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Gifts: A Book and a Bottle

15 Dec

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, Workman Publishing, $24.95 (paperback)

The holiday season is here in full force, which for many of us means it’s time to buy presents galore. While finding perfect gifts is the hard part of the season, this year there’s an easy choice for the wine lovers on your list: Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible has just been revised and updated.

MacNeil is a multi-award-winning, preeminent wine writer, educator and consultant. says, “No one combines style, knowledge, skill, passion and presentation better than Karen MacNeil.” And The Wine Bible is a classic that belongs in every wine library. Because it’s so comprehensive, I think it should be one of the first books in that library.

For one thing, it’s simply lots of fun. Not every book that’s 996 pages is. But this eminently browsable tome is chockablock with informative asides, tips, engaging anecdotes, definitions, glossaries, photos, maps, labels and recommended producers. It informs and, thanks in part to MacNeil’s colorful, dramatic writing, entertains.

I especially enjoy the many short, creative topics. For example, in her chapter on Burgundy, MacNeil includes sections titled “History, Monks, the Establishment of Terroir and the French Revolution”; “Where’s the Boeuf?”; and “The d’Or in Côte d’Or.” Other intriguing sections include “Sauerkraut, Skunks, and Sweaty Socks” and “Chateauneuf-du-Extraterrestrial.”

For this second edition (the first dates to 2001), MacNeil has tasted more than 10,000 wines and visited dozens of wine regions around the world.  Sections on the wines of China, Japan, Mexico and Slovenia are new. The history, food, wines, grapes and wineries of each region are, of course, covered. So are tasting wine, shopping for wine, choosing wine glasses, matching wine and food, cooking with wine, storing wine, and many other -ings. And much more.

Bottom Line: The Wine Bible makes wine almost as enjoyable to read about as it is to drink.

If you’re looking for a bubbly wine–a sparkling gift for many people–I recommend Lucien Albrecht’s Crémants d’Alsace–and so does MacNeil. She includes Albrecht in her “Alsace Wines to Know” section.

Romanus Albrecht started the winery in 1425, and over the centuries other Albrechts have been responsible for significant innovations and advancements. In 1971, for example, Lucien Albrecht helped gain Appellation d’origine Contrôlêe status for Crémant d’Alsace; he’s considered one of the founding fathers of this AOC regulated category.

Crémants d’Alsace are some of the best French sparkling wines from regions outside Champagne. Lucien Albrecht Crémants are especially well regarded by many. In 2004 they won an unprecedented four gold medals at the Crémant Wine Challenge tasting. French wine expert Jacqueline Friedrich calls Lucien Albrecht wines “excellent … on every level” in her book The Wines of France.

There are two versions–a white and a rosé (which I prefer):

Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut (50% Pinot Blanc, 25% Pinot Gris and 25% Riesling): Fine and elegant bead (bubbles); light, delicate palate; crisp acidity. Well balanced, fruity finish.

Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé (100% Pinot Noir, the only red wine grape allowed in Alsace): Aromas and flavors of strawberry, rhubarb and cherry. Exuberant mousse (the sparkling effervescence of a wine). Crisp acidity. Creamy texture. Long finish.

The suggested retail price for both is $21.99, but I’ve seen them on for as little as $15.

The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine by Karen Page with Andrew Dornenburg

21 Nov

By Sharon Kapnick

Every year hundreds of new cookbooks and books about food and books about wine join the thousands already published. But books about food and wine, well, that’s a different story. You can count them on one hand–well, maybe two or three hands. Fortunately, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, the First Couple of Food-and-Wine, have just written their second book that explains and simplifies the task of choosing the right wine and the art of pairing food and wine.

The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine (Little, Brown; 336 pp.; $35) picks up where What to Drink with What You Eat left off by describing the flavors of some 250 wines and varietals. (The authors’ nickname for the new book is “The Flavor Bible for Wine Drinkers.”) It calls upon the familiar language of food as the logical tool to understanding wine. The authors’ premise is that “if you love food, you know flavor — and you can master wine.”

