Some say writing about wine is like singing about architecture or dancing about painting.
In his fascinating autobiography “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink” (Blue Rider Press), Elvis Costello claims credit for hatching the same phrase in reference to writing about music.
No matter: It’s a popular metaphor because it speaks to the absurdity of using words to convey an aesthetic experience, subjective and even temporal, collected through sensory stimuli. Of necessity each of us will have slightly different experiences even when tasting the same wine; our sensitivities and preferences differ.
It’s the same when we read a book or watch a play; we’re only theoretically having the same experience. So take this holiday reading list as it was intended. I read a lot of biographies. When well told (like Costello’s book), you can learn more than the mere circumstances of how some (usually) famous person garnered all that fame, even if they are people renowned only in certain circles.
Richard G. Peterson is one of those guys. Among winemakers, he’s Keith Richards and Mick Jagger rolled into one, sans the sequins, leg kicks and drugs. But he’s crucial to modern wine in the same way the Stones changed the trajectory of rock ’n’ roll. His autobiography, “The Winemaker” (Meadowlark Publishing), is a great read: A Des Moines teenager starts making wine from Concord grapes and ends up charting the direction of wineries like Beaulieu Vineyard and Gallo.
Mike Grgich is the guy who actually made the white wine that won the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976; Chateau Montelena garnered the fame. Grgich’s beginnings are far less prosaic than Peterson’s; he escaped from Communist Yugoslavia in the 1950s by way of Germany, went to Canada, then to America and made good, and he squeezes it all into “A Glass Full of Miracles” (Violetta Press).
Things get even crazier in Peter Sichel’s lovely memoir, “The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy” (Archway Publishing). Sichel’s wine history encompasses much of Bordeaux, but Blue Nun, too.
But perhaps you are more engaged by wine tomes focusing on particular regions or wines. These days lots of people are trying to understand what in heaven’s name might be suggested when someone refers to a “natural” wine (a subject for a future column). But Monty Waldin’s “Biodynamic Wine” (Floris Books) will suffice in the meanwhile; academic but thorough and clear-eyed.
Rod Phillips’ new “French Wine: A History” (University of California Press) is even more candid, crashing and trashing some of the wine world’s favorite mythology to entertaining effect.
One of my chums, master sommelier John Szabo, has just published a book called “Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power” (Jacqui Small Publishers). It’s a lively shot across the bow of those who insist that wine has no flavor deriving from the soils in which it’s grapes are grown (spoiler alert: it does).
And I continue to explore one of last year’s excellent local books to better understand the community that has been good to me and my family. Andrea Broomfield’s “Kansas City: A Food Biography” (Rowman & Littlefield) is far less dry than you might have supposed. Our city has long prepared for its role as a place of great food and drink, and this fun read will show you why.
Bear in mind when I trot out any wine recommendations or reading lists for gift-giving, you must measure and weigh their benefit or charm to you or your gift recipient. It takes a lot of beer (or whiskey) to read about wine: I might pour a slug of Elijah Craig’s luscious 12-year-old small batch or Glenmorangie’s brilliant, complex new single malt Bacalta (aged in Malmsey Madeira barrels).
But that’s just me.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only four people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes wine column for The Star's Chow Town section and the Chow Town blog.