Reports 10 December 2020

The best wine (and whisky) books for Christmas

Looking for a gift for a wine- or whisky-loving friend? Or just some bibulous festive reading? Look no further than our pick of the drinks books of the year

Words by Guy Woodward, Adam Lechmere, Joel Harrison and Colin Hampden-White

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Our books of the year at a glance:

 

  • English Wine by Oz Clarke
  • Inside Bordeaux by Jane Anson
  • Gold in the Vineyards by Laura Catena
  • On Bordeaux, a compilation
  • A Life in Wine by Steven Spurrier
  • Tasting Victory by Gerard Basset
  • Wine Girl by Victoria James
  • Dirt by Bill Buford
  • Wine from Another Galaxy by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew
  • The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2021 by Ingvar Ronde
  • A Long Stride by Nicholas Morgan
  • The Goode Guide to Wine by Jamie Goode
  • Four Seasons in Côte Chalonnaise by Jon Wyand

English Wine: From Still to Sparkling – the NEWEST New World Wine Country by Oz Clarke

£16.99 Pavilion Books

 

If there’s one thing Oz Clarke does well, it’s enthusiasm. Anyone who’s seen his Instagram appearances in lockdown from his cellar will recognise his infectious – if a touch hammy – cheerleading, whether for classed growth Bordeaux or South African Chenin Blanc. Such energy has been the hallmark of his career – a career that started off treading the boards, lest we forget. But it’s not just on stage and screen where Clarke’s bonhomie comes across so vividly. It translates on the page too – as seen in this passionate, extensively researched homage to English wine.

In written form, Clarke’s tubthumping is lent added gravitas. There is no doubting his sincerity in trumpeting the claims of English wine to being counted among the world’s best. And boy does he trumpet them. Clarke has been a believer since the start of the country’s sparkling revolution in the late 1990s, his credence given extra depth of feeling by his Kentish roots. He’s not unquestioning (as seen here), but equally, he is certainly not dispassionate. Instead, his prose is distinctly non-British in its celebratory, optimistic, uplifting nature (as opposed to Robert Joseph’s more sobering reflections).

You can almost feel him exploring this frontier as he drives through the countryside

And it’s all the better for it. In Clarke’s world, England represents “a new frontier with everything to explore… the newest of the new-world, new-wave wine countries”. You can almost feel him exploring this frontier as he drives through the countryside – which he evidently adores – and takes in the vineyards, scouring, feeling, understanding the soil. The bulk of the book takes the form of profiles of individual producers, with both practical and personal insights. Stats on production, size, visits and recommendations are studded with reflections and anecdotes from assorted conversations with the people behind the wines – people who, it is evident, Clarke knows personally, whose careers he has watched evolve. Personality and opinion shine through, whether urging the avoidance of too much regulation, or making the case for certain still wines to be given their due.

Clarke revels in the history of the people and places, his warmth of emotion and humanity tempered by the more practical, contextual nature of chapters dedicated to “The Bad Old Days”, climate, location, style, and the need-to-know tenets of sparkling wine. All in all, it’s an effervescent, essential read. (GW)

Best for: English wine believers – and naysayers

Inside Bordeaux by Jane Anson

£60 Berry Bros & Rudd

 

Jane Anson, who lives in Bordeaux, has been writing about the region for nearly 20 years. In 2012 she published the magisterial Bordeaux Legends, a history of the five first growths, for which she was given unprecedented access to the archives and libraries of the châteaux. With Inside Bordeaux she goes broad as well as deep. She has visited and/or tasted 800 châteaux, and while the great properties are covered in impressive detail, the smallest commune and property is also given due attention, from Lalande-de-Pomerol to Francs Côtes de Bordeaux. One strength is the coverage of the smaller AOCs; another is the weight of research, especially into soil. The author’s stated aim is to assess the region “as we more typically do for other fine wine regions such as Burgundy, Barolo or the northern Rhone – by its soils.” A subject that could be dry is sparked into life, contextualised and illustrated with a series of splendid double-gatefold maps.

Anson is an engaging writer with an informal style that makes her serious subject matter eminently readable. The book would have been improved by better photography, and editing could be tighter overall – the chatty style occasionally becomes too casual for a work of this authority – but that will likely be cleared up in subsequent editions, of which one suspects there will be many. With this definitive, entertaining book, Anson confirms her place in the front rank of international Bordeaux experts. (AL)

Best for: Bordeaux lovers looking beyond 1855
For the original, full review of this book, see here.