The guide is very timely. While more and more Americans are interested in wine–as of 2011, the U.S. is the world’s number-one consumer of it–many are overwhelmed by the thousands of choices. The authors aim to educate consumers and demystify wine, to take the fear out of buying wine and matching it with food. And they do it so well–clearly, comprehensively, enthusiastically.

The heart of the book is a hefty chapter that profiles more than 250 different wines by grape, region, intensity, acidity, flavors, texture, food pairings, notable producers and more. In this section, you really get to know the characteristics of and differences among the wines. Included, of course, are the usual suspects–Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon–and many of the unusual, like Roter Veltliner, Saperavi, Taurasi, Terroldego, Tsinandali.

To further illuminate this complex subject , they have enlisted the help of dozens of the world’s best sommeliers. Their opinions, advice, passions, loves and secrets play a crucial and entertaining part in this book.

I especially enjoyed the dozens of helpful sidebars on topics like “Matching Wine to Common Dishes,” “Go-To Wines: Sommeliers’ Picks of Wines That Never Let Them Down,” “Choosing a Wine by Flavors,” “Wines Under $15,” “Second Label [Lower-Priced] Wines [from Top Producers].” The last chapter, a valuable resource, features recommended books, websites and magazines.

Bottom Line: With Page and Dornenburg as your guides, you’ll feel comfortable selecting wine, serving it and enjoying it regularly. Their love of wine and food is infectious. They’ve written another must-have book for anyone interested in food-and-wine pairing or furthering their understanding of wine. It’s empowering, eminently browsable and just plain fun.

For more information on the authors, go to

“Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines” by Natalie MacLean

1 Nov

By Sharon Kapnick

On her journey searching for some of the planet’s best bargain wines, Natalie MacLean sampled an astounding 15,267 wines at 312 wineries in 8 countries on 5 continents so you don’t have to. You can just sit back in your favorite chair and read her book and learn and enjoy and laugh. The only drawback: You’ll have to supply your own wine.

MacLean’s an accredited sommelier, a “lover of both bargains and grapes.” She’s extraordinarily accomplished. Among her citations: four James Beard Foundation Journalism awards, six Bert Green Awards for excellence in food journalism and the 2009 Louis Roederer International Wine Writing Award. She was named the World’s Best Drink Writer by the World Food Media Awards.

I think of her as the Energizer Bunny of the wine world. As she says in her video promoting her book, “I’m always eating and drinking for the sake of my readers.” Afterwards, she writes books, magazine articles, and print wine columns that reach more than 5 million readers. She’s got a website, a blog, an e-newsletter, a Wine Picks and Pairings mobile app (and other apps, of course) for smart phones. And naturally she tweets and has a gazillion Facebook friends.

In Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines (Perigee, $24, 344 pp.), which is part memoir, part travelogue and part wine guide, MacLean shares her adventures at wineries in Australia, Germany, Canada (where she lives), South Africa, Italy, Argentina, Portugal and France. And, to wrap things up, she makes a stop at the famed bar in New York City’s Algonquin Hotel.

In each chapter, she recounts her visits with several winemakers and paints colorful portraits of them. They come to life, and you feel privileged to accompany MacLean on her rounds. Ernst Loosen of Germany’s Dr. Loosen wine estate, for example, expounds on what makes Mosel Riesling special: “When I drink Mosel riesling, I want to smell the blue slate soil that formed the fruit. I want to taste the memory of the old vines, and I want to feel the rain and the sun that year. Without all of this, wine is just another drink.” Loosen extols the virtues of riesling: “Many wines are big and fat and that’s it, you know, but riesling is strong and delicate at the same time. It has many facets, like a diamond, depending on when and where you taste it and what you’re looking for.”

The wines she devotes the most time to are Shiraz, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Nero d’Avola, Malbec, Port and Provence rosés. The end of each chapter features “Field Notes from a Wine Cheapskate,” which includes insider tips, the websites of the wineries she concentrated on, the best value wines, top-value producers, special pairings and resource suggestions.

MacLean suggests you “read the book for the adventure stories,” and then visit her website,, for recipes, photos, website addresses, wines she liked that are in stores now and much, much more. There’s plenty that will capture your interest.

Bottom Line: Unquenchable will undoubtedly inspire you to undertake your own wine journeys–whether to the supermarket or to faraway continents.