An Armchair and a Glass of Wine

You’ve heard the proverb: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

In that spirit, as you contemplate your list of last-minute holiday gifts—as well as host and hostess gifts for holiday parties—sidestep the impulse to second guess what bottle of wine your recipient might like. Instead, why not offer a window into the world of wine?

Any one of this trio of wine and recipe books will do the job quite nicely.

A Wine Education in a Book

Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s books seem to get weightier with each release. Yet, despite their imposing heft, they are meant to be user-friendly, and for the most part they are. In their latest 352-page, flavor-focused tome, the couple views wine from the food-lover’s point of view.

The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine (Little, Brown and Company, 2011) is similar in its approach to the last two: The Flavor Bible and What to Drink with What You Eat. I must confess I was not altogether on board with the premise of What to Drink—I just don’t think wine and food pairing should be so tightly prescriptive. Sure, it’s great to know what typically goes well with what. But we differ so much in our tastes, in both food and wine, that it may be presumptuous to set forth such specific matches.

The Food Lover's Guide to WineIn their latest encyclopedic work, the couple takes a slightly different tack, sharing flavor profiles and other information for over 250 wines, organized alphabetically so you can easily jump to the information you seek. (That said, if you are looking for something buried within one of the listings, as with Page and Dornenburg’s other books this one has no index—you’re on your own to hunt it down.)

The book’s 135 pages of detailed listings provide enough information to answer basic questions about flavor, grape varietals, producer, and so forth without making your head spin. Information on over 250 wines will help you to correctly pronounce their names (no more embarrassing dinner party or wine-ordering gaffs), what flavors to expect from them in terms you are likely to understand—berries, flowers, and orange peel rather than forest floor, cigar box, and cat pee, and which foods go best with which wines. The best wine merchants begin by getting to know what you already like, suggesting other wines that will pleasantly surprise you with your favored characteristics; this book does the same. Information comes from top sommeliers, generally distilled in a way that won’t fly above most heads.

Fun features are scattered throughout the book: I love the enneagram of wine personality types, though I’m not exactly sure how to use it. There’s a chart to help you guess which varietals you’ll like based on your flavor preferences, but is it true that you will enjoy the same flavors in wine as in food? I don’t care for the taste of bacon (blasphemy, I know!) or tobacco, but I’ve enjoyed wines said to mimic those flavors. On the other hand, butter? Love it. Oak-y chardonnay? Not my cup of tea. Butter is wonderful spread on warm toast; not so much melted into a glass of wine.

In the end, guessing what one person or another will like, and what foods will work with which wines, is not so easily distilled. There are simply too many factors in play. While some magical pairing may occasionally knock your socks off, its elusiveness is part of the charm of a great pairing. In any case, a perfect pairing is not what we are typically striving for when we select a wine.

The best and most practical advice remains: eat food you like, drink wine you like, and try them together to see what you like best. After all, you don’t need a book to tell you whether you prefer hot fudge or salted caramel topping, and which will pair best with a scoop of Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream. You know what you like, and you learned it by tasting. While some flavors do tend to pair well together, in the end, taste, mood, and cost are the driving factors for most of us.

The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine might easily turn you on to an unfamiliar wine destined to perk up your next dinner party, or to a pairing you’d never thought to try. It’s a terrific resource and I’m glad to have it on my shelf. But as far as learning which wines you enjoy most, and how to pair them with food, I still think the best advice is practice, practice, practice.

Keeping Wine Costs Under Control

Learning to find wines you love is one thing. Finding wines within your budget is another. While The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine includes a list of over 150 wines that sell for less than $15, there’s another guide that’s specifically tailored to this segment of the wine market.

In Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, Canadian sommelier and wine writer Natalie MacLean shares her insights on purchasing enjoyable wines without breaking the bank. MacLean’s approach is charming: she takes a typical week, which for her means eight bottles of wine: one with dinner each night and one with Sunday lunch. With each day of the week she explores a wine region, traversing Australia, Germany, Niagara (Canada), South Africa, Sicily, Argentina, Portugal, and Provence.

UnquenchableUnrelentingly enthusiastic and unapologetically personal, MacLean brings the reader along on her action-packed and often amusing journeys. While you will feel as if you are breezing through a riveting story, as you read you will be absorbing an enormous volume of wine information with a great deal less effort than it would take to read some stodgy, hifalutin wine book. It’s like a travelogue with benefits. In this case, MacLean has sampled over 15,000 wines around the globe to help you spend your wine dollars wisely.

At the conclusion of each chapter, MacLean shares her “Field Notes for a Wine Cheapskate,” including insider tips, a list of wineries she visited in the region, her favorite value wines (her personal top pick is marked with an asterisk), top value producers, a list of food pairings for the wines included from that region, and a dinner menu, pointing the reader to the recipes on her web site. She also lists resources to learn more about the region’s wines, as well as additional reading.

This is a book that is, for its topic, appropriately light, yet it is jam-packed with wine lore and an apt guide to value-priced wines that are quite enjoyable to drink.

Making the Match

Once you’ve made your wine selection, 100 Perfect Pairings: Main Dishes to Enjoy with Wines You Love (Wiley, 2011) will get you into the kitchen to cook. The author is my friend and colleague Jill Silverman Hough, a food writer, recipe developer, and culinary instructor who has written for Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, and a number of other magazines, and who taught cooking at the now-shuttered COPIA center for wine and food in Napa Valley. Jill is a genuinely nice person, and it comes through in her writing.100 Perfect Pairings

Hough’s food is delicious and accessible for the home cook. As with her previous 100 Perfect Pairings (that one addressed small plates), the book matches up a few of the most common varietals—like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot noir, zinfandel, and cabernet sauvignon—with foods they tend to pair well with. The book won’t turn you into a wine expert (or a wine snob), but it will put you at ease in the kitchen. You’ll become a little more familiar with the varietals and you’ll eat some good food. Who could argue with that?

The authors of all three books want to help you discover wine and food you love. And that, in my estimation, is a recipe for success.

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