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Wine book reviews

  • November 27, 2002 - 10:00 PM

If you have a wine lover on your gift list -- or just want to buy something for yourself -- here are some of this season's best wine-book offerings.

"Vino Italiano, the Regional Wines of Italy," by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch (Clarkson Potter Publishing):

One thing I've learned about wine is that you don't really understand it until you've been to the place that it comes from. You have to smell the dirt, taste the food and shake the hands of the people who make it.

While I'm not quite ready to retreat from that principle, I must applaud the efforts of Bastianich and Lynch. When it comes to Italian wines, no other book has tried harder to explain why they taste the way they do -- and perhaps more important, where they come from in a cultural sense.

Bastianich is a wine importer and retailer as well as the owner of some of America's most prominent Italian restaurants, and Lynch is a former senior editor of Wine and Spirits magazine and is now the wine director at Babbo, one of Bastianich's restaurants.

Together they've smelled the dirt, tasted the food and probably played checkers all night with the people who make the wines that they write about.

Vino Italiano is not the "A Year in Provence" type of nonfiction that you can read cover-to-cover. It's just too dense with distracting trivia. Nor is it a simple glossary-guided reference book. Extensive writing on local foods, weather, soil and history go far beyond typical encyclopedia content. The region-by-region treatment of cuisine, culture and wine is heavily peppered with maps, recipes, anecdotes, insights about the local scene and up-to-the-minute wine recommendations. The trouble is, in the time it would take you to absorb the information in this book, you actually could experience it for yourself. Think of this book as a $30, 10-year tour of Italian wine to be digested in small sips.

The more I skim this daunting book, the better that $599 discount fare to Florence looks. And maybe that's the greatest compliment I could pay the authors.

"Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure," by Don & Petie Kladstrup (Broadway Books, paperback):

Don Kladstrup is a former network television correspondent in Paris, and prior to that a reporter for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis; Petie Kladstrup is a freelance writer. Their book came out last year in hardcover; the paperback was just released. While no great literary achievement, the authors succeeded in spades at compiling captivating wine-related stories of the German occupation of France during World War II.

By now, most of us know about the Nazis' cultural and economic looting during World War II. In the context of Nazi plundering and destruction, "Wine and War" tells the story of grape growers becoming resistance fighters, winemakers becoming international diplomats and wine merchants turned reluctant collaborators all to protect their cherished wine. "Wine and War" may be the best argument to date that many of us don't take wine seriously enough.

"The Pleasures of Wine: Selected Essays," by Gerald Asher (Chronicle Books):

To me, Gourmet magazine columnist Gerald Asher is almost a caricature of a venerable wine journalist. He dresses impeccably. He is genial, soft-spoken and a very good listener. In a pinch, he can be witty. Asher has been everywhere, he's met everyone. He even has a slight British accent. Had I not met him in person, I don't think I would have believed he actually existed.

This book compiles an assortment of Asher's substantial contributions on topics such as the history and state of Chateau Margaux, Napa Valley's Mount Veeder appellation, or the joys of Spain's great white grape, albariño.

What sets Asher's work apart is his keen sense of historical relevance, his graceful meter and the way he effortlessly weaves details, vintages, geography and garnishes into whatever wine story he is telling or, perhaps more accurately, observing.

In almost every essay, he lets the winemakers and history makers tell their own story with lengthy quotes, supplementing them with his own valuable insights, melding points of general interest that can draw in novice wine fans while he's simultaneously hypnotizing experts with nitty-gritty detail.

"Vintage France: Adventures Along the French Wine Route," by Jim Tanner (Writer's Club Press):

Edina lawyer Jim Tanner's account of his free-spirited travels through France's wine regions reads like a diary. There's a certain candor to it that draws you into the poorly marked rural roads of the French countryside and smoky Burgundian cafes. Tanner tends to gush like a boy in love, but that's understandable. "Vintage France" isn't so much a critical work as it is the story of a Midwesterner who dove into France with an appreciation of fine wine and an open mind and found, much to his surprise, the warm embrace of genuine friendship.

-- Tim Teichgraeber, formerly of Minneapolis, is a San Francisco wine writer and entertainment attorney. He can be reached online at timsky@pacbell.net.

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