By Thomas Madrecki
The world of wine is infinite, and so Zraly’s job is not enviable: Condense thousands of years of wine study and thousands of facts and figures about appellations, grapes, producers and more into a few hundred pages. Then condense it even further by writing it in a way that is accessible to the everyman.
Zraly triumphantly succeeds, and it’s why he’s sold more than three million copies of his book. Reading his book is like sitting down with a surprisingly normal wine geek, then asking, “What’s this?” and “Why?” over and over. It helps, too, that the newest edition from Sterling Epicure also is enhanced with new video smart phone tags and more than 1,300 wine audio pronunciation files.
What else could we ask for?
Again with the acknowledgement that this may be the best introduction to the endlessly diverse subject of wine, I wish the newest version of Zraly’s book took a closer look at winemaking practices. With so much talk these days not only about biodynamic/natural wine, but also the merits (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask) of different aging containers and “Parker-ized” wines, it might make sense to have a more in-depth discussion of how different people are growing grapes and turning them into the delicious beverage we all love and appreciate.
Secondly, and perhaps more apparent to me given my personal affection for the wines of the Loire Valley, Zraly’s writing on the white wines of France in particular (Chapter Two) strikes me as inadequate. I know, the book is written for general consumers (not nerdy hipster wine drinkers), most of whom place more value in reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy (wines that receive their own more in-depth chapters). But for someone who claims to be “enamored with the quality and diversity of the white wines of the Loire Valley,” Zraly could do a better job.
As he tells it, there are four main styles in Loire: Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet, Sancerre and Vouvray. Ignoring the fact that what we’re really talking about are appellations (in the case of Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre and Vouvray), what’s more frustrating about this horrendous oversimplification is that it ignores the real intricacy and diversity of a region, and therefore slights the wines in question. Chenin Blanc – regarded by many wine writers and sommeliers as one of the preeminent white wine grapes, with the capacity for untold complexity – receives passing mention, and that’s just not good enough when the white wines of Germany receive page after page of thorough, delightfully clear explanation.
This complaint coincides with the last area of possible improvement if and when Zraly decides to revise his book: With so many new wine regions receiving critical praise these days, he might consider expanding his section on lesser known wines. Or, recognizing that the wines of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand are no longer “off the beaten path,” they should likely receive their own sections. That’d make room for some of France and Italy’s more obscure appellations as well as countries like Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Georgia.
All in all, though, let us again remind that Zraly has been tasked with the impossible, and yet still comes close to succeeding. The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, first published more than 20 years ago, still comes highly recommended, especially for anyone “just starting out” in the wonderfully wide world of wine.