I joined the wine industry in 2001, firmly within the digital age. And while online content was nowhere near the level it is at today, Google and the internet were well established. Even so, I preferred flipping to clicking, and books have played significant roles in the various phases of my career. Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine was an early friend with broad but precise content that introduced me to wine on a global scale; Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine helped me fake my way through those first few months as a sommelier peddling old Burgundy and Bordeaux; Jancis Robinson’s rarely discussed Vintage Timecharts sketched out a truly compelling visual representation of the drinking arc of select wines over time; and Jay McInerney’s various hedonistic ramblings remain a good reminder to stop overanalyzing, enjoy the moment, and delight in wine’s more, shall we say, ecstatic qualities.
The above are only a few of the many publications that set me on my path and kept my inspiration humming. And though a fresh crop of wine books is released each year, I find myself returning with increasing frequency to the old standbys, uncovering fresh insight in their well-loved pages. In light of this, I decided to poll a handful of colleagues as to the most influential books of their nascent careers. Juliette Pope (former Gramercy Tavern wine director, current Louis/Dressner portfolio manager), Ray Isle (Food & Wine), Doug Frost, MW, MS (beverage boss for The Restaurant at 1900 in Kansas City), and MS Christopher Tanghe (GuildSomm) contributed to this article.
For aspiring sommeliers, Italy is the black hole. It has always been thus. In the late 70s, we knew absolutely nothing about Italian wine. Okay, we knew Chianti and Brunello; we knew Barolo and Barbaresco, and a bit of Amarone. Soave and Valpolicella sucked in those days (not like today), so we didn't care about them. Suddenly, this book by a guy from Minnesota took us so deep into the crazy diversity of vinous Oenotria that I realized I would never be able to plumb its depths, and I didn't care because I would never stop trying. I didn't care that there were 10,000 grapes there, or whatever it was. I just knew that I had to taste them all. Now I saw that France wasn’t the only thing—wine was far more diverse than I had imagined. Perhaps most importantly, I understood there were wines in places I did not know about that were worth pursuing, histories and cultures reflected in wine about which I wasn't yet aware that were to be treasured—and if I was willing to explore and taste, I might find great wine just about everywhere it was made. I’ve spent my career in that pursuit. Thank you, Burton.
One of my mentors—it was either Mendel Kohn or Mike Corso—turned me on to a little book from Michael Broadbent, written in 1968 and called, simply, Wine Tasting. It was a bomb of a book that blew off my rose-colored glasses and let me see the evaluation and scoring of wine for the subjective, sometimes cynical, often commercial, even occasionally corrupt process that it is. But the shenanigans weren’t the point of the book (though we might ask ourselves how many reviews of Rudy Kurniawan wines are still present in wine books and reviews). Instead, it helped me understand how cautious I needed to be as a taster. How I needed to recognize my own biases, from which I would never be wholly freed, and to be honest about that. Here’s what he wrote:
Each taster will be examining a wine in a different context…the winemaker with a parental eye, the buyer with price and market uppermost, the quality-control taster or chemist for condition and stability, the salesman for attractive qualities of price and style, the club member for education and amusement and the ultimate consumer with palate, pocket and future entertaining plans in mind.
Almost a decade before Kermit Lynch published his iconic Adventures on the Wine Route, Gerald Asher offered this 1982 tome, a collection of his writings, many of them published in Gourmet in the late 70s. I was lucky enough to know Gerald from his days as an importer, and I considered him the smartest man in winedom; he may still be. Gerald was able to describe the passion that certain producers brought to their wines, but he wasn't content to merely wax poetic, and he wasn't writing mostly about producers that he represented in the marketplace. He had other goals. He sorted out clonal differences in Beaujolais, back when the food there was more interesting than the wines. He explained Cornas, Hermitage, and Côte-Rôtie in an era when no one was drinking them. He was my first introduction to Domaine Tempier and profiled Lulu and Lucien Peyraud before Kermit Lynch scooped them up. He explained trocken German wines about three decades before Americans noticed them; wines of Baden, Württemberg, and Alsace are still waiting for American drinkers to comprehend what Asher wrote so long ago. He begged for balanced oak on Chardonnay, tried to popularize Sherry. In this, like so much, he was many years ahead of us. As a youngster in the trade, my silly questions annoyed the crap out of him—I remember that distinctly. But even while mostly from afar, I learned at his knee and am forever grateful.
