The best bottle-filled books
Author: Simon Berry
When I got my first proper job in the wine trade, in November 1976, my father gave me a copy of Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. I was just about to start in the cellars of Deinhard & Co., underneath the arches of Waterloo station, where I dreamt of driving their fork-lift truck, but never graduated beyond unloading articulated lorries full of Paddy Whisky. Oh, the glamour.
Luckily even the second edition of Hugh’s game-changing book – not yet containing a map of New Zealand – was enough to transport me from the Dickensian squalor of my surroundings into the warmth of summers in the vineyards, and I wasn’t put off the trade for life. Now in its seventh edition, and co-authored by another of the wine world’s great communicators, Jancis Robinson, it remains the perfect way to understand more about wine and fall in love with its vineyards at the same time.
The other seven volumes in this collection comprise the books I would have picked for myself, had I known better (and had they been published in 1977). After the generality of the World Atlas, which teaches that great wine can come from all corners of the globe, here is the particular. Jasper Morris MW’s Inside Burgundy is 600 pages dedicated to the single most complicated wine region (in my opinion) in the world. Containing the answer to every question you will ever have regarding Burgundy, it also teaches you some fundamentals about wine – that the fermented grape juice in every bottle is a consequence of an alchemy between place and person, for example.
It also reveals another great truth about wine – that it is endlessly, wonderfully complicated. This was first taught to me by another great mentor of mine over the years, the legendary Michael Broadbent. Far from being intimidating, the complexity of wine is part of the fun. You will never learn everything, so prepare yourself for a lifetime of continuous exploration, was Michael’s advice. His Pocket Vintage Wine Companion is proof of that – a note on thousands of great (and a handful of not so great) bottles tasted by a great man over his lifetime. Let it be encouragement for the rest of us to try and emulate him – we’ll fail, inevitably, but it will be glorious giving it a go.
Another ‘macro/micro’ pair next: Oz Clarke, perhaps more than anyone else of the past 40 years, combines great knowledge with wonderful approachability. I could have chosen many of his books, but his History of Wine in 100 Bottles takes what might be considered a dull subject and makes it fun and interesting. For such an ancient drink, it soon becomes clear that wine, as we know it, is a pretty modern invention. The journey between then and now is fascinating, especially when the irrepressible Oz is your guide.
And then we focus on a particular, pivotal moment in wine’s history – the Second World War in German-occupied France. Wine & War describes events still – just – in living memory, although that memory is now fading and will seem, to a ‘Young Wine-Lover’, like tales from the Middle Ages no doubt. But consider that there are some bottles from that era waiting to be uncorked and enjoyed. Not for nothing has wine been described as history in a bottle.
But wine, on its own, is only part of the story. Most wine is made to be drunk with food, and Bea Wilson’s Consider the Fork is a fascinating insight into the other half of a meal. It considers the history of humanity, no less, through the lens of cooking and eating, and will give pause for thought, as well as topics for conversation when wine talk stops (and consider, as well, that there is no one more boring than a wine bore). Her description of the scare stories that abounded when gas and electric ovens were first introduced are also wonderful ways to disarm anyone trying to worry you about the harmfulness of microwaves, or whatever the latest scare-story might be this week.
Wine is also a good companion to literature, and vice versa, so I had to include at least one vino-centric novel. The late Paul Torday was a St James’s Street man, although I never met him, and his wonderfully readable comedy The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is a great romp that also involves many of the contradictions inherent in a true understanding, and appreciation, of alcohol.
Finally I recommend the one book that would not have been written, in all probability, had my experiences underneath the railway arches put me off the wine trade for life. I didn’t write a word of Exploring & Tasting Wine, but I did encourage, nearly 15 years ago, the formation of a wine course for beginners in our cellars in St James’s Street. I wanted to provide the opportunity for those who knew not very much, if anything, about wine, to learn a little more, to set them off on a lifetime of endless experimentation and fun. This book, published this autumn, is the refinement of that course, printed on paper and bound between hard covers. I hope that it an early step that encourages many along a wonderfully rewarding journey.
A copy of Simon Berry’s guide to his selection will be included with every one of Heywood Hill’s ‘The Young Wine-Lover’s Guide’ Book Box, containing Simon Berry’s selected titles and a £100 voucher to be redeemed against one of our Wine School events, now available to purchase on their website.