The best wine books are both illuminating and entertaining. More scholarly tomes have their place on your bookshelf, but if I'm considering giving a wine book as a holiday gift, I prefer something a little more lively.
My suggestions this year focus on a tremendously readable memoir, a comprehensive wine course and a collection of wonderful writing about all things wine.
Wine memoirs can be a little self-indulgent, so I approached "A Vineyard in Napa" (University of California Press, $29.95, 284 pages) with some skepticism. However, the story of the Shafer family of Shafer Vineyards -- as told by Doug Shafer and his collaborator, Andy Demsky -- is funny, inspiring and instructive. The book traces the history of the winery from 1973, when John Shafer, Doug's father, decided, at age 47, to move his family to the Napa Valley and plant a vineyard, to its present-day status as one of the valley's icons.
But "A Vineyard in Napa" is much more than the Shafers' story. Doug Shafer places the family's journey in historical context, offering a window into the development of the Napa Valley over the past 40 years, from a bucolic time when vintners drove beat-up pickups, to the touristic, flashy, well-heeled place it is today. And in detailing some of the day-to-day tasks that confront any vintner, Shafer also educates the readers about everything from bugs to Brettanomyces.
For a more conventional type of instruction, there's "Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course" (Sterling Epicure, $19.95, 352 pages). Zraly's first version of the book was published in the mid-1980s, long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks brought down the World Trade Center, home to Windows on the World restaurant where Zraly was wine director and ran a wine school. (The wine school was relocated and continues today.) The book has had frequent updates, but the 2012 version represents a reworking into a multiplatform wine course. Scattered throughout the book are codes for your smartphone that will take you to one of Zraly's brief videos. (There also are URLs that let you access the videos with your computer.)
The wine course is amazingly comprehensive in its roughly 350 pages: It not only covers all the world's major wine regions, it also addresses such subjects as how wine is made; how to taste and describe wine; food-and-wine pairings; even a list of good-value wines for $30 or less. Pages are crammed with all manner of facts and trivia, including vintage assessments, production numbers and brief histories. The lessons each conclude with a quiz of sorts, to test whether you were paying attention. The videos are helpful, too: If you want to learn to say "gewürztraminer," hearing someone say the word certainly beats trying to sound it out from the page.
When New York Times reporter Frank J. Prial was assigned to write a wine column in 1972, it was the first regular coverage of wine in a general-interest U.S. newspaper. In the 40 years since, the Times has published some great musings on wine, written by Prial and others, and "The New York Times Book of Wine" (Sterling Publishing, $24.95, 592 pages) contains more than 150 of these articles, spanning more than 30 years.
Most of the pieces are by Prial, who retired in 2004 and died in November, and by Eric Asimov, the current wine critic, but 27 other writers are included. The late R.W. "Johnny" Apple, the Times' globe-trotting bon vivant, contributes several entertaining pieces, for example, while Harold McGee, best known for his writings on kitchen science, tackles a couple of wine's more technical issues.
The topics, though always rooted in wine, are wide-ranging, with everything from restaurants to wine gadgets to regions. It's the sort of book that you can pick up for a few minutes or a few hours.
A pocket wine guide makes an excellent stocking stuffer for any wine lover. The two best ones are by Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke. Both are priced at about $15 and pack a lot of information into a small format. I might give the edge to Clarke, simply because I like his witty writing style.
Contact Laurie Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org.