Influential Wine Books: Part 2

In this second installment of our Influential Wine Books series, I asked four wine professionals for a list of books that guided or inspired them at various points in their careers. I love this article series for many reasons. First, it has turned me on to a number of rewarding reads, and second, it has provided a peek into the heart and soul of some of the people I admire most in wine. I recently watched a film wherein FBI profilers gleaned critical insight into their subjects’ characters by examining their personal libraries. In this same way, I offer you a glimpse inside the brains of Alice Feiring, , Patrick Comiskey, and .

About the Contributors

Alice Feiring is a prolific, accomplished writer and creator of the newsletter The Feiring Line. She is considered by many to be leading the conversation surrounding “natural wine” and is also the author of four books: The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, Naked Wine, For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture, and The Dirty Wine Guide.

Cathy Corison is a trailblazing California winemaker. During her long career, she has crafted wine for some of the state’s most important brands, including Staglin, Chappellet, Long Meadow Ranch, York Creek, and Yverdon. She is best known for her personal project, Corison, under which she consistently produces some of the most elegant and profound examples of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley.

Patrick Comiskey is a writer of prodigious talent. He regularly contributes to Wine & Spirits, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications. At Wine & Spirits, he is the critic for all non-California domestic wine. His book American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink was published in 2016.

David Keck, Master Sommelier and gentleman, is a longtime star of the Houston wine scene. He was formerly the wine director of Camerata and is currently a partner in the Goodnight Hospitality restaurant group. This fledgling empire includes a honky-tonk named Goodnight Charlie’s and will soon open both a wine shop and a restaurant.

Favorite Books

Alice Feiring

In the Vine Country, by Edith Somerville & Martin Ross

Years ago, the wine writer Clive Coates introduced me to this charming travelogue through post-phylloxera Bordeaux. I’ve been grateful ever since. Published in 1893, this is the account of two cousins who, with their Irish-accented poor French, land in Bordeaux. It is harvest, and a time when all of the wine was foot-trodden and the vines looked like “green corduroy.” It is a needed reminder that today’s land of the big brand was once a far humbler place. Oh—and it’s a great read as well.

One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, by Masanobu Fukuoka

The most poetic book on farming, this is the classic, by Masanobu Fukuoka, written in 1975. Today, more than biodynamics, his kind of “do-nothing farming” is the most relevant trend in farming naturally. I remember rereading passages for their soul and their beauty, and they helped me understand the earth as a living entity that one had to observe and listen to. While not directly about the vine, it was essential for my entrée into the world of the balance of nature.

The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World, by Lawrence Osborne

When in his 2004 book, Osborne wrote, “Garage wines are typically made by wealthy individuals who imitate artisanal wines—as a public personal hobby,” it had the ring of truth about it. The book—in a way, a companion piece to the film Mondovino (at the time, Osborne and Jonathan Nossiter were good friends)—is as relevant today as it was then. His topic: what makes a wine worth separating fools from money. As a polyglot, I was in awe of his ability to have discourse with so many different winemakers in their own language. As a colleague, his exquisite writing made me feel competitive, to best not him, but myself. I am sure that I wrote The Battle for Wine and Love with Accidental sitting on my shoulder.

Cathy Corison

The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson

I took a wine appreciation class on a whim when I was a sophomore studying biology at Pomona College in 1973, at the tender age of 19. Wine grabbed me by the neck and ran with me, but it was difficult to learn about wine in the vacuum that was Southern California in the early ‘70s. I devoured The World Atlas of Wine, which had been published only two years before. In those days, fine wine was basically French wine. I think I was lucky to learn from the beginning that one of the most important things about wine is that it can speak of both time and place. It wasn’t until many years later that I had the opportunity to actually visit some of the places that the book had so vividly brought alive. Six editions later, it remains an important reference for me, as it has been revised relentlessly over time to reflect the increasingly diverse and far-flung nature of fine wine.

The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson & Julia Harding

Probably the most important wine reference book ever published, and meticulously kept up to date over four editions, this book is always at hand. As the wine world [has] evolved over more than two decades, Jancis’ curiosity and inclusiveness continue to paint an accurate picture of the entire subject. She and Julia oversee an exhaustive collection of top contributors from all over the world. Oh, and if you ever need a doorstop in high winds, it works great.

The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil

My career has been influenced by two major factors. First, as a biologist, that wine is the result of a complex collaboration of many living systems, and second, as a wine lover, that wine is delicious, we share it with friends and family, and it is part of the fabric of our society. Another reference to keep close at hand, whoever you are, this tour de force speaks to anyone, at any level of interest or knowledge. It’s a constant reminder that wine can meet us on so many levels. At its most basic, it’s great at washing down your food, but at its most profound, it can embrace the entire universe. This book reminds me why I love wine so much.

Patrick Comiskey

In this profession, different books serve very different purposes. As my career nears the end of its second decade, I’ve had several stepping stones, but the one that may have been the most life-changing was [discovering] the domestic historical texts I used in my research for American Rhône. I may not read the books every day, but I cherish them. I spent hours in libraries researching the early years of Rhône varieties in California soil [and found] astonishing early research conducted by scholars and tradesmen alike. For those eager to dive down this rabbit hole, please type “wine” in the search engine at archive.org, and look at the work of Charles Wetmore, Eugene W. Hilgard, and George Husmann, as well as the pages of the Pacific Wine and Spirit Review.

But here are three more modern books that have been valuable to me at various stages of my career. The first guided me as a newbie in wine. The second continues to inspire my prose. The third reminds me that wine is above all a human endeavor, and contributes to the most human of stories.

