(WASHINGTON POST) - Wine writers attempt to reveal wine's mysteries, strip away its pretensions, simplify its immense variety. Of course, if we were to ever succeed, no one would need us anymore.
The latest to try is Jon Bonné, with The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide To Everything You Need to Know (Ten Speed Press, US$15 (S$20)). This slim volume of practical advice - each of the 89 new "rules" is just a few paragraphs - headlines this holiday season's books for the wine lovers on your gift list.
Bonné is an authoritative voice. He is a senior contributing editor for Punch, an online drinks publication, a former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, author of The New California Wine" and the forthcoming The New French Wine, and an occasional contributor to The Washington Post Food section.
As you might suspect, the premise of The New Wine Rules is that the old rules no longer apply. Bonné told me in an interview that he didn't want to write the traditional basic wine book. "You can Google grape varieties," he said. "I wanted to write for people who are already buying wine and want to know enough about it to enjoy it, and maybe to hold their own when they run up against someone who claims to know everything about wine in an obnoxious way."
Bonné flouts convention when he says "ignore 'estate bottled' " on a wine label. "What really matters is where the grapes are grown, not where they ferment," he writes. Yet he upholds tradition with "wineglass stems are there for a reason - use them!" Some of his rules try to set us at ease about our individual preferences. You can drink rosé any time of year, he advises. Some are obvious: "Make sure to buy wines you want to drink yourself" (for a party). Mostly, there's a lot of good, practical advice.
The stuffier wine lovers on your gift list will love Champagne: The Essential Guide To The Wines, Producers And Terroirs Of The Iconic Region, by Peter Liem, one of the foremost experts on the world's top bubbly (Ten Speed Press, US$80). Liem has written a beautiful book, focusing on champagne not as a luxury tipple but as serious wine, expressive of the place where it is grown rather than the lifestyle of the person drinking it.
The author has spent years exploring the terroirs of the Champagne region, and he engagingly describes the differences of the Montagne de Reims and the Cote des Blancs as he extols the importance of grower champagnes, those made by individual farmers. But he celebrates the large maisons as well, as in this description of the various wines of Krug:
"[The] Grande Cuvee, which is made from a blend of up to two hundred wines from a dozen vintages, [was] a symphony orchestra, where many different components come together to create a harmonious and complete whole. Krug's vintage brut, which comes exclusively from wines harvested in the same year, was equivalent to a quartet, or chamber music. Even narrower in scope, the Clos du Mesnil, a vintage-dated, single-vineyard champagne, was akin to a soloist."
Liem gives us what we expect from a comprehensive guide to a famous wine region, including producer profiles, artsy photographs and descriptions of the region's geography and geology. The handsome boxed set includes not just his book but also reproductions of seven maps of Champagne's subregions published in the 1940s by Louis Larmat. Any map geek, or any champagne fiend who has visited the area, will enjoy exploring Champagne's famous vineyards through these maps.
And why not a wine whodunit? With In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise And Fall Of A Wine Forger Extraordinaire (The Experiment, US$26), Peter Hellman tells the story of Rudy Kurniawan, the charming modern-day swindler who fooled wealthy wine collectors, famous writers and auctioneers with elaborate fakes of rare and expensive wines. Kurniawan was featured in 2008's The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery Of The World's Most Expensive Bottle Of Wine. That book, by Benjamin Wallace, detailed billionaire collector Bill Koch's quest to prove bottles he bought that supposedly had been owned by Thomas Jefferson were, in fact, fakes.
Hellman takes Kurniawan's story further, through the arrest and the conviction in 2013. Along the way, he explores not only the swindler's craftiness, but the vulnerability and gullibility of his victims - people successful in many fields who fell prey to Kurniawan's charm and apparent generosity in offering them a rarefied taste of history.
"The wealthy collectors who spent millions on those fake wines were canny fellows in their businesses," Hellman writes. "Yet, in the hands of this unlikely con man, they . . . responded to his perceived generosity by opening their wallets."
In Vino Duplicitas is a cautionary tale of how we can let the romance of wine get the better of us. Kurniawan preyed on rich collectors, but most vinophiliacs have experienced the seductive lure of a rare or expensive bottle of wine. None of us are immune.