[In the] early nineties, I was just getting into wine, and on my grad school income ($15 a week spare cash), this became my go-to shopping guide. The telegraphic descriptions were long enough to be intriguing and short enough to be mysterious; the quirky coding (bold, italic, asterisks) indicating top vintages, good wines, and whatnot was fun to decipher; and in a pre-Google-search era, the concentration of information was invaluable. Through the book, I discovered Chateau Reynella Basket Pressed Shiraz (at the time impressive; several corporate buyouts later, who knows), La Tour Blanche’s lovely Sauternes (a lonely "good value" in that category, as I recall), and the 1989 Château Meyney, of which I still have a couple of bottles—in retrospect, a pretty killer buy for my measly $14.99.
Later on, this was the book that made it clear to me that place, person, and story were what I cared about most when it came to wine, running far ahead of numbers and adjectives (thank God). Lynch is not just a groundbreaking importer, he’s an excellent writer, and by the end of the book, you almost feel as if you were there with him as he’s having dinner with Richard Olney and Lulu Peyraud of Domaine Tempier. But not quite, so I figured I’d better try to create a similar life for myself somehow.
A smart, engaging, informative, and aptly titled read that tracks a single glass of wine back to Josh Jensen and his creation of Calera (and obsession with Pinot Noir). I read this thinking, Well, that’s the sort of wine book I’d want to write if I wrote a wine book, and then I gave it to my father as a present, since he was still trying to figure out why the hell I’d left academia for wine (he was a professor himself). That in turn prompted him to go out and buy some Calera Pinot, and that in turn resulted in us memorably (for me at least) roaming together for a few days through Texas’s wine country outside Austin, a few years before he unexpectedly passed away. Every time I drink Calera I think of him, now.
Wine books are like action figures, records, and baseball cards—you want to collect them and put them on your shelf for visitors to admire, whether they are shiny and hot off the press or grossly out of date, regardless of how much of a nerd they make you appear to be. There’s a charm to flipping pages, feeling something tangible and textured instead of a glowing magical surface that changes with a touch. Information comes at you in a gentle wave rather than a tsunami of colors, links, and ads, allowing you to get lost in the story. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pocket oracle just as much as the next person, but books provide an escape to the old school. Over the years, I’ve grown my collection without discretion. It’s hard to pick just 3, so I’ll randomly pick from my top 10.
My first selection is the ever-so-thorough Inside Burgundy, by Jasper Morris, MW. It deciphers the complex family trees of those who rule Burgundy. Now you know which Morey or Esmonin made that wine you loved last night, and how their holdings are vastly different from those of the sibling, nephew, or distant cousin. It also breaks down most of the premier cru sites and maps out who makes wines from these sites, or has in the past. This is helpful when you are building a list and looking for value, allowing you to discover which blue-chip bottlings may be in your market by going after perhaps lesser-known sites a stone’s throw from grand cru. Lastly, if you want to really nerd out, there are maps of who owns which blocks in several grand crus such as Chambertin and Montrachet. While almost any bottle of Montrachet will blow your doors off, it is useful to see the source of a bottle of Corton or Clos de Vougeot, as the quality-to-price ratio can often be misleading. This was an indispensable guide while I was working at RN74 and studying for my Master’s exam.
