Wine and Words: Books for Imbibers

Jul 5, 2009

During an enlightening lecture on Martin Heidegger, (a famous German existentialist philosopher), our professor profoundly noted that what you devote your time to is, in fact, a reflection of who you are.

Years later I applied his profundity to my own life and I can confidently if not conclusively say I am a wino.

I should rephrase that - a learned wino.

And you can be one, too.

It does engage a fair bit of one's time to learn about the eternal ins and outs of wine. But the knowledge isn’t esoteric. Learning about wine has become increasingly easier, far more than in previous decades.

I am voracious reader and I love a good book so let’s start with some of the best and more accessible texts on wine.

If I had to recommend two essential works, it would have to be Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course and Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. Both are widely available and both are highly readable.

Kevin Zraly’s book has sold 3 million copies. Over 19,000 students have eagerly attended his Windows on the World Wine School. He is perhaps the most famous wine educator in the United States.

Zraly’s book is a great coffee table volume. It is something you can pick up, peruse and put down on any given occasion, whether you have an hour or a few minutes. He begins with the basics of sensory wine appreciation then moves on towards a thorough breakdown of the world's greatest wine regions of the world. You can start just about anywhere in his book.

Karen MacNeil is the United States’ answer to Jancis Robinson, famed British wine critic and editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine. Like Jancis, she has hosted an award-winning televised wine program and has written numerous articles for The New York Times, Food & Wine and Wine Spectator.

The Wine Bible really is the Bible to consult in all matter relating to wine. You can take it anywhere, whereas Windows on the World is something you will treat with respect, lay down in plain and envious sight for guests to admire. I’ve watched colleagues reread, highlight and post-it note MacNeil’s book nearly to wearied shreds and tatters. Like a university text (but more fun), it is chock-a-block full of fascinating wine details on wine regions and the cultural nuances of the countries she discusses. This is the book you decisively lug along on your wine-buying excursions. It travels well, a sort of Lonely Planet for wine enthusiasts.

It’s summer time so I have to recommend what another university prof called bathtub reads (although he once dubbed Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time a bathtub read – far from it). You will also know them as ‘beach reads’.

I am a patriotic Canadian so I urge everyone to pick up a copy of Ottawa-native Natalie MacLean’s Red, White and Drunk All Over. This book is pure pleasure. You can read this at the beach (but I highly recommend the bathtub so you can have a glass of wine with your ‘bubbly’).

MacLean’s prose is fervent, fun and unpretentious. Her passion for wine is so contagious you’ll want to visit Burgundy and Italy and host your own tasting parties. Also, check out her website, Nat Decants at

If you’re looking for a little history and another leisurely read, I recommend Wine and War: The French, The Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. This volume is ideal for wine lovers who also can’t get enough of the History Channel. You’ll learn how the French sabotaged German trains, outsmarted Nazi wine dealers and hid their most precious vintages. This book is so fascinating and fabulous, non-wine lovers might just get the wine bug after finishing it. (Another Kladstrup tome to take to the beach: Champagne: How The World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Time is another page-turner you shouldn’t miss.)

The most well-respected wine journal is Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. Parker fell in love with wine while on a trip to France to visit his college girlfriend. Back in the States, he graduated, practiced law but on the side began to devote himself to writing what he considered a ‘democratic’ wine magazine. He left the law to focus on wine criticism shortly after subscriptions to his journal sky-rocketed in the early 80s.

Whereas Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast and most wine magazines are inundated with advertisements, Parker’s periodical remains impeccably bare. He is also on the web at

I mention Parker with some trepidation. The man’s nose and palate are incredible and he has been known to name a wine after a blind tasting (for more details on Parker's life: Elin McCoy’s The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker J., and the Reign of American Taste) but there is a dark side to his influence. You will get to know the trends and wine imbibing fashions of our time simply because he creates them. Wine producers throughout the world have been known to doctor wines to make them more appealing to Parker's palate. If you notice that the majority of top-selling and expensive wines are big, lush ‘fruit-bombs’ (colloquial phrase referring to rich concentrated flavours) it is because Parker has awarded them 90+ points (the equivalent of getting an A in high school). The point system was devised by him and is imitated by many international wine critics.

I will also recommend Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast but only for their articles. It is not that I don’t trust their scoring and recommendations, it’s just that the magazines are American publications and some of the wines they rate aren’t available in Canada. Instead, I urge Canadian wine aficionados to turn to Wine Access and Vines. Both focus on Canadian content as well as international. The articles are informative, fun, there are plenty of good recipes and tips while the wines they score are easily available in most major cities and priced conveniently in Canadian dollars.

Besides me, you can get on YouTube and type in the name of a variety or a region. Google or Wiki your favourite grapes.

If you’re looking for something more intense and in your face, look no further than

GaryVaynerchuk, like Parker, is another influential figure. What is it about Americans? When they take on something, their presence is huge just as as their celebrities are bigger than life. Vaynerchuk is what would happen if a frat boy got hooked on wine and started to educate his friends about it. He is a walking exclamation mark. Whereas British wine critics Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson are known for their subtlety, their very English evocations of wine, Vaynerchuk’s online show is over the top.

But he has true enthusiasm for what he does. Born in the former USSR, his family emigrated to New Jersey in the late 1970s. Vaynerchuk grew up around wine and became co-owner and Director of Operations at his father’s Wine Library store. He doesn’t describe wine in typical fashion – again think frat boy – but instead uses words like ‘baseball glove’ to describe a rustic French wine or ‘oak monster’ when a wine has been heavily treated with wood. He calls his program The Thunder Show and refers to his fans as ‘Vayniacs’ and the ‘Vayner Nation’. He has also been featured on Conan O’Brien and Ellen.

You’ll learn a lot from Vaynerchuk. He’s crazy, fun and definitely approachable and best of all, he likes to explore all the nooks and crannies of the wine world. You’ll either love him or hate him. He is definitely influential and another great place to start. (UPDATE: Vaynerchuk has started another internet wine education program called the The Daily Grape after completing his thousandth episode of Wine Library.)

These are just a few places to begin. There are classes you can take, either through Wine & Spirit Education Trust or the International Sommelier Guild. If you’re looking at something much more casual then continuing and general education classes at your local universities and colleges these two are the way to go.

Once you get going, you’ll learn more and suddenly realize you can’t stop.

Every bottle is a journey for your palate. But it’s nice to be prepared.

This wino is still learning.

A drop of wine's inscribed upon your lips.
Adam Jagajewski 'Little Waltz'

Windows on the World Wine Course – Kevin Zraly
The Wine Bible – Karen MacNeil
Red, White and Drunk All Over – Natalie MacLean
Wine and War: The French, The Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure - Donald and Petie Kladstrup
Champagne: How The World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Time – Donald and Petie Kladstrup
The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste – Elin McCoy

The Wine Advocate (US) Wine Spectator (US) Wine Enthusiast (US)
Vines (CAN) Wine Access (CAN)


Natalie MacLean July 12, 2009 at 1:31 PM  

Thanks so much for recommending my book Robert! Have a wonderfully wine-soaked summer.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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