Tom Stevenson, the well-known British wine god, has authored a jewel of a book in Buy the Right Wine Every Time: the no-fuss no-vintage wine guide that should be in every wine lover’s or fledgling wine lover’s library. Just released in March of 2014, it’s concise, sensible, organized, and very well written. Which should be no surprise since Mr. Stevenson is a prolific wine writer of some thirty-odd years, having authored or co-authored such wine classics as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Wine, and the award-winning Champagne. He knows his stuff and that knowledge is apparent even upon the most cursory of readings.
There is one thing in particular I want you to take note of – just as the subtitle indicates, Mr. Stevenson does not specify vintages in this book. His rationale is that branded wines are going to be consistent from year to year, and pinpointing vintages is unnecessary. Yes, there will be good and bad vintages in all wines, but that’s really immaterial when talking about easily-available wines. In my opinion, Mr. Stevenson’s writing about the wines and not the vintages is key to keeping this book current. Just about every wine book I have has dated itself by honing in on specific vintages, which, years later, are no longer available, making the recommendations irrelevant. In manufacturing they call that planned obsolescence.
The book is broken down into four parts: Introduction, What’s In This Book; Part One, Wines by Style; Part Two, A-Z of Wines; and Part Three, The 20 Most Useful Wine Tips. The endings are Credits and About the Author.
The Foreword is a great Mea Culpa to the general public about the perceived snootiness of wine critics and how this book will (hopefully) make up for the years of wine critic alienation. There he also discusses his rationale for avoiding specific vintage information. It’s a great read, and please don’t skip it.
Full disclosure – I rarely read Forewords or Introductions in books. I had to this time and wondered why I rarely did with other books. New book-reading habit now established!
The Introduction lays out the rationale about book’s layout, which makes it very easy to follow. Once again, this is a very important part of getting the most out of the book. Do not skip this part!
In Part 1, Wines by Style, the wines are laid out by color – Red for reds, light green for whites, orange for fortified, yellow for sparkling and pink for rosés. The wines are arranged more or less in alphabetical order: Aromatic Whites, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet-Shiraz, Carmenere, and so forth. No, you won’t find Barolo, Barbaresco, or Brunellos on this list. This is a list for the everyday everyman. Whose palate, by the way, would probably melt under the onslaught of Barolo. Just sayin’.
In Part 2, A-Z of Wines, the wineries are listed in alphabetical order, and this is where it gets really, really good. The wines are broken down by Recommended, Highly Recommended, and To Die For. Every wine is given a $, $$, or $$$ rating for price, and a side note on the ABV. In addition, there’s a photo of either the bottle to which Mr. Stevenson is referring or a photo of the label.
For example, let’s take a look at how he has listed Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon.
Duckhorn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Highly Recommended, $$$, 14.5%
What is it?
A dry red wine made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape grown in the Napa Valley, California. The wine is aged in oak for 16 months.
What does it taste like?
Intense, focused blackcherry, black olive, tobacco and clove; the palate is luxuriously silky yet full-bodied
If you like this, then try with confidence…
Greater quality, greater intensity
Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon or Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Greater quality, less intensity
Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Try something completely different
For a classic Bordeaux to match the intensity and voluptuousness of top California Cabernet Sauvignon, try a Merlot-dominated Pomerol such as chateaux L’Evangile, La Fleur-Pétrus, Latour à Pomerol, Petit-Vllage, Trotanoy and, if you can afford them, Pétrus and Le Pin
It’s obvious that Mr. Stevenson is an experienced oenophile, and his passion for the grape – or should I say his desire to share his passion for the grape – shines through in every word.
This is not a sit down and read book. I would place this volume squarely in the reference category, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not great reading. Despite a total of 320 pages, it’s a compact book that can fit easily into pocket or purse and can be carried around as a reference guide when shopping for wine. I found in this book, as the above Duckhorn example demonstrates, that there are quite a few alternatives to some of my favorites or some that I would love to list as my favorites if I could only afford them.
Part 3 of the book is entitled The 20 Most Useful Wine Tips, and, except for a couple of items, I feel has great value to the new and moderately experienced wine person.
The twenty items are as follows:
- How to search for a specific wine
- How to store wine
- How to drink wine at the correct temperature
- How to chill wine
- How to bring wine up to room temperature
- How to cope with sediment in wine
- How to decant wine
- How to allow a wine to breathe
- How to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew
- How to open a Champagne bottle
- How to pour Champagne
- How to react to wines sealed with a screwcap
- How to identify a corked wine
- How to order wine in a restaurant
- How to react to wine served in a basket
- How to approach food and wine pairing
- How to choose wine glasses
- How to wash wine glasses
- How to preserve the freshness of an open bottle of wine
- How to take notes at a wine tasting
All of these are pithy, informative nuggets of information that are valuable to anyone, newbie or experienced wine drinkers alike. However, since I’m who I am, I have to take issue with a couple of pointers that he gave.
On pointer number five, how to bring wine up to room temperature, he recommends using the microwave to do so. I – to use an old author’s term – recoiled in abject horror upon reading that little bit of advice. Not just because I happen to think that using a microwave to warm wine is the ultimate in gauche beyond recognition, but because there are real scientific reasons for it.
For instance, two very valuable fluids used in the medical field are warmed by natural means rather than by microwave because the microwave changes the very structure of these fluids, and can cause uneven warming in them besides. These two fluids are blood and baby formula. If you want links to studies, just contact me. But DO NOT PUT YOUR WINE IN THE MICROWAVE. Ever. Pour cold wine in a glass and let it come up to temperature naturally. Let your guests know that you left it in the fridge a little too long, and just let it rest.
On pointers numbers twelve and thirteen, he shares conventional knowledge about screwcaps and corked wines that has been breaking down under the microscope of actual research and studies. Look for my upcoming series on so-called “corked” wines for more information. It’s too extensive to go into in this venue.
On pointer number sixteen where he talks about wine served in a basket, I find that this is a difficult one to give an opinion on because of Mr. Stevenson’s obvious experiences with wines served in this manner.
In the Court, the only reason to bring a bottle in a basket is because it’s quite old, assumed to have a lot of sediment, and will be decanted at tableside. What that means is that the reasons that Mr. Stevenson gave for having the raised brow and concerns about a basket-served wine are moot. A Court-trained sommelier would never serve a wine that was in a basket directly into the glasses of the guests. It will always be decanted. Period.
Buy the Right Wine Every Time is an absolute gem of a book, and I highly recommend it for anyone. This will be a permanent part of my rapidly growing wine book library. The caveats above are a couple of my own personal sticking points; your mileage may vary. That said, the other 99% of the book is extraordinary, well-written, and allowed me to read it without wanting to get out the red pen or the dictionary. At less than $10.00 on Amazon at the time that I’m publishing, it is a steal.
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Sterling Epicure (March 4, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1402763417
- ISBN-13: 978-1402763410
- Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 5 x 0.9 inches
Full disclosure part deux: I received the book as a pre-publication sample. My review would have been the same even if I’d bought it. It’s that good. And fun!