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Flying First Class in the Wine World

If knowledge is power than educated wine enthusiasm is the Admiral’s Club and a first class plane ticket while your friends look enviously on from coach. 

I stay mindful of the fact that, for better or for worse, engaged and knowledgeable wine enthusiasm is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.  Yet, it is a club that anybody can enter with the proper credentials – credentials that are easily acquired by those with enough wherewithal to seek a higher understanding while creating their own knowledge path.

This independent path to knowledge is also key to understanding why others denounce wine enthusiasm as the province of the elite – acquiring knowledge takes a little bit of work and some proactive effort, something that immediately eliminates the majority of people for whom life is looky-loo tourism instead of culturally immersive travel.

Plus, we too often dismiss that which we do not understand.  But, it doesn’t have to be this way.


It is an oft-repeated refrain on this site: spending time with a few books can send the wine interested headlong down a road that can turn into a lifelong journey.  It is a small price to pay in short-term time spent as a trade-off for decades of potential enjoyment. 

That said, my go-to book recommendations for a self-directed short-course in wine have been:

Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly (General wine overview)

Making Sense of Wine by Matt Kramer (Context based approach to understanding wine)

Wine Style by Mary Ewing-Mulligan (Understanding wine styles and matching to your palate preference)

While the above three books are fantastic, the final book recommendation that has been missing to round out general knowledge has been an accessible and interesting read on viticulture.  The book From Vines to Wines by Jeff Cox has stood in serviceably (if not dryly) as a resource for becoming attuned to viticulture and winemaking, however, it has never quite elevated itself in my mental bookshelf as fourth member, making my trio of books a quartet. 

Fortunately, I have finally found my Ringo Starr, a superstar replacement for Pete Best.

Ironically, and old school, joining Zraly’s book first published in 1985, and Kramer’s book published in 1989, is Hugh Johnson and James Halliday’s The Vintners Art: How Great Wines are Made published in 1992. 


The Vintners Art might be the one completely indispensable wine book that you do not own and have never heard of, a jewel 18 years in the making.

What I value in a non-fiction book (wine or otherwise) is:

Survey style

Opinion-oriented with authority


If done correctly, a book of this nature doesn’t impart rote knowledge it offers subsumable wisdom.  And so it is with this consumer-oriented viti and vinicultural treatise by Johnson and Halliday.
Covering three main sections – the vineyard, the winery and the bottle, the book covers a lot of ground – everything from terroir to winemaking choices for specific varietal wines, wine faults and manipulation.

When finished with the book you’ll walk away with enough knowledge to vex even the most seasoned tasting room manager, if not a compulsion to call Crushpad.

Some of the most interesting reading in the book is regarding terroir, an issue that is still a clumsy topic in the U.S., like an English major in a Sudoku puzzle contest.

Succinctly, Johnson quotes the late Peter Sichel, former owner of two Chateau’s in Margaux and a renowned negociant who characterized terroir as a combination of character, personality and quality.


Said Sichel, “Character is determined by terroir; quality is largely determined by man”  The third cog in the terroir wheel is “personality” which is largely determined by weather.  By themselves, the six simple pages are worth seeking out.

In addition, the book does a Nostradamus-like job of presaging some of the issues we see in the market today, both from a Bordeaux perspective alongside U.S. sales trends.

Quoting Peter Sichel from the book:

The wine culture based on appellations and soils has been phenomenally successful and one simply must not put it in danger.  If you can produce wines with character, you should not emphasize their varietal composition.  Sooner or later varieties will cease to mean very much because of the infinite variety of wines which can be made from (say) Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on soil, weather, viticultural practices, yields, winery techniques and so on.  If you simply call your wine Cabernet Sauvignon the consumer is going to have difficulty in relating it to other wines:  if you are producing a wine which really has to be upmarket, people say “why should we pay four times as much for this Cabernet Sauvignon when there are Cabernets which are so much cheaper.”

In those few sentences, Sichel manages to describe both the allegedly elastic, but inelastic Bordeaux wine market and our current domestic wine market in one fell swoop.

The rest of the book is like that, too.  There are nuggets on every page that put the last 25 years of wine evolution into mental order, while also providing generous morsels of insight that bring fuller understanding to the art of making wine.

The Vintners Art by Hugh Johnson and James Halliday published with a suggested retail price of $45, which is $67 dollars price-adjusted for today—not a cheap book.  However, you can find this as a used book on for under $2 plus shipping and handling.  Snapping this one up is highly recommended and recommended for you to recommend.  If wine knowledge is, indeed, power then make sure to pay it forward and let everybody fly first class.


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (5) |


On 07/02, Mart S. wrote:

Great info! Can’t wait to buy the book.

On 07/02, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Sichel’s argument for appellation over varietal labeling seems to me a better endorsement for “terroir” than his argument for “character, personality, and quality.”

I agree with both sentiments, however.

On 07/02, Joe Herrig wrote:

I’d tried to read a couple wine books before, and all I can recall now is how much I take for granted my current knowledge of region vs. grape, AOCs, etc.  I just recall the first wine book I tried to read as utterly confusing, complete with ridiculous assumptions of the reader’s knowledge base (it was an introduction to wine), and lots of cryptic vocabulary.

I pretty much credit my first trip to Napa and Zraly’s book for igniting my lifelong wine journey.  It was well-written, well-formatted, and made sense to the casual reader, while LOADED with lots of info.  Great book that I always like to buy as a gift for beginners who really want to know more about wine.

On 07/04, Ed Thralls wrote:


Thanks for the recommendation.  I enjoy reading wine books from the light-hearted and basic to the technical viticulture and enology textbooks.  I will check this out and add it to my library.

On 07/09, Elaine Marshall wrote:

Peter Sichel isn’t dead.  I just spoke to him in February, and corresponded with him via email in June.  I wish Johnson wouldhave fact-checked his book properly!


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