Gold in the Vineyards by Laura Catena

£14.99 Catapulta (Buenos Aires), Quarto (UK)

 

What an extraordinary, original book this is. Laura Catena (a doctor by training, she divides her time between San Francisco, where she practices, and Mendoza, where she is managing director of Catena Zapata, and owner of two other wineries) has managed what few achieve – a book that will be enjoyed by adults and children alike, and readers at all levels of wine knowledge.

The illustrations are pleasingly naïve and the text reassuringly detailed. There are bloodcurdling vignettes, like the death of Antinori ancestor Leonor de Toledo “murdered in cold blood” by Pedro de Medici, or the misery of Francoise Josephine de Sauvage d’Yquem, founder of the Sauternes first growth, thrown into a cell at 23, with the “terrible certainty that she would only leave to face the guillotine.”

Catena’s method is to take 12 great properties – they include Lafite, Harlan, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Wehlener Sonnenuhr of Joh. Jos Prüm, and Catena’s own Adrianna Vineyard – and tell their stories with witty line drawings (such as a posse of boozed-up phylloxera bugs), maps, contemporary prints and illustrated graphs. The simplicity of the approach belies the serious intention – to make complex concepts, such as soil science, or the history of the Riesling grape, approachable.

The main charm of the book lies in the historical detail – I never knew that the founder of Viña Tondonia, Rafael López de Heredia y Landeta, was exiled from Chile at the age of 14, that the name Lafite comes from the Gascon “la hite” or hillock, or that Catena’s mother’s love of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian inspired the name of their most celebrated vineyard, Adrianna, for example.

Catena has produced an eccentric and charming addition to the vast canon of wine literature. I’d just as soon give it to a 12-year-old as an established wine buff. (AL)

Best for: Anyone tired of academic wine tomes

On Bordeaux: Tales of the Unexpected from the World’s Greatest Wine Region

£30 Academie du Vin Library (to order the book with a £5 discount, quote the code CLUB20 on checkout)

 

In 1940, Baron Philippe de Rothschild finally decided he had to leave Château Mouton-Rothschild to the Nazis. “I planned to cross the Pyrenees on foot. It was the only escape route left,” he recounts in the 1984 autobiography ghosted by his friend, the English actor and playwright Joan Littlewood. There followed a nightmarish few weeks of clandestine meetings, fear-filled bus and train journeys and a 15-day sojourn in a Perpignan attic, all the time expecting “the sudden flash of a torch, the command in German…” At last, with bleeding feet, exhausted and starving, he stumbled out of the snow into Spain and safety, one of “30,000 Jewish refugees [who] crossed those mountains.” It’s a story made all the more gripping by the excellence of the writing, and it’s one of dozens like it in this collection, spanning hundreds of years and covering every aspect of Bordeaux, from phylloxera to fraud, the Revolution to the Chinese market.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky (1906–1996), in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust 2020)
Cousins Edith Somerville (left) and Violet Florence Martin (aka Martin Ross): "Their encounter with the manager of Château Lafite-Rothschild is a joy"

On Bordeaux is full of gems. A personal favourite (an excerpt from which can be read here) is the 1893 chapter from the great comic writing duo Somerville and Ross, who travelled the Médoc one autumn with their notebooks, sketchpads and a new device they called ‘the Kodak’. Their encounter with the manager of Château Lafite-Rothschild is a joy.

Every notable Bordeaux writer is represented. The old guard: Cyril Ray, Nicholas Faith, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson; the new: Jane Anson (who supplies the foreword), Joe Fattorini, Neal Martin. There are snippets to fill an idle ten minutes – the early Victorian Cyrus Redding on adulteration, for example, or George Saintsbury on the barbarity of iced claret; there are chapters to satisfy the most ardent academic; there’s comedy, as above; and there’s tragedy, as well as pruning and sales talk, geography and lashings of history. In short, there’s something for every possible taste – rather like Bordeaux itself. (AL)

Best for: Bordophiles and lovers of great writing

A Life In Wine by Steven Spurrier

£30 Academie du Vin Library (to order the book with a £5 discount, quote the code CLUB20 on checkout)

 

With astonishing granularity of recall, wine’s own Renaissance man takes us back to his upbringing in Derbyshire, with servants indoors and out, his beginnings in the wine world of 1960s London, the inheritance that made him fabulously wealthy aged 24 (the cheque his father handed him would have been the equivalent of £5m today); his penchant for art (one of his first purchases was a Stubbs engraving, bought in 1958 for six guineas and still on his wall) as well as wine; the chancers who persuaded him into numerous dodgy schemes, including a nightclub in the Bahamas; and a film called Dolly Story (of which the best that can be said is that it was a product of its time). “I got the money in spring 1964 and by the winter of 1967 half of it had been taken away from me.”

