial polishing of the rice. He sorts out a junmai (made with rice and water, with 30 percent of the grain polished off) from a dai ginjo (made with distilled alcohol, with 50 percent polished). He is determined to shatter a few well-worn myths along the way, including the belief that you mustn’t pour your own sake.

Brevity was the guiding principle here. A bit more detail amid the book’s 120 pages wouldn’t have hurt.  The sake vessel known as a masu is described, as is the practice of overfilling it as a sign of generosity. But a brief explanation of just how to drink from the slightly awkward cedar box is nowhere to be found — perhaps because Timken is such a vocal advocate for using wine glasses.

The latter half of the book is devoted to a list of 50 top sakes — complete with descriptions that provide reference points among beer and wine — and sake recipes provided by magazine editor Sara Deresan. Her recipes are helpful, but it would have been equally helpful to devote those pages to a more nuanced treatment of the drink itself. Sake has been ritualized for 2,200 years; surely a discussion of sake rituals deserves more than two pages?

Finally, good news for big wine geeks: Jancis Robinson and her team are putting the final touches on a long-awaited edition of “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” due out this October. The dizzyingly comprehensive “Companion” is not for the casual reader, but it is quite simply the best wine resource in print.