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Top Wine Books For Winter Reading

A new crop of wine books reflect dramatic changes in the world of wine

Felicity Carter By January 3, 2022
book and wine placed next to bed
Photo illustration by Pix

There was a time when wine writing followed a predictable path: a writer would set off to discover a wine region, and return with tales of rugged winemakers and bucolic landscapes. A new wave of wine writing is doing things differently, by looking at wine in the wider social context, and considering the challenges and costs, as well as the triumphs. Here are four books that stood out in 2021.

Portugal has more than 250 grape varieties, 13 different spectacular wine regions, and a history of winemaking that goes back for at least 4,000 years. And yet it’s only been in the last decade or so that it’s burst onto the world’s wine scene. Why? This is the question that Ryan Opaz and Simon J. Woolf set out to answer in their book “Foot Trodden” and, soon enough, they find an answer. It’s not because Portugal’s vignerons were keen to hide themselves from the world, it’s that they’ve been fenced in by an impenetrable wall: bureaucracy. This isn’t bureaucracy in the sense of too many forms to fill in, but rather a series of legal measures taken to extract maximum value from Portugal’s growers, and transfer it to others, whether that was British shippers in the 18th century or the political standing of the authoritarian Salazar government in the 20th. The result has been a wine sector characterized by big brands at one end, and grower poverty at the other.

In a series of interlocking essays, “Foot Trodden” celebrates the stubborn growers, mavericks, and newcomers who are working to uncover and showcase the treasures hidden in Portugal’s soils. Take the mineral wines of Colares, grown on soil so sandy that growers had to wear buckets on their heads when planting vines; if the walls of the newly-dug trenches caved in, the air inside the buckets would give them literal breathing space until rescue.

Most importantly, the book isn’t wine writing as usual, presenting wine production as an Instagram fairy tale. Running alongside the celebratory stories are constant reminders of the difficulties facing winegrowers, and a recognition of how tough the people are who take the challenge. The excellent photographs by Ryan Opaz are perfectly integrated with the text.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that “Foot Trodden” was co-authored by Ryan Opaz and Simon J. Woolf. An earlier version attributed the text to Simon J. Woolf.

As a child visiting relatives, Wine Spectator’s contributing editor Robert Camuto found Italy to be a carefree place, full of elegant adults, long lunches, and intoxicating fragrances. As an adult who has made it his home, he finds it a place where you can pass from “the apogee of civilization to the depths of the third world” within minutes. It’s this contradiction that he sets out to explore in this look at Italy’s southern regions, where some of the country’s most exciting wine making is happening, but which still grapples with its legacy of poverty and organized crime.

Camuto is an accomplished writer, who has the enviable skill of being able to depict three-dimensional people without passing editorial judgment on them: when one winemaker rails against organic methods, Camuto just lets him speak. But his next character is a winemaker who is using organic methods and thriving. Likewise, when Camuto is hustled off to lunch by a man who leaves his exhausted wife back in the winery, cleaning out the barrels, he lets the reader draw their own conclusions. What emerges is a picture of a place in flux, as newcomers with money and new ideas see possibilities that the locals often don’t, while homegrown producers whose families were desperately poor just a generation ago now find themselves feted as winemaking celebrities in New York and London, and aren’t sure what to make of it. 

I do have some minor niggles. Published by the University of Nebraska, the book is part of their “At Table” series, which could be why Camuto spends so much time describing meals. He conveys taste and flavor well, but I began to wish there was less food and more background about why some of these spectacular regions remain mired in poverty and stunted ambition. Camuto will also bring something up, only to leave it hanging, unanswered. One winemaker, for example, says he’s decided he will never have a family, making him the last of his line; Camuto casually mentions there are many such many men in Italy. But instead of explaining why, Camuto immediately changes the subject. As I said, these are minor points, because overall the book is well written and well-paced — I read it in one evening.

If you want an insider’s understanding of some of the most exciting wine revolutions going on in Italy, this is the book.

British journalist Amanda Barnes moved to Argentina in 2009 and was there until the border closures in 2020 prevented her from returning. In her time there, she traveled extensively across the continent to seek out wines and winemakers, going way beyond the Malbecs of Argentina and the Cabernet Sauvignons of Chile.

Barnes starts the book in Peru, which has a history of wine dating back to Spain’s colonization in the 16th century; the handful of wineries operating today represent just a fraction of the country’s heritage. From there she moves to Bolivia, where Jesuit missionaries used to plant vines near Molle, or pepper trees, so the vines could climb the trees. Next comes Argentina, then Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, with nods towards the vines grown in other parts of the continent.

It’s a comprehensive work that includes a historical overview of each country, plus their grapes, regions and significant wineries, and even wine recommendations. Barnes even offers insider tips about how to avoid pickpockets, and where to find wifi. The artwork, maps, and photography are a real strength, being both lavish and vivid. This is available as an e-book from major online book sites, but rather than spending time scrolling through a pdf, I strongly recommend buying it as a physical book from Barnes’ own website, as it’s an ideal reference book to have on the shelf. 

While Steven Spurrier, who died in March this year, is best remembered for organizing the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, he made many other contributions to wine. One such was the founding of the Académie du Vin Library in 2019. Named for the Académie du Vin wine school that Spurrier founded in Paris in 1973 — the first private wine school in France — it’s a boutique publishing house dedicated to showcasing top wine writing, both new and classic.

“On California,” published in 2021, looks at the development of California’s wine from a wide range of perspectives. Hugh Johnson starts the series with an entertaining look at the larger-than-life Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy, responsible for bringing many new vines into California, and the book moves at a smart clip to Jane Anson’s brief history of how Cabernet Sauvignon arrived on its shores, and then on to essays new and old. Everything is here, from the rise of Zinfandel, to the Gallos, to the post-Parker era.

The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of wine writing and not surprisingly for a British publishing house, there are many British experts featured here, who bring the keen gaze of outside observers to bear on the Golden State. This is the perfect book for anybody who wants a deep understanding of California, gained through readable, incisive essays. The Académie du Vin books are beautifully bound, a handsome addition to any bookshelf.

Simon J. Woolf and Amanda Barnes are occasional contributors to The Drop.