With no need to work, Spurrier stayed on at the wine merchant Christopher’s on £10 a week and gradually built his knowledge of the wine trade (“I was never a playboy,” he told me when I interviewed him for Club Oenologique). Still, he managed to spend most of the 1960s zooming around Europe in an open-top car (a Triumph Herald first, then a Vitesse – “I could have bought an E-Type if I’d wanted but I never threw money around”) with Bella, whom he met at the Queensway Ice Skating Rink in 1964 and who is still at his side. They hop from the Douro to Provence, Champagne to Chablis in a whirl of auberges and hotels, and the villas and pied-à-terres of double-barrelled pals. Finally they touch down in a houseboat in Paris, and one day, happening on a dingy wine shop called Cave de la Madeleine, Steven turns to his friend and says “That’s exactly the kind of shop I would like to buy.” “Let’s go inside,” the friend replies.

The rest, of course, is history; Spurrier retells it with brio. He saves the big reveal till the end: that it’s art, not wine, that is his true passion. In the final chapter he debates the merits of each and decides, in the end, that “Art means more to me emotionally than wine – there’s no contest.” Was that Stubbs engraving his Rosebud? (AL)

Best for: Those who even vaguely remember the ’60s

Tasting Victory: the Life and Times of the World’s Favourite Sommelier by Gerard Basset

£25 Unbound

Gerard Basset was – and remains – something of a lodestar to UK-based wine professionals and wine lovers, as well as to many sommeliers overseas. He was at the forefront of the country’s wine awakening, arguably the greatest sommelier of his generation, who did more than most to make wine a staple of UK dining tables. A former holder of the World’s Best Sommelier title (which he won at the seventh time of asking), he was the only person to also hold the Master of Wine, Master Sommelier and MBA of Wine titles.

That in itself should tell you a little about Basset’s character. “When I analyse myself,” he concludes in the book’s final chapter, “I can say that I was not blessed with the strength and skill of the great athletes or sportsmen I admired such as Bruce Lee or Johan Cruyff… Equally, I didn’t have the brilliant and sharp intellect of Gary Kasparov or Stephen Hawking. But one feature I have been privileged to possess, and that has served me extremely well, is a rock solid determination that made me highly resilient and totally focused.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that after such a successful career, Basset should choose, having been debilitated by a brutal cancer that curtailed his working commitments, to write his memoirs – a project, says Nina, his widow (and consultant on the book) that ‘he threw himself into’. What is a surprise is how readable the account is. Many wine professionals tend to write for each other, assuming the reader has the same level of knowledge – and interest – in the subject’s minutiae, and turning out rather academic copy as a result. Basset, by contrast, has a natural storyteller’s instinct, and the different episodes that make up his journey from ingenue to ingenious entrepeneur flow seamlessly as a result. For that, some credit must also go to the redoubtable Felicity Carter, who edited Basset’s first draft, and did a fine job instilling narrative structure.

It’s the human side that Basset does so well

The result is a hugely readable, compelling account of a stellar career, told in an accessible, modest manner. As a result, what could have been a book that was relevant only to those subsets outlined above, who already knew of Basset’s standing, will be hugely enjoyable to wine professionals and wine lovers alike who simply enjoy reading good, human stories.

And it is this human side that Basset does so well. His innate modesty ensures that he never talks down to the reader – a skill than served him well throughout his journey from kitchen porter in a grim hotel on the Isle of Man to the founder of the pioneering, upscale Hotel du Vin chain 15 years later. Throughout, his diplomatic, non-judgmental but sharp-eyed tone shines through. Of that first posting, in 1979, he recalls: “The dinner menu had a choice of three starters, one of which was orange juice, which I found surprising.” He quickly takes on board a valuable lesson when greeting familiar guests dining with unfamiliar companions: “This lady, no doubt, was his wife.” He is resourceful when catering to the lavish demands of thirsty diners – such as the enthusiastic imbibers who, prohibited from following their Lafite, Latour and Yquem with three bottles of Krug since the late hour meant only residents could be served, were sold rooms – and then the Krug – by Basset, who recalls, “They didn’t even take the keys.”

