Food & Drink

Wine books for holiday giving

Don't know which bottles to buy for your wine-loving friends? Avoid the problem by giving them books about wine. Here are some good choices:

Wine Secrets: Advice From Winemakers, Sommeliers, and Connoisseurs by Marnie Old (Quick Productions, $19.95)

You're ordering wine in a restaurant and want to ask the wine steward for advice, but you're afraid he'll recommend a $200 wine. Whaddyado? Find a wine on the list that costs just about what you want to pay. Point to its price and say, "This is what I would normally order, but I'm looking to explore this evening. What can you recommend?" A savvy steward will get the hint, says Fred Dame, founder of the American branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers. It's part of a compilation of tips from wine gurus Gina Gallo and Michael Mondavi, chef Jacques Pepin and others. It's a face-saving gem.

The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels by Tanya Scholes (Santa Monica Press, $45)

You can't judge a wine by its label, but you'd never know that by the lengths to which winemakers go in designing them. As more brands clog shelves, labels have become more eccentric to grab attention. Cycles Gladiator wine has a nude cyclist with flowing red hair. Bully Hill has a smiling goat. Other eye-catchers include The Idiot shiraz, Fat Pig rosé and Therapy merlot (with a Rorschach blot of God knows what). Big and colorful, this is the best coffee table book ever.

Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter (Farrar, Straus Giroux, $26)

Wine is not the sublime expression of hedonism in the human experience. It's far more important than that. That's the premise of this finely reasoned book by the director of the wine world-skewering 2004 film Mondovino. He explores "the fact of wine itself, its taste, its use, its physical existence and what has always fascinated me the most: its profound relation to the general culture." He skewers condescension, jargon and snobbery but also populists who "dumb down wine." This is entirely inside baseball, but it should provoke some fistfights at the wine bar.

The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries by Charles Olken and Joseph Furstenthal (University of California, $27.50)

California wineries open and close so fast, you need a new guide nearly every year to keep up with them. This is that guide. It's organized around the understanding that a book can't possibly keep up with 500 wineries' Web sites. It gives you the Web addresses, then it supplies what the Web sites don't: objective, blind-tasting notes and expert opinions on the wines. It's a very helpful guide.

From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America by Richard Mendelson (University of California, $19.95)

When Prohibition ruled the land (1920-33), savvy California wineries stayed open by providing sacramental wines to churches. Beaulieu signed a contract to supply altar wine to the Catholic diocese in San Francisco. Religion flourished. The convenience-store wine called Thunderbird came about when E. & J. Gallo Winery noticed that liquor stores were attaching envelopes of lemon Kool-Aid to bottles of Gallo white port. It required an act of Congress to market it. The legal machinations of wine, described here, are a hoot.