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The Best Wine Books for Beginners

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

Want books with a little substance to take to the beach? Perhaps you're just getting serious about wine but don't really know where to start learning more. Maybe you find yourself in the aisles of your local wine shop, wishing you could decode the labels and find something great that you haven't sipped on before.

Or maybe you're looking for a gift for the wine-dabbler in your life. Whatever the reason, we've got you covered. Here are eight great wine books for reading now and referring back to later.

Two Favorites

06232010drinkthis.jpgDrink This: Wine Made Simple by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: This author doesn't just recite information about wine for you to memorize. Instead, she provides a roadmap to teaching yourself about wine by tasting it for yourself. She goes grape by grape suggesting which bottles you should try to really get a sense of each varietal. Want to know Chardonnay? Have a tasting party with the five wines she suggests, consider the questions she asks as you sample, and by the end, you'll have a pretty good idea how Chardonnay varies across regions and winemaking styles, and most importantly, which you like best. This book is fun and easy to read; a practical guide you can start using right away. We only wish she explored more varietals (hey, Dara, how about a sequel?). Available online, $17.16

Who is it for: Hands-on learners who'd rather sip than study, and want a deeper knowledge of classic wine grapes. Perfect for those not yet ready to invest their time in a hefty tome.


20100623robinson.jpgGreat Wine Made Simple by Andrea Immer Robinson
This slightly more expansive book is friendly and approachable—the Robinson's goal is to get people comfortable with wine. Her reassuring guidance includes a toolbox of helpful wine terms (along with tasting suggestions to bring these terms to life.) She helps readers learn how to predict if they'll like an unfamiliar wine based on where it's grown, suggesting how to anticipate what a wine will taste like before you buy. After the basics, she moves on to suggest good values in various wine regions. As you read, you get the sense that the author is on your side. Available online, $18.45

Who is it for: Those who feel a little overwhelmed looking at restaurant wine lists and browsing the aisles of the wine shop.

Truly Starting from Scratch?

20100707dummies.jpgWine All-in-One for Dummies by Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, and Maryann Egan
This book combines some general introductory material with quite useful, and specific, guides to wine from France, Italy, California, New Zealand, Australia, and several other regions. It helps readers decode wine labels from different areas and what to expect from different indigenous grapes and regional styles. It's approachable and not overly technical, and includes specific producer recommendations for each region. Though it's not a beautiful book, it's an easy-reading reference. Available online, $19.79

Who is it for: Someone who really wants to learn about wine (starting from pretty much zero), or those looking to try out wine regions or grapes that are new to them.

Especially for Food Lovers

20100707winewise.jpgWineWise by Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith, and Michael Weiss For those focused on enjoying wine with food, this is a great resource. The authors compare different regions that grow the same varietal and let you know what flavors to expect from each—along with advice about which dishes might go best with, say, a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc versus one from New Zealand. They recommend producers in well-known and less-popular regions, and suggest great values you might see on restaurant wine lists or in your local wine shop. In order to find the best pairings, the authors sort food and wine by body and intensity—it's helpful to think of the spectrum from just-cracked crab to rich sea urchin, or from radishes to heavier chanterelles. There are wine suggestions for cuisines around the world with pairings for foods ranging from Algeria to Jamaica, mu shu pork to moules frites. While it's not an exhaustive list, this is a great place to turn for pairing inspiration. Available online, $19.77

Who is it for: Those already pretty comfortable with wine lingo who are looking for wines to enjoy with meals and are interested in lesser-known wine regions and budget finds.


20100623oldman.jpgOldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine by Mark Oldman This well-written book walks readers through varietals and the styles of major wine regions in a tone that makes for nice beach reading. I particularly enjoyed the survey answers sprinkled throughout the book: it's fun to find out what Charlie Trotter's favorite Riesling is, or which Chianti the wine director at New York's Gramercy Tavern recommends. I can imagine returning to these sections along with Oldman's lists of 50 best buys in whites, reds, and bubblies, though I sometimes felt that his recommendations were solid, commonly available wines, not little-known gems. Available online, $13.60

Who is it for: beginning-to-intermediate hobbyists who want specific recommendations.

For the Serious Student

20100623zraly.jpgWindows on the World Complete Wine Course (25th Anniversary Edition) by Kevin Zraly
Don't have time for a formal wine course, but craving the advice of an expert? This matter-of-fact textbook is mostly in question-and-answer format, walking the reader through the major wines made around the world, recommending what you should buy (down to the specific vintage) and what you can expect. Each "class" includes instructions for a comparative tasting; if you can track down Zraly's suggested wines, you'll have an expert by your side as you sample them. The book includes helpful color maps along the author's thoughts on how different wine regions have evolved over the last 25 years. While this book is not the most entertaining on the list, it really answers questions you might have along your wine journey. Available online, $15.97

Who is it for: The serious student who wants a classical education in the great wine of the world.

Proof That Loving Wine Does Not Make You a Snob

20100707swallowthis.jpgSwallow This by Mark Phillips
Sometimes the level of snarkiness in this book goes over the top, but Phillips provides an accessible guide to enjoying wine. He talks a bit about what to expect from different wine regions and grapes, but where he stands out from the pack is in his efforts to demystify wine and provide down-to-earth tips to help you enjoy it. Phillips isn't afraid to tell you to warm your wine in the microwave or pour two half-bottles together after a party. Available online, $12.89

Who is it for: Someone with a sense of humor. If you're sick of feeling like an outsider in a pack of wine snobs, and you really just want tips on how to enjoy wine, check this one out.

The Reference Book You'll Come Back To

20100607oxford.jpgThe Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson
As your study of wine deepens, you may have questions that the books mentioned above don't answer. You may want more background on an unusual grape or part of the winemaking process. This encyclopedic tome has details, from abboccato ("Italian for medium sweet") to zymase ("group of enzymes which encourage the conversion of glucose and fructose into ethyl alcohol during fermentation"). It includes the history of different districts and grape-growing practices, terms you might hear from wine professionals, and pretty much anything else you might want to look up when you're thinking about wine. While this is definitely not the only book a beginner needs, it's a worthy acquisition that will stand by you as your knowledge of vino advances. Available online, $40.95

Who is it for: Lifelong oenophiles who crave detailed answers to their wine-related questions.

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