Throughout, episodes are relayed with a lightness of touch and economy, but forensic detail – which left me wondering how he recalled them all. I can only assume he kept methodical records of his life’s landmark events. With Basset, you’d expect nothing less. (GW)

Best for: Neophyte sommeliers seeking a role model

Wine Girl by Victoria James

£16.99 Ecco

 

Of all the books reviewed here, this is by far the breeziest read. That’s not to say it’s an easy read  – some of the episodes recounted are shocking in their emotional – and even physical – brutality, not least the opening chapter. But unlike many wine writers, James crafts an engaging, fast-paced narrative: accessible for anyone seeking a good read; meaningful – and disarming – for wine nerds.

It helps, of course, that she’s recounting such an engaging tale, namely the prejudice and sexism she had to navigate as ‘the youngest sommelier in the country and the most foolish’. It’s a neat line – and taps into her rapid rise in a profession for which she was neither prepared nor qualified. We can’t be sure, of course, that she was the youngest sommelier in the US, and on several occasions there is a nagging feeling that some of the stories have benefitted from a little embellishment. But taken at face value, it’s a compelling, affecting journey in which you can’t help but become emotionally involved.

Details of her growing up and adolescence could have been irrelevant and indulgent, but in James’ knowing voice, they serve as shrewdly observed context – her first stints selling lemonade from a street stall; her father’s drinking problem. Her college years see her descend into a spiral of drink and drugs, at one point bringing back ecstasy from Mexico to sell (“a useful insight into pricing and budgeting”) then losing her licence for drink-driving.

Given this context, a job as a bartender would seem an ill-advised move, but her teenage job waiting tables in a diner where a cranky, canny colleague taught her the value of observing and flattering customers serves her well. She recalls and describes individual patrons in nostalgic detail, highlighting an element of sommelerie that is often overlooked – service.

As a sommelier, she succeeds – like the book – largely because of this personal approach, but also because she is likeable, ambitious, hard-working and realistic – amusingly and unpretentiously so when it comes to wine. She is not a natural, and doesn’t wax lyrical about how she was seduced by the ethereal elegance of a Gevrey-Chambertin. Instead she sees the métier as a challenge, an opportunity, and only then becomes fascinated by its breadth and rigour.

She is never wide-eyed about it though – she remains an outsider: prescient on the conservatism of the since-disgraced Court of Master Sommeliers; trenchant on the alpha-male tendencies of sommelier contests. Meanwhile raw details of sexual assault and prejudice provide a sobering commentary on the darker side of the hospitality world. Yet she persists and when, in the final chapter, she co-launches her own restaurant and nervously waits on the reviews, you desperately want it to thrive. The gushing testimonials in the epilogue are a touch self-congratulatory, but ultimately, as we see James become a mentor for others, it would take a heart of stone to deny that she’s earned them. (GW)
Best for: Would-be sommeliers who prefer to go in with open eyes

Dirt: Adventures in French Cooking by Bill Buford

£18.99 Jonathan Cape

 

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain ripped away the curtain and showed us the gruesome reality of life in a top-class restaurant kitchen. It was an exhilarating ride, like a ghost train but with real blood (and real drugs). For the last 15 years or so, Bill Buford has been steadily working that same trench, first with Heat, in which he described starting as a menial and working his way up in the kitchens of New York chef Mario Batelli, and now with Dirt, in which he starts out a bit higher than a plongeur and finally works alongside big-name chefs at some of the most famous restaurants in the world.

Buford (who was editor of the literary journal Granta before he decided, as an adequate home cook, to see if he could cut it in the top kitchens) has a wry, nose-pressed-against-the-glass style: he’s in the kitchen but never quite of the kitchen. This allows him considerable satirical licence. Here he is on his first day as a stagiaire (almost the lowest of the low) at La Mère Brazier, one of the most famous restaurants in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of the world. “Frederic, the chef de partie, was in charge. He was tall and lean and stiff with pale eyes and a rectangular, expressionless face that conveyed menace and danger almost all of the time. Ansel was squat and sturdy, with arms that seemed disproportionately long for his trunk (they swung), and, covered with body hair, had one of those five o’clock shadows that kick in just after breakfast.”

