wine books

WHISKY DREAMS “Having Your Dram & Eating It Too”

By Riannon Walsh

203 pages, $19

Whisky Dreams

What a lovely book! I rarely review a cookbook favorably if it doesn’t have good photography. Well, this one has no photography and it’s still a special book. It’s one of those odd cookbooks that sheds an intimate lense on both the creator and the subject. Riannon Walsh lives on an organic farm in Pennsylvania and is the CEO of Celtic Malts. For eleven years she organized the Whiskies of the World Expo, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg in her immersion in the sea of single malts. So she has a great deal of experience with her subject.


There is no more complex and intense spirit than single malt scotch. I’d rather not call attention to it, as scotch already has too many adherents. Cooking with whisky is not a new idea, though it has rarely if ever been explored in this detail. These recipes are easy to follow and make sense, and to twist a line from Julia Child, “I enjoy cooking with whisky. Sometimes I even put it in the food.” If nothing else, it will give you an excuse to become more knowledgable abou the various distillers and styles available.


Reading this book is like sitting in a living room before the fire, enjoying a glass of whisky, and listening to the stories of your best friend recently come back from distant travels. Better yet, beyond the stories in this book, there are (if I counted correctly) 92 recipes using single malt scotch and bourbon.



By Mike Desimone & Jeff Jenssen

582 pages, $25

Wines of California

I like Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen. They’re genial guys who genuinely love wine and have traveled about in their exploration of the subject, while sharing their experiences on high visibility venues such as The Today Show. They don’t pretend to be Masters of Wine, but they are engaging Wine Educators. Their previous book, Wines of the Southern Hemisphere, is an overview of half the world.

At 582 pages their new book, Wines of California, is heavy enough to use as a doorstop, and it contains some useful and entertaining information.  But I have to take exception with some of the publisher’s choices, and with the organization of the book.

I think it’s perhaps most instructive to give you an impression of what this book is, and what it isn’t.


First, what it isn’t:

  • The subtitle promises this will be “The Comprehensive Guide.” It is not. It is, as far as I can tell, the comprehensive guide to the wines that Mike and Jeff have tasted. How could it be otherwise, when there are more than 3,700 wineries in the state? Nonetheless, the title is misleading.


  • Part One is divided into eleven chapters corresponding to various wine regions, with an overview of a particular region followed by commentary on some of the wineries. The areas are divided into pretty broad AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). For example, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Contra Costa County, Livermore Valley and Santa Clara Valley all fall into The San Francisco Bay AVA.  Within that broad region are about 120 wineries, of which only 19 are mentioned in the book. In each covered region some of the most influencial wineries of the last 40 years are passed over in favor of newer, triendier wineries. Chances are, you’ll have favorites that don’t even rate a mention. The choices seem somewhat capricious, but as I said, you can’t expect any guide to be truly “comprehensive,” as it would run several thousand pages.


  • As a photographer, I’ve always enjoyed working in the wine industry, because the subject is so visually stimulating. It allows for landscapes, close-ups, exterior and interior architectural shots, and portraits of the people involved.  If you’re looking for stimulating photos, this is not the book for you, as it contains just a handful of uncaptioned black-and-white photos.


  • Part Three is made up of 22 recipes from wineries and restaurants in the “wine country,” which these days encompasses just about all of California. I wish they’d left this section out, as it’s a random collection of recipes that is neither supported by either a table of contents, nor any photos.


What it is:

It’s an entertaining and informative overview. The introduction, detailing the history of the fledgling industry in the 19th century, as well as the section discussing the major grape varieties is well-written and on the mark, and brings together a lot of useful and interesting facts.


Part Two, “In Their Own Words,” is to me the most interesting part of the book, containing 30 interviews in 120 pages. Wine is a multi-faceted subject, and it’s always fascinating to learn the human stories behind the wines.


Instead of one big book, I wish the publisher had broken this book into its smaller components and included photos. I wish Part Two were three times longer. It would make a nice stand-alone volume. But publishing has its limitations. What you will get is an interesting and personal (not comprehensive) overview of an evolving industry, and at a very reasonable $25, it won’t break your budget.



336 pages, $17

Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book

Hugh Johnson’s little book, which fits into an inside coat pocket, contains a lifetime love affair with wine between its slim covers. No one can know everything about wine, but Hugh Johnson has been fine-tuning his study of the subject for more than forty years, and you can be the beneficiary by investing in his latest offering.


Thousands of wines are covered here, with good overviews of regions and useful vintage charts. I may not always agree with his assessments of individual wines, but he’s knowledgable and consistent, and up-to-date on all the changes in the world of wine. There are fascinating boxes with cogent information and informed opinion, as well as tidbits of information scattered throughout the book to keep it interesting — for example: “The whole of Greece makes 35% less wine per annum than Bordeaux,” or “There are just 6,000 growers in the Mosel Valley now, from 23,000+ in the early ‘80’s: c. 5,000 ha abandnoned” I also appreciate the occasional snarky comment such as, “New from Oregon: Pinot Noir in a can, to encourage ‘beerification’ of wine. Lovely.”

It’s a wonderful little book that will keep you entertained as well as informed.

Keep on sipping, Hugh!


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