Any book that uses xylophones and crayon boxes to illustrate and explain the principles of wine is already a winner, and it's emblematic of the spirit of The Food Lover's Guide to Wine. Written by Karen Page with Andrew Dornenburg, it is a book that will welcome, engage, and enlighten a broad spectrum of wine lovers, from the novice to the expert. Living in a country where, as the authors explain, a soft drink is the most popular beverage choice with dinner, Page and Dornenburg are certainly confronted with challenges in convincing more Americans to regularly bring wine to the table.
And this challenge began, and has been perpetuated by both journalists and readers "choosing sides" between wine and food. Page and Dornenburg relate their humorous experiences of what happens when they introduce themselves as wine writers: they receive an apology. Why? "[T]oo many invariably feel embarrassed that they don't know more about wine." They note, not surprisingly, that this never happens when they introduce themselves as food writers. These kind of encounters are the driving force behind The Food Lover's Guide to Wine. So how do they go about bridging the gap?
They give every person credit for already knowing what flavors they like based on a lifetime of eating. You like almonds? Try fino sherry. What's fino sherry? Flip to the excellent chapter, "Know Your Wines: The List" for a user-friendly guide from A for "Acidic Wines" to Z for "Zweigelt." Grapes, regions, and styles of wine are covered in this resource that is invaluable, even for people with loads of wine experience. Going back to sherry, I will admit to it being a semi-gaping hole in my wine knowledge. But in just a few pages, with an additional primer on the styles of sherry by Ron Miller of Solera, I was able to refresh and reinforce my knowledge of this underappreciated beverage. And Hallelujah to Page and Dornenburg for including pronunciations! I think more people would be willing to order and ask for a wider variety of wines if they felt confident knowing how they are said. Frankly, I've never been sure how to pronounce "Hermitage" (is the "H" silent?) or Cahors (is the "s" silent?) myself.
A good portion of the book is given to profiles and comments from sommeliers, which goes a long way in demystifying them as intimidating gatekeepers of a specialized knowledge. It probably doesn't help that they are called "sommeliers." Can we come up with a more welcoming word or phrase? I do appreciate hearing from a winner of the World's Best Sommelier award, Aldo Sohm, refer to those in his profession as "enjoyment managers." Who wouldn't want that on their business card? The group of sommeliers add a thoughtful, passionate, and helpful perspective. (Though I'm horribly biased, I would have liked to see more voices from the world of retail wine.) And it's encouraging to know that many of our top sommeliers first contact with wine was through (gasp!) White Zinfandel and jug wine. Even Big League Chew makes an appearance when talking about wine. One of the lessons of the book is not to be afraid to speak your mind to a sommelier about what you like and what you want; they are there to suggest and guide, and it's a lot easier when you are forthright about what you are looking for. And I would add that it's your money and your experience; don't be afraid to go with what makes you happy.
So what do xylophones and crayon boxes have to do with food and wine matching? Well, think of wines running along a spectrum of sounds. This can apply to a wine's color, weight, acidity and sweetness. And crayons? With thousands of grape varieties out there, don't try and work with all of them at once. Like your first box of crayons, start small and familiarize yourself with some of the most popular and famous grapes, plus a few well-known styles of wine. (I don't mean to brag, but my first box of crayons was the 64 with the built-in sharpener. Just sayin'.)
Along with a nice bottle, you can add The Food Lover's Guide to Wine to the holiday list of anybody who wants to learn more about wine. You'll gain confidence, and take on your future wine adventures with aplomb. And I won't be surprised if xylophones and crayon boxes become the hottest wine accessories.
Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review.