I believe that Sherry is just as versatile at the table as Champagne but still largely misunderstood. Liem and Barquín have done a great job explaining the differences between biologically and non-biologically aged styles, especially the effects that flor has on the wines. The book dives into the chemical processes that happen during élevage, which really gives context to why the wines taste as they do, and will paint a clearer picture of where they will be successful as a pairing. The category is typically viewed as “Grandma’s Cream Sherry” by the bulk of average consumers, so the more information you have, the higher the likelihood of turning someone on to these wines. When I opened a Spanish program a few years ago, it was my goal to sell a 750-milliliter bottle of Sherry as the primary wine for a main course within six months, and we did it within the first two weeks. It just takes putting it in the right scenario to succeed, such as this initial and ridiculously delicious victory combo of Fernando de Castilla Amontillado and braised beef cheeks!
My last selection is Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking. During my studies to become a better sommelier, I initially found myself memorizing factoids, usually by flashcard, with the sole aim of being able to recall the information when needed. The problem was, I couldn’t. I all too slowly realized that without context, memorizing facts was fruitless. Context creates the anchor that holds the information in place, gives it meaning and purpose, and to do this, you always need to ask yourself “why?” It may take longer, but the information will make more sense and stick to your brain much, much longer. Postmodern Winemaking answers many of the whys and is an essential guide.
New York wine directors might have forgotten a force in our midst in the early aughts: David Lynch. But I never have or will, for before he decamped to the other coast, he rocked my little world of wine with Vino Italiano. I devoured it cover to cover. I geeked out and got him to sign it. I gave it as gifts to up-and-comers in the cellar. It became a regular reference source and thus a dog-eared companion. There hadn't been anything like it, a volume breaking down Italy, wine region by wine region, in English, in such a lively, lucid style. Each region, from the celebrated to the obscure, got its own chapter. Each chapter opened with an excellently detailed appellation map and key and ended with a handy summary of the vinous highlights detailed in the previous pages. But it was the introduction to each chapter where the real magic lay: I would be lured into a Friulian trattoria or a Sicilian gelateria or an Emilian acetaia, a viscerally and colorfully described scene that set the stage for the examination of wines of the region. And then that examination managed to be both academic and conversational, bringing in the voices of those who brought those wines to life. That slice of local life set me up to understand the context in which the wines came to be and to matter, both in their local culture and in the wider world of wine. History, language, science, war, gastronomy, personalities, and many other things tie into wines we love or admire. Vino Italiano brought that concept to life for me for the first time.
Long before I ever set foot in Burgundy, Clive Coates transported me there by tome. Côte d’Or became an indispensable resource for me, a source on the ground and of the ground, literally. Sure, I had become familiar with calcareous marl and other core concepts by then—but Bathonian versus Bajocian limestone? Cluniac versus Carthusian monastic orders? He took me on my first deep dive into the strata, not only of the soils but also the culture and history of Burgundy, elaborating on the nitty-gritty with such evident expertise and pleasure. New generations of old wine families usher in shifts in philosophy, practices, holdings, alliances, commerce, and such, and I love to keep up through more modern means, to be sure. But deep-down Burgundy doesn't change, and maybe neither does this reader: I will in my old-school heart remain true to the tradition and terroir transmitted on the 20-year-old printed page.
Jancis Robinson debuted this colossal work in 1994, the same year I became a line cook in New York, so it did not find its way into my burned and cut hands until my switch from the back to the front of the house at Gramercy Tavern, as a waiter in 2000. Oxford quickly became my best friend as I was plunged headfirst into the deep waters of wine, of which I had minimal experience or knowledge. Several years later, having become the wine director, I continued to the thumb the hell out of that thing regularly. It scratched just about all of my practical and wine-nerd itches. The only challenge was preventing myself from freefalling down the Oxford rabbit hole—wherein I might simply look up “Cinsault” for quick pointers and end up immersed in the pages on the whole of Burgundy, by way of anthocyanins, cordon training, and limestone—and lose an hour. But so much was gained from those spontaneous adventures, mainly pure joy in discovery. Three more editions have been published since, and one I’ve even had signed by my hero, so it has a special place—but Jancis had my heart, mind, and gratitude at the original Oxford.
Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Peynaud: Le Goût du Vin
Thanks, I will need to check them out at some point.