While Buford has considerable fun with these cartoonish characters, he assumes we want to take the business of cooking as seriously as he does. There are erudite and eminently readable disquisitions on the Loire Valley, and Leonardo, and the origins of ragout, or potato peeling (for which there is an open competition in Lyon – “I mean, really?”). The author’s persona of wide-eyed ingenu starts to pall a little as his friends become ever more starry, and names begin to drop like potato-peelings: “Daniel Boulud phoned me early. He was in Brussels, with Jérôme Bocuse…” To his credit, Buford admits he’s privileged beyond the dreams of most stagiaires but one wonders how much string-pulling is going on behind the scenes. No matter: his descriptions of kitchen life are visceral – the tedious machismo, the grotesque misogyny, the brutal hours, the despotic chefs – and he wears his knowledge of gastronomic history lightly. The whole adds up to a hugely entertaining and informative read for any serious foodie. (AL)

Best for:  Foodies who like a well-turned phrase as much as a well-cooked turbot

The Noble Rot Book: Wine From Another Galaxy by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew

£30 Quadrille

Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew are the garagistes of wine publishing; the pair behind the Noble Rot phenomenon arrived in 2013 with a self-published, irreverent magazine that married a commentary on fine wine with reflections from a diverse array of celebrity interviewees. Their approach blended a self-proclaimed ‘DIY spirit’ with the self-assured swagger you’d expect of a former music A&R man. ‘Having read somewhere that Mike D of rap royalty the Beastie Boys was a fully paid-up wino with a passion for Raveneau Chablis, I contacted him with some interview questions which, quite surprisingly, he swiftly returned,’ writes Keeling (formerly managing director of Island Records). ‘Noble Rot – a wine term we liked the sound of because it juxtaposed contrasting words in a vaguely Stone Roses fashion – was on.’

Since then, the magazine has courted ever glitzier names (Keira Knightley is on hand here for a testimonial); two restaurants have been launched, attracting the glitterati of the London foodie scene, who are then expertly mined for articles in the magazine; and now comes the book. You can forgive Keeling the self-congratulatory (though entertaining) homage to their empire in the opening section; the rest of the book is a fresh and spare take on the core essentials of fine wine.

The no-nonsense tone is reflected in the big, bold look and feel – and if that can get a bit much at times (the saturated neon backdrops that suddenly pop up are in sharp contrast to the standard publishing creed of a single overriding aesthetic and consistent colour palate), it’s all part of the schtick, and lends further edge to the celebratory, often black and white photography, which is excellent throughout.

The irreverance is occasionally overdone – an alternative aroma wheel features such olfactory references as “Wedding Tackle”, “Sigourney Weaver,” and “Who Let One Go?” – which is not quite as witty or original as the authors like to think. When they get it right though, it’s excellent: concise and clear chapters on How Wine is Made, What Makes a Difference and How Wines Age breeze through the basics, while others are peppered with references and quotes from often non-wine celebrities.

Thereafter, the book evolves into a series of profiles of regions and producers chosen simply on the basis that Keeling and Andrew like them – less a guide, more a personal, subjective array of favourites, from Bordeaux first growths to Jura. A touch indulgent in its choices (10 pages are dedicated to natural wine specialist Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, while Australia doesn’t get a mention), it is, on the other hand, pleasingly opinionated. The lack of any New World regions or wines does seem odd, however – and unexpectedly conservative – especially given Andrew previously worked for Roberson, which boasts one of London’s most exciting California lists.

Ultimately, though, this is a barnstorming read. “Dan and Mark’s strength as restaurateurs is that they aren’t restaurateurs,” writes their friend, investor and consultant, the restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin in an opening chapter. The pair bring the same fresh take to book publishing. (GW)

Best for: Middle-aged wine lovers seeking to pass on their passion to the next generation

The Malt Whisky Yearbook by Ingvar Ronde and others

£14.95 The Malt Whisky Yearbook

 

The world of malt whisky is ever-changing, with distilleries making the liquid gold now popping up all over the world. Fans of single malts can explore the distillate from producers across Africa, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand as well as Europe and North America. All these producers, as well as a host of facts and figures, interviews and articles, are to be found within the pages of the 16th edition of he Malt Whisky Yearbook.

