Books about wine tend to be like manuals about sex - a poor and sometimes frustrating surrogate for the real thing. But when they're good, they do more than make you thirsty. They stand on their own merits, either through artful photography or - ideally - thoughtful prose. Here are a few titles this season that break the tired mould of Wine 101-style primers, lifeless encyclopedias and self-indulgent travelogues.
Virtually all wine critics treat their subject as little more than a consumable, something to be reviewed, ranked and, ideally, recommended. Theirs is, for the most part, a get-to-the-chase universe of scores, stars and blackberry-cassis-chocolate descriptors. Those who try their hand at actual writing tend to wax reverentially, sometimes sycophantically, about this estate or that winemaker. (Yes, I'm guilty too.) Then there's Matt Kramer, a critic in the best tradition who recognizes that wine also is a lucid mirror of social aspirations and insecurities, a signifier of taste in the broadest sense. It's a shame he's not better known.
Mr. Kramer plies his trade mainly in the pages of Wine Spectator, the U.S. journal coveted by collectors. He also writes books. His seventh and latest, Matt Kramer on Wine ($25.95, Sterling Epicure), finally assembles many of his most trenchant columns, covering such provocative topics as women's superior taste buds and the frequent disappointment of cellared bottles.
His is an unconventional voice amid a chorus of conformity. Mr. Kramer has never employed a point-scoring system in his 30-plus years as a wine writer but convincingly defends the practice. And while he clearly knows his Montrachet from his Meursault (he wrote a book called Making Sense of Burgundy), he regularly plays down his technical skill at the spittoon. Imagine that, a humble wine critic.
The book is helpfully sectioned into topics. France, California and his beloved Italy get chapters, as do such topics as collecting and terroir. Ever the myth buster, Mr. Kramer, in a chapter titled Wine Hokum, enlists the help of a university chemist to prove that those air-pump gizmos designed to preserve opened wine by sucking excess air out of the bottle don't work.
He is at his iconoclastic best in a chapter on wine judging, wherein he challenges, among other things, the merits of blind tasting and the need, at least in the United States, for the hyped up credential bestowed by Britain's hallowed Institute of Masters of Wine, "the "self-appointed arbiter of winedom's elect."
You can disagree with Mr. Kramer's take (and probably often will), but the words keep you enthralled. In a chapter titled The Low-Cut Dress Syndrome, he unravels the tyranny of trade tastings that tend to involve two-dozen or more wines. Just as any straight male surveying an elegant party will lock on the woman "wearing the lowest-cut dress that's filled out the best," he says, marathon wine events inevitably favour saturated liquids with bold flavour, not those with subtler complexity. In that context, "Versace beats Armani every time."
The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels ($50, Santa Monica Press) celebrates what many earnest consumers and critics like to de-emphasize: the power of packaging. Torontonian Tanya Scholes, a floral designer who worked in the advertising and design industry, has assembled something unusual - an absorbing coffee-table book on wine with not a château, vineyard or ruddy-faced vintner in sight.
This handsome hardcover flows and sparkles like a properly poured Champagne. About 250 producers get a page or two each, with the bulk of the space devoted to the actual labels, supported by mercifully short descriptions.
The books greatest strength is Ms. Scholes's keen eye. She is unburdened by reverence merely for the overpriced icon wines (though they get their due with such brands as Sine Qua Non, Mouton and Scarecrow). Big House, the irreverent cartoon label created by Californian Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon fame, is here. So are an inordinate number of Canadian brands, such as Megalomaniac, Dirty Laundry, Blasted Church, Organized Crime and Malivoire. All but the last, notably, are the offspring of Brandever, a Vancouver design house that has garnered numerous international awards.
In fact, the book almost begs for sidebars on Brandever and other key creative forces (Chuck House from California is another) that have breathed life into the generally banal world of wine packaging. Another shortcoming: There's too much emphasis on the origins of the cute brand names and not enough on the artists and stylistic influences.
Wondering what to get the wealthy Bordeaux collector on your gift list but can't find, afford or otherwise justify a $500 bottle of top-flight claret? Consider feeding his or her passion with Grands Crus Classés: The Great Wines of Bordeaux with Recipes from Top Chefs of the World ($78, Stewart Tabori & Chang). It's a tad pretentious, yes, and its poundage could make handy winter ballast for a rear-wheel-drive Bentley. But it's worth its weight in culinary seduction.
The 87 châteaux distinguished by the famous 1855 Bordeaux classification - Latours, Lafite and the like - are all here with photos and short histories. But the big draw is the food, which includes creations from Spain's Ferran Adria, Denmark's Rene Redzepi, Italy's Luisa Marelli Valazza, South Korea's Hyo Nam Park and Thomas Keller from the United States.
Some of the dishes, each with a full-page photo, resemble abstract art or jewellery, and the cooking directions can read like the maintenance manual for an Airbus 380. But some seem surprisingly realistic for the home cook. I'm tempted to take a stab at Hong Kong chef Wai Kwan Chui's Tenderly Braised Beef Flank even if I can't afford a mature vintage of the suggested pairing, Château Langoa Barton. Who knows, a Burrowing Owl Cabernet Sauvignon from British Columbia might work just fine.
Other noteworthy books include:
Opus Vino, ($85, DK) Jim Gordon, editor of California-based Wines & Vines magazine, has compiled concise descriptions of more than 4,000 wineries written by a small army of experts. A handy reference for the wine geek.
Billy's Best Bottles: Wines for 2011, Billy Munnelly ($19.95, billysbestbook.com) More than 300 lively recommendations, most of them widely available and between $10 and $16, from Canada's most joyously unpretentious palate.
The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2011, Rod Phillips ($19.95, Whitecap) Ottawa-based Mr. Phillips offers a five-star rating system on wines sold in Ontario, grouped by region.