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Sep 25, 2017

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Aromas of Bull and Bear
by Sarah Donnelly
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.6
by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher

If you've been searching for a book of helpful wine basics that doesn't proclaim your ignorance to all the world in bright yellow, then this is the one. First of all, it's from The Wall Street Journal -- size XXL smartie-pants. People will think you're not only a connoisseur-collector of first-growth Bordeaux, but that you also keep your eye on the hottest dot-com companies. But best of all, the book's actually instructive and fun to read.

If, like me, your idea of a good newspaper includes crossword puzzles (easy ones), TV listings, comics and the occasional alien-autopsy report, then you're probably not aware of a weekly column called "Tastings," which appears in the Journal. But it's there and it's good -- try to borrow someone's copy on Fridays. Your boss will be impressed. The writers, wife-husband team Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, relate their firsthand experiences buying and tasting wines in an easy, personable style that's always true to their #1 philosophy: wine should be fun. The book's "an outgrowth of these columns."

A bit surprisingly, both book and columns are rather un-WSJ. Talented and seasoned journalists themselves, Gaiter and Brecher provide openly personal and subjective reviews of wines that are actually available and affordable (at least in New York City). I was pleased to note that they don't accept free wines or incentives, but that all wines are purchased outright, at the same prices, stores and restaurants where readers would find them.

Wines reviewed range from about $6 to $50, with suggestions of which ones to spend more on and why. The authors employ a simple but descriptive rating scale: Yech, OK, Good, Very Good, Delicious and Delicious! They're quick to add that a number of external factors, especially the company and context within which a wine is enjoyed, can affect their impression of the wine and thus its rating. They encourage readers to experiment, but also to follow some basic guidelines when choosing a wine.

Since the book is hardbound, making it durable but less effective as fish-wrapping than its weekly counterpart, you'll find fewer actual names and vintages reviewed and more emphasis on wine basics, such as grape types and wine types (about 30), growing regions, wine and food pairings, and storage. Some personal favorites: "Italian Whites... and Blue Suede Shoes," and "How to Open Champagne without Killing Anybody."

I highly recommend this book. In fact, I like it so much I hope I get to keep it after the review. (At $25 per copy, that's the only way I'll get it.) It's well-organized, with a fun, anecdotal approach, an extensive index, find-able example wines and a good balance of stories and instruction.

by Steven Miller

Here's a guide for people who're good at self-help. You know, the kind who can actually learn a new language from a series of tapes. All the necessary information's there, but it's up to the 'student' to absorb it and place it in long-term memory. Luckily, this guide is a conveniently sized little tome, so who needs a memory when you have pockets! (Heck, there's probably even a Palm Pilot version.)

The only drawback to the tall and narrow book format is that some of the text disappears into the crack, er, spine. That is, you have to bend the spine to finish the sentences. But at only $11.95, big deal.

And you won't want to miss any of it! This book is nothing if not well-organized, thoroughly cross-referenced and crammed with up-to-date reviews and handy facts. The chapters are defined by country/growing region, with an abundance of maps for the spatial learners out there.

The rating scale is one to four stars and one to four $'s, with a color $ to show good quality for the price. The glossary is conveniently placed at the very end so you don't have to keep leafing through the "50 Hottest Wine Web Sites" or "Most Exciting Wine Tours" to find it. While emphasis is clearly placed on wine growing regions and their associated characteristics, there are two nice cross-references, one by varietal and the other by style (light/heavy, red/white).

So here's what I didn't like. There's just not much personality to this book. You'll find a great deal of information -- hundreds of reviews, charts of the best vintages, sub-regions you've never heard of, lists of recommended wine stores, books on wine and stores that sell books on wine. But it's all sort of robotic in nature.

And I was a little disappointed with the approach to wine-and-food pairing suggestions. To be sure, the tips are abundant and quite specific ("Try it with pasta and wild mushrooms or pork or veal in morel sauce.") But they're sprinkled throughout like flakes of oregano. Sauvignon blanc, for instance, is covered in 12 different regions; and there are 12 excellent, but different, food pairing suggestions found on 12 different pages. Believe it or not, this book could use yet one more cross-reference, just for food types.

In sum: a convenient, inexpensive reference that's up-to-date, comprehensive (global coverage) and specific (vintages and prices) but lacking "fun" and some of the more general wine basics and pairing guidelines. (I guess that's why they have a magazine, too!)

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