The work of Swedish writer and publisher Ingvar Ronde, the Yearbook benefits from being bang up-to-date, including reflections on how the whisky industry has adapted to cope with the pandemic.

It’s structure makes it both an eminently readable romp through the world of whisky, with educational and entertaining pieces from experts such as Charles MacLean, Gavin D Smith and Neil Ridley, and a vital textbook for those who need facts at their fingertips. Few manage to maintain the right balance when dealing with such a complex topic; the fact that the Yearbook is in its 16th edition is testament its relevance. It is also bang up-to-date, with Ronde’s thoughts on how the industry is coping with the pandemic.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to the distilleries of single malt’s heartland, Scotland. Each distillery focus takes up no more than a page or two; vital statistics, history and current bottings are covered, the entries lean-yet-precise reflections of the various producers across the country.

Yet as much as whisky distilling is a science, it is also an art. And where there is art, the artists are of importance. Ronde punctuates his annual with short, page-long interviews entitled ‘Whisky Legends’, throwing light onto those behind the product.

Once the focus on Scotland’s growing single malt scene has concluded, there is a wider look at distilleries from around the world. Ronde notes that two new countries have been added (Hungry and Slovakia) and that by next year China will make its debut, thanks to Pernod Ricard investing $150m in a distillery in Sichuan.

In the final pages, Ronde compiles an overview of the year in facts and figures, ensuring that the information is balanced out by cultural and socioeconomic context. His final flourish is to keep an updated account of the best whisky shops, independent bottlers, and other resources available for the reader to explore.

The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2021 is so much more than just a compilation of facts and figures; it is  a valuable snapshot of a year in an industry that reflects consumers’ social habits, making it more like an annual family photo. A quick look back at past issues enables an air of nostalgia, a glimpse into an industry that, even after nearly 200 years of legal, commercial distilling, is still evolving. (JH) N.B. Joel Harrison contributed a chapter to the Malt Whisky Yearbook

Best for: Lovers of ALL whisky, from Islay to Asia

A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s No 1 Scotch Whisky

£16.99 Canongate

“Given that he is without doubt Kilmarnock’s most famous son, whose name is spoken every day by people around the world, surprisingly little is known about the life of John (later ‘Johnnie’) Walker”. So starts the story of the son of Alexander Walker and Elizabeth Gemmel, born on 25 July 1805 at Todriggs Farm, “a few miles south-west of Kilmarnock”.

Nicholas Morgan (known to whisky aficionados as Dr Nick – he has doctorates in both philosophy and history) draws on his skills as raconteur and archivist for this book celebrating the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Walker family’s grocery. Morgan joined Diageo initially to curate an archive of material for the brands they owned. That archive, housed in purpose-built rooms, now requires several people to look after it. The historical figures he talks about are brought to life by his diligent research – you can almost smell the inside of a typical grocer’s shop, such as the one John’s mother opened in 1820, and which he ran: “Tea, coffee, cocoa and chocolate, sugar, dried fruits and nuts, spices (including rice and grains), confectionery (preserved and crystallised fruits and peels, jams and juices), oils, pickles, sauces, hard cheeses, vinegars, and a variety of ‘miscellaneous’ household goods such as soaps, black lead, pipe clay and bath bricks.”

The directors disapproved of the fact their whisky was known as Johnny Walker

Whisky was also sold, so successfully that John Walker felt the need to explain the lack of any wine trade from the shop. John’s son Alexander became a tea blender, and this part of the story is fascinating, as he turns skills used in blending tea to blending whisky.

So little is known of the rest of John Walker’s life that the story really starts with Alexander, who took over the shop and began the process that transformed John Walker & Sons’ Old Highland Whisky into Johnnie Walker, a brand that is responsible for 20 per cent of global Scotch sales: “3,000 jobs in Scotland support Johnnie Walker at over 50 operating sites, including 28 single malt distilleries the length and breadth of Scotland, and 1½ single grain distilleries.”

It might never have happened: at the beginning of the last century, the directors of John Walker & Sons disapproved of the fact their whisky, in its distinctive square bottle, was known as “Johnny [sic] Walker” across Scotland and beyond.

“Retailers advertised Johnny Walker whiskies…humourists featured Johnny Walker in their stories, and cartoonists celebrated Johnny Walker in print…The ‘Johnny Walker walk’ was performed in London’s music halls…elsewhere ‘the demon’ Johnny Walker was conjured up at temperance meetings.”

