There once was a time, not all that long ago, when the number of useful wine and spirits books that came out in a given year could be counted on one hand. These days, however, there’s a surfeit of literature on alcohol.
Is it not a sign of how much things have changed when three books on rosé (Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine, Katherine Cole’s Rosé All Day, and Victoria James’s Drink Pink) are published in the course of a single month?
The winnowing of essential texts for the modern beverage professional is no longer a simple exercise. Choosing among what’s popular, what’s relevant, and what’s entertaining is now part of the job. What follows here are some thoughts on the best wine and spirits books of the year. This is not a gift guide for “the wine lover of the household.” You can find that elsewhere. Rather, this is a list of the year’s must-reads for those of us in the business of booze—a list for those who depend on reliable information to do our jobs well.
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Books about Wine
New Zealand Wine: The Land, the Vines, the People
By Warren Moran (Hardie Grant Books, $60)
I suspect this book isn’t on many people’s radar, and that’s a shame. Few take New Zealand wine seriously enough to recognize its viticultural potential beyond Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. This book will make a believer of you. Moran is a geographer, and New Zealand Wine benefits from his scientific training. The book pays homage to the history of the country in charts and graphs that measure its changing plantings (who knew that as recently as 1990, Müller-Thurgau was the country’s principal grape variety?). Its spectacular maps paint a picture of ever-developing regions and subregions. This book is the culmination of Moran’s 50-year passion for the wines of his home country, and it shines.
Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers
By Robert Walters (Quiller Publishing, $20)
This book began as a series of articles for the quarterly The World of Fine Wine. Walters, an Australian wine merchant—who happens to import a number of producers profiled in Bursting Bubbles—details the modern movement of grower Champagnes. Along the way, he reckons with the multitude of Champagne myths in an edifying manner. This is the most readable wine book on this list as it’s physically the lightest. It is a welcome complement to Peter Liem’s opus.
Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region
By Peter Liem (Ten Speed Press, $80)
This, no doubt, is the most coveted wine book of the holiday season—and rightfully so. It’s beautiful, its writing is measured and precise, and it’s pertinent. Liem does much to demythologize the traditional narrative usually set forth by the Grandes Marques, but much more important is the work he does to reconceptualize Champagne as a wine born of place and not just of process. His survey of the terroirs of Champagne is groundbreaking.
The Complete Bordeaux, 3RD Edition
By Stephen Brook (Mitchell Beazley, $75)
“Complete” is a term that calls upon itself enough scrutiny to warrant such a claim, usually, as puffery. This is not the case with Brook’s paean to Bordeaux. At 720 pages, The Complete Bordeaux offers as comprehensive a portrait of the region as exists. Though this is a reference work, Brook details the history, production methods, and personalities of the region in digestible prose that keeps one reading full sections at a clip. His succinct overviews of various châteaus are particularly useful. In fact, they’re a fine reminder that, even in these times, Wikipedia isn’t the sole repository of vinous information. If you ever needed (or wanted) a 14-page treatment on the lesser-known appellations of Moulis and Listrac, this tome has you covered—and then some.
Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally, 2ND Edition
By Isabelle Legeron, MW (CICO Books, $24.95)
With Natural Wine, Legeron, the founder of the RAW WINE fair, succeeds in providing a concrete framework for the often amorphously defined category. This is no easy task, and that this book is in its second edition after only three years attests to the fact that this style of wine—and the way in which professionals communicate about it—is very much in flux. While Legeron cleverly notes that “natural wine is not new” and is transparent in her advocacy, such bias does not cloud her clear prose and evidence-based approach at exploring the benefits of living soils, polyculture, and minimal processing. She tackles common criticisms regarding wine faults and the stability of natural wines in a way that will elicit interest from thoughtful skeptics.
Other wine books of note: The Dirty Guide to Wine: Following Flavor from Ground to Glass by Alice Feiring with Pascaline Lepeltier MS (Countryman Press, $24.95), The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know by Jon Bonné (Ten Speed Press, $14.99), Rosé All Day: The Essential Guide to Your New Favorite Wine by Katherine Cole (Abrams, $24.95)
Books about Spirits
The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution
By Tristan Stephenson (Ryland Peters & Small, $24.95)
Stephenson has hit his stride with this, the fourth volume in his Curious Bartender series. Rum is one of the most difficult spirits to write about, as its production spans thousands of miles and dozens of countries, yet Stephenson offers a frank and distinct take on rum production and the murky issues surrounding its classification. Further, his “tour” of rum distilleries is as near exhaustive a list as I’ve ever seen. One doesn’t write about Tortola’s Callwood Distillery, Dominica’s Shillingford, or Grenada’s River Antoine Distillery unless he’s done his homework. Lucky for us Stephenson did.
By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare and Sublime on the Spirits Trail
By Thad Vogler (Ten Speed Press, $27)
Vogler’s manifesto, memoir, and travelogue is required reading for anyone who runs a beverage program at a bar or restaurant because it insists that the values behind the bottle stand for something larger than the ephemerality of taste. By the Smoke and the Smell does for spirits what Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route did for wine nearly 30 years ago. Read my full review here.
By Aeneas MacDonald, edited by Ian Buxton (Birlinn Ltd., $14.99)
One takes notice when the writer Dave Broom states that this is the “finest whisky book ever.” Originally published in 1930, this little book was the first modern guide to Scotch whisky. What’s amazing is its timelessness and prescience. In Whisky, MacDonald, a pseudonym for George Malcolm Thomson, writes with wit on the history, making and blending, geography and judging, purchase and care of whisky. Ian Buxton provides astute commentary in this new release in the form of an introductory appreciation and footnotes. Though its brilliance lies in its brevity, don’t let this volume’s slimness fool you; even experts will learn and benefit much from reading MacDonald’s pioneering work.
Meehan’s Bartender Manual
By Jim Meehan (Ten Speed Press, $40)
More than your typical cocktail book, this “manual” is a guide to modern bartending and all that it entails, from drink-making techniques to brand ambassadorships and beyond. In its quest to cover everything, Meehan’s Bartender Manual is a bit uneven. Still, those bartenders and aspiring home mixologists left without a copy under the Christmas tree will be worse off for not having gleaned some practical insight from Meehan’s wealth of knowledge and experience. Read my full review here.
Other spirits books of note: Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits by Tom Acitelli (Chicago Review Press, $19.99), Rum: The Manual by Dave Broom (Mitchell Beazley, $19.99), Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit by Emma Janzen (Voyageur Press, $25), Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert, 2nd Edition, by Davin de Kergommeaux (Appetite by Random House, $20), Road Soda: Recipes and Techniques for Making Great Drinks Anywhere by Kara Newman (Dovetail, $20)
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Scott Rosenbaum is CEO of Ah So Insights, a wine and spirit industry newsletter and consultancy. Scott was formerly the vice president of T. Edward Wines & Spirits, a New York-based importer and distributor.