Fred Tasker: Books for wine lovers

Published: Wednesday, May. 14, 2014 - 12:00 am

What kind of person reads a 640-page book listing all 2,000 native Italian grapes? Or an off-the-wall mystery that involves murder in a vineyard in Provence?

Why, it’s one of us – a wine fan. If we can’t drink it all day long, we can at least spend a few dozen sultry summer hours reading about it.

Here are some reads that I liked:

•  “The Science of Wine – From Vine to Glass (second edition)” by Jamie Goode (University of California Press 2014, $39.95, 216 pages): When “un-manipulated” is the buzzword in winemaking, it’s stunning how much modern science has changed the process.

Jamie Goode is the man to tell us. He’s wine columnist for The Sunday Express in London, and he has a doctorate in plant biology. A persuasive iconoclast, he spills the beans on the widespread but little-discussed use of “reverse osmosis” to mechanically lower the alcohol of wines made in hot California climates that get grapes so ripe they can have up to 17 percent alcohol instead of the desired 13 or so.

He challenges the sacred French concept of “terroir,” the idea that the soil – chalky, flinty, slatelike – in which vines are grown, influences the flavor of wines. It’s technical stuff, but Goode’s background helps him make it compelling. It’s a splendid read for serious wine fans.

•  “Death in the Vines” by M.L. Longworth (Penguin, 2013, $15 in paperback, 305 pages): The Provence winery owner suspects an inside job – someone has broken into his private cellar and stolen an expertly selected group of his finest wines. The plot thickens when the eccentric wife of a friend goes on a crying jag, disappears altogether and is found in his vineyard – dead. Off-beat characters, lots of neat wine trivia and a real summer beach page-turner.

•  “The World of Sicilian Wine” by Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino, (University of California Press, 2013, $34.95, 320 pages): Wine first came to Sicily in the eighth century B.C., with Greek and Phoenician settlers. In early days Sicily’s wines served the Roman upper class, with urns found in the ruins of Pompeii. Sicily was put on the world wine map after 1770, when a British merchant chose its grapes to make marsala, a sturdy dessert and cooking wine fortified with brandy, as a cheaper alternative for Portugal’s popular madeira.

A wave of modernization in the 1980s and 1990s brought such international grapes as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

It’s a nifty guide to an up-and-coming wine area.

•  “Down to Earth: A Seasonal Tour of Sustainable Winegrowing in California” by Janet Fletcher with photos by George Rose (Wine Institute 2013, $34.95, 256 pages): For all their good intentions, many California grape growers have found it isn’t practical or economically feasible to farm in a way that’s entirely organic. Wente Vineyards, for example, uses all natural fertilizers from kitchen waste to fish heads, but might apply a very occasional spray of weed-killing herbicide to avoid the extra expense of hoe labor or the extra fuel and pollution of tractor tilling. Honig Vineyards fights harmful insects with bat boxes and bird houses in the vineyard and puts its wine in lighter-weight bottles to save energy. It’s a new way of growing called “sustainable farming.” Compelling text and beautiful photos by two veteran journalists.

•  “Native Wine Grapes of Italy” by Ian d’Agata (University of California Press 2014, $50, 640 pages): This Rome-based wine writer for Decanter Magazine and others has attempted to count every grape that is native to his country. His totals: 2,000 varieties, 1,000 of them well-identified by experts, and 600 in significant wine production. His 640-page tome tells how they’re grown and how they taste.

Read more articles by Fred Tasker

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