The board was split, and it wasn’t until 1907 that “Johnnie Walker” made its first official appearance in advertising copy. Morgan’s forensic research makes for a fascinating story, packed with statistics and dense with detail (the references alone run to 37 pages). But it’s this attention to detail that makes the story compelling and believable: he gives the impression that you are hearing a fresh account delivered first-hand. (CHW)

Best for: Whisky history buffs

The Goode Guide to Wine by Jamie Goode

$18.95/£15.99 University of California Press

 

“Who will have the last word on wine, if not Jamie Goode?” asks the publisher of Goode’s latest missive. Who indeed – for if anyone was going to produce a wine “manifesto”, as this is billed, it would be that most prolific of provocateurs, Goode.

This eminently readable book comes in a series of easily digestible chapters – 55 in total – each riffing on a topic that has got under Goode’s famously thin skin. He starts on uncontroversial, sage ground – terroir exists, and soils matter. Thereafter, there is a certain stream-of-consciousness feel to the topics that he covers – from the danger of big retailers controlling the market, to the evil of over-ripeness – always in the manner of a vexed, slightly tortured soul.

Tasting notes are horrible and I hate them

“Tasting notes are horrible and I hate them. Yet I have to write them,” he opines. He hates scores, he confides, but uses them, “because everyone else does”. The takedown of scoring systems that follows is as valid as it is acutely-observed – though not as acute as his hilarious assassination of a typical wine magazine profile. A chapter on microbes might push the patience of most consumers – or, as Goode describes them, “normal people” – but then again, Goode has a PhD in plant science, as he outlines on page two of the preface and at regular intervals thereafter, and presumably wants to put it to good use.

Ultimately, however, this is the perfect stocking filler – a bedside – or bathroom – book for dipping into as and when, or over the Christmas downtime. Never less than engaging, entertaining and – yes – thought-provoking, not least the fascinating philosophical chapter – reproduced here – on why wine is a ‘virtuous intoxicant’ and whether we would be so fascinated with it if it didn’t get us drunk. “Jamie Goode has a distinct philosophy when it comes to wine,” says the blurb, “and he knows you may disagree; if you do, that means it’s working.” (GW)

Best for: Those who love a Twitter argument

Jon Wyand book cover

Four Seasons in Côte Chalonnaise by Jon Wyand

£35 Bamboo

 

Jon Wyand has been photographing the wine world for 40 years, and is known primarily for his vineyard photography. Over the last two decades, he has become a specialist in the bucolic landscapes of Burgundy. But he has also expanded his range to cover more people and moments – as seen in this wonderfully evocative collection.

There are gorgeous vineyard vistas, of course, but the joy comes in the intimate scenes, the small details, the off-guard portraits of Burgundy’s unpretentious vignerons and village life. As well as winery labour, Wyand captures religious festivals, local fêtes and everyday routine, observed with originality and no little humour.

Page upon page of cleverly constructed shots are occasionally interrupted by text from writer Emmanuel Mère which, in its clinical, relentlessly factual make-up, is out of kilter with the atmospheric visuals. “Established in 1990, the regional appellation indicating the geographical origins of Côte Chalonnaise recognises the character of 44 different towns and villages located in northern Saône-et-Loire,” he writes. Talk about a mood-killer…

Such a rundown of appellation rules and history detracts from the escapism of the photos, rooting you back in a series of facts that can easily be found elsewhere. Much more valuable – and enjoyable – would have been interviews with Wyand on his impressions of the places he visited, his thoughts on favourite subjects, and how shooting differs across the seasons. Likewise, the shots could have benefitted from more descriptive captions detailing who or where each shot was taken, rather than just “Mercurey” or “Russilly”; even the occasional more expansive efforts – “Time Passing” or “Menage à trois” – are rather cursory.

Ultimately, though, this is all about bringing the spirit of the Côte Chalonnaise to the coffee table. And the Côte Chalonnaise spirit exists: the saintly Aubert de Villaine says so. “Here, winemakers have faith in the potential of their climats,” says the storied Domaine de la Romanée-Conti guardian in a testimonial. “Jon has perfectly captured this ‘spirit’ in faces, landscapes and through pure moments of silence which express truth much better than a writer’s words.” Amen to that. (GW)

Best for: Romantics and aesthetes

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