Exploring Wine, by Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith, & Michael A. Weiss

I’ve been told that Exploring Wine originated as a teaching text employed by instructors at the Culinary Institute of America and was shoehorned into book form after the fact. As such, it’s regarded as imperfect: glossed over in spots, inaccurate in others, with omissions that in retrospect seem glaring. (Subsequent editions rectified these shortcomings.)

When I was first getting into wine in the mid-‘90s, none of this mattered. This was, instead, a book full of easily digestible sections, clear, straightforward writing, plenty of maps and visual aids, sidebars and glossaries, a roadmap to a world I’d fallen in love with. I could open to any page and find something to learn or to reinforce my knowledge. Other books now cover this ground well, perhaps better—the work of  and of  come to mind—but this book established what I carry with me to this day.

The New France, by Andrew Jefford

There are plenty of superb books on French wine, and I’ve read many of them, but none of them are as tactile, or as personal, as Jefford’s The New France. It is, on one level, a chronicle of the great transition in French winemaking from large wine companies and négociants to small, artisan vignerons. With its regional overviews, “flak” pages, and meticulous evaluations, The New France is, firstly, a superb guide—you’d do well to fill your cellar with every wine mentioned within its pages. But Jefford’s great skill was to make a very traditional wine country seem like a place of limitless discovery, to make it feel new, its practitioners revolutionary, profound, restlessly exploratory and deep. Every page is inspiring for this reason.

The writing is just as inspiring. Jefford’s prose has been a benchmark for my own wine writing ever since. He writes not only with great authority but with astonishing sensuality, whether he’s describing a vigneron’s whiskers or the smell of a stone from Chablis.

I’m awaiting Jon Bonne’s book, said to be cheekily adopting the same title, with great anticipation. It’s likely to be a fantastic addition to French (wine) literature, but I can’t imagine it will ever replace the original New France.

An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection—and Profit—in California, by David Darlington

David Darlington is a longtime author and a longtime colleague who writes with authority on several topics, including wine. He loves to tell you how little he knows about wine, how his palate is that of a beginner or a rube. He may not be a connoisseur, but what he’s best at is locating the human endeavor in the world of winemaking. This is especially true in An Ideal Wine, a criminally overlooked and underrated late history of the American wine business from roughly the early ‘90s to five years ago.

It’s nominally a focus on the careers of two diametrically opposed characters, Leo McCloskey of Enologix and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon. But it touches on so much else: the age of Parker, explosions of prices and investment, the hegemony of the critical voice, the rise of the cult wine, the pre-eminence of the point score, and the contortions the business went through as it struggled to accommodate these enormous changes. The book chronicles all of the greed and cynicism, all of the angst and handwringing that went along with this period in our recent history. It reminds you that winemaking is an art, and like most art, the artists are flawed, vain, canny, obsessive, and always desperately human.

David Keck, MS

The expansive world of wine literature continues to grow, filling our minds and shelves with a wealth of information. It is impossible to keep up, and in the crazy world in which we wine professionals live, time to read is a luxury indeed. However, we are constantly called upon to educate and continue growing in our own knowledge, thus out of necessity we go back to texts that have provided guidance, information, and sometimes solace in a technological world. In the interest of originality, I’ve avoided some of the iconic and brilliant texts that have already been recommended (it is impossible to argue the importance of books by Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Andrew Jefford, Kermit Lynch, Clive Coates, Jasper Morris…the list goes on and on), and would be so bold as to add a few that I find important, revelatory, and, perhaps most importantly, fun to read.

Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly

Windows on the World was one of the first wine books I read in its entirety, and it remains one of the first that I recommend for new students of wine. Zraly has a talent for being accessible to the novice while still providing important reminders to more experienced students. I continue to find enjoyment flipping through the pages and remembering when this book opened new worlds for me—and, of course, still find nuggets of wisdom that I have forgotten and would do well to reread!

Reading Between the Wines, by Terry Theise

Perusing Terry Theise’s tasting notes on Germany, Austria, and Champagne in every vintage has provided me so much joy, levity, knowledge, and hedonistic pleasure that it is with absolutely zero surprise that this book did the same. Terry’s prose is irreverent without simplifying or debasing the topic—indeed, it makes it more human. He manages to speak in almost spiritual verbiage about wines from regions about which he cares deeply, while never losing the twinkle in his literary eye. His book reminds me that wine is fun, that it is visceral, that it can be both ethereal and carnal, and that no matter how seriously we take its study and contemplation, it should still provide pleasure. He also uses a wild palette of literary, musical, and sexual references, adding a uniquely memorable character to each producer and region discussed.

An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir, by Deirdre Heekin

I humbly admit that I am predisposed to like this book, as I am also a Vermonter and believer in many of the philosophies that drive Deirdre’s work as both author and farmer/winemaker. That said, I’ll throw the disclaimer that when I first purchased La Garagista wines, despite at times being accused of being “dorky” in my own taste, I was decidedly skeptical. As much as I wanted to like wines from my home state, the idea of biodynamically grown, hybrid varieties from the hills of Vermont producing wines that were palatable seemed improbable if not downright insane. It sounded like wines built for hipsters thriving on flaws that masqueraded as “terroir.” Then I tried the wines. And they were delicious. Deirdre’s book is a truly wonderful exploration of what went into the process. It is sincere and human in explaining the many failures; it is articulate and thorough about some of the more involved technical aspects; and throughout, it is imbued with her sense of humor, hospitality, and joy in the work.

Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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  • Kelli, I attended your California Masterclass at City Winery just recently, and found your teaching style to be wonderfully captivating.  You have brought California into focus once again - this time in writing - by interviewing influential contributors to wine and food writing.  I cannot wait to dive into these reading selections, and I hope you'll make it back to NYC to lead another course soon enough.  Cheers!   

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