Distilling the Current Crop of Oneophilic Books | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Distilling the Current Crop of Oneophilic Books

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr

New guides take the sophisticated drinker through the history and varieties of alcohol

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While it sometimes seems that as many wine and booze books are being published as new bottles of wine and booze are being released, it would be a comforting thought to suppose that all such alcoholic literary efforts are uniformly excellent.

Like so much of the new vino and hooch hitting the high-streets, however, wishful thinking of this sort is misplaced. But there are still plenty of worthwhile titles on offer.

Here are two of them:

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2019 (Mitchel Beazley: 2018; 336 pages; $16.99). Arguably one of the most prolific wine writers around, and to my mind consistently the most interesting, Hugh Johnson has done it again with his annual mini-encyclopedia. This latest edition of his annual pocket guide easily slips into its usual place—it was launched in 1977 and has been going strong ever since—as the most smart and useful pocket-sized wine guide on the market.

The genial British critic spans the wine world, surveying the scene, editorializing the big picture, while updating vintages reports, and offering sage advice on buying wine.

Johnson’s “If you like this, try this” section — always one of my favorites —suggests, “If you like Beaujolais, try Schioppetino.” Doesn’t ring any bells of familiarity? No worries, relevant explanation is provided. It’s a Friuly (northeast Italy region) grape that, in its simpler examples, calls to mind “really good Beaujolias”— Schioppetino, “has a fresh, green peppercorn note,” a “natural grace and a touch of blueberry fruit, along with floral notes and really good freshness.”

His regional overviews remain focused, brief, updated, and smart. His two pages on Israel are excellent guides. Roughly 40 Israeli wineries are mentioned and rated. His top rated winery is Tzora Vineyards (with the maximum four stars); followed by Castel, Clos de Gat, Margalit, and Sphera (these last three are not kosher).

While not exactly indispensable, Wine Folly: Magnum Edition – Master Guide by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack (Avery: 2018; 320 Pages; $35.00) is a surprisingly useful and genuinely easy to follow beginners guide. This edition is an extensive updating and expansion of their bestselling 2015 first edition, Wine Folly: The Essential guide to Wine, which itself was the book form of the wine knowledge they dispense on their hugely popular blog.

Wine Folly authors Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack

Wine Folly’s entry-level material is more visual than traditionally expository, driven by intelligently conceived and designed infographics, colorful diagrams, and charts. Moreover, the exposition that is provided tends to generality and simplicity, and favors brevity and clarity over the sort of poetry, pedantry, precision, and encyclopedic depth that wine bores like me naturally gravitate toward.

Wine Folly does an admirable job as “the pragmatist’s tool, designed to guide you on your path into wine,” and it will most assuredly “show you the basics and give you a solid foundation.”

There are some mild idiosyncrasies. In the “Rhone/GSM Blend” entry (pg, 156-7), the book avers that, “these three grapes [Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre] create the base of Southern France and Northern Spain’s most important red wine blends.” That doesn’t sound right to me. Mourvèdre (aka Monastrell in Catalonia) isn’t permitted within the regulations of Priorat, for example; Grenache, yes, Syrah, yes, but not Mourvèdre—one is more likely to find Merlot, Carignan, and Cabernet in their blends; does an entirely different “M” still qualify for “GSM”?

Wine Folly is fun and lighthearted, and because of its crafty visual concision is likely to educate wine newbies whether they intend to learn as much as it has to offer, or not.

Spirits-wise, British booze-writer Dominic Roskrow—why are so many of these folks British? — has written a smart and handsome new book: Whiskey America: The Essential Guide to the U.S. Distilling Revolution (Mitchel Beazley: 2018; 288 pages; $29.99). Herein Roskrow—the former editor of Whisky Magazine, The Spirits Business, and Whiskeria, and author of eight other books on whisky—attempts to unpack the veritable explosion of craft distillers in America, and give a context for consumers to “orientate themselves,” and to “embolden them to explore.”

Roskrow’s focus is on understanding the craft of the current distilling movement, so his historical and cultural treatments—from 1775 to today—are purposefully, and intelligently, light; adding just enough to paint the context and explore the evolution a little.

He deftly and briefly saunters through the big players, the craft pioneers, and some of the better micro-distillers. He asks and attempts to answer some important questions such as, “Why did the American craft revolution happen?”

The heart of the book is the chapter in which he surveys and highlights his “selection of America’s top craft distilleries” across 120 beautifully photographed pages. Among the included entries are the (kosher certified) Catoctin Creek in Purcellville, Vir., and Twin Valley Distillers in Rockville, Md. Every distillery I’d expect to find there was included, and dozens more I’d never even heard too.

One final note: More often than not, book-length treatments on whisky are rather boring—pseudo-academic tomes that are actively read and enjoyed by those of us in various stages of whisky-geekdom. Roskrow, by merciful contrast, writes in a genuinely engaging, clear, and succinct style, opting for veracity rather than marketing-corrected stories. Definitely worth picking up.


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