The best wine books act as guides, but they may do so in markedly different ways. They might be literal guides, transporting us to another place. They might help us navigate the daunting world of food-wine pairing. They might shine a beacon on how wine is, or should be, made. Or they might just point to great bottles at reasonable prices. This year brought us superb volumes in all those areas, including two in the "swell stuff to buy" vein.
Edited by Jim Gordon and featuring a boatload of great writers, "1,000 Great Everyday Wines From the World's Best Wineries" ($25, DK, 352 pages) looks at non-flagship bottlings from stellar vintners. Some folks like to call these "off brands," but there's nothing "off" about the wines I've tasted from such far-flung wineries as Bodegas Muga (Spain), Mitolo (Australia), Castello Banfi (Italy) and Au Bon Climat (California).
In a slightly different vein, George Taber offers up "A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks" ($16, Scribner, 320 pages). I learned a lot about the history of the wine biz and how people taste, but many readers might skip to the book's back end for listings, mostly by varietal, of Taber's recommended un- spendy bottles. I would quibble with some of his choices, but this book would make a great gift for an enthusiast in the early stages of exploring wine.
Those further along on their viniferous journey will enjoy "Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking" ($29.95, University of California Press, 272 pages). Author Jamie Goode examines one of the foremost issues in the wine world: organic/sustainable growing and intervention, or lack of it, in the winemaking process. It's not as geeky as it sounds; Goode is a scientist, but he deftly writes in layman's terms.
The writing crown for 2011, however, goes to Gerald Asher for his compilation "A Vineyard in My Glass" ($29.95, University of California Press, 288 pages). These correspondences are filled with wit and wisdom, an open heart and mind. Asher journeys through Europe and the United States, to explain how chenin blanc has found a home in both France's Vouvray area and Clarksburg, Calif., or what Soave should and shouldn't taste like. (For more on Asher, go to www.startribune.com/a883)
Still, my favorite wine book this year, the one that will end up with the most worn pages, is Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg's "The Food Lover's Guide to Wine" ($35, Little, Brown & Co., 352 pages). A worthy followup to their fabulous "What to Eat With What You Drink," it's packed with practical and clever advice on elevating meals, making both the food and beverage taste better, whether a mundane Monday dinner or a weekend entertaining extravaganza. In other words, enhancing our lives, which is what wine, and reading about it, should be all about.