I don’t own very many wine books.
I don’t make that pronouncement with some sort of anti-intellectualist smugness. I just have little free time and see no value in obtaining books which do not provide what I need or want to know.
I want to understand wine through the principles of plant physiology, climate science, microbiology, biochemistry and neurophysiology. I have not yet found a book that provides this perspective, in toto. So, besides a few obligatory encyclopedic “world-of-wine” types of books, I have only a few technical publications I use as references.
I have three academic books which I use in my wine growing and wine making edeavors:
- “Wine Analysis and Production” – W. Zoecklin, K. Fugelsand, B. Gump, F. Nury
- “Principles and Practices of Winemaking” – R. Boulton, V. Singleton, L. Bisson, R. Kunkee
- “General Viticulture” – J. A. Cook, A. J. Winkler and W. M. Kliewer
(Tip: these books can be very expensive, but you can buy them used or find cheaper, black and white only, Indian editions on eBay or even Amazon)
I also keep my undergraduate Plant Physiology textbook on the shelf. Of course, I do not have all these in some sort of liturgical rotation. I reach for these books to answer more academic questions (after, all: Wine makes itself. Except when it doesn’t.).
Besides these texts, I like to to check the American Journal of Enology and Viticure when I have more geeky questions on even more esoteric topics. Finally, I have printed out and keep on hand charts for additions (acids, sulfide, sorbate, yeast nutrients, etc).
I would be remiss if I did not admit that my contacts and relationships with professional winemakers afford me access to more practical (and practiced) winemaking knowledge than is not contained in any book.
Still, all home winemakers should have at least a basic book on winemaking.
I find that Tim Patterson’s “Home Winemaking for Dummies” fits the need nicely.
Tim, who writes about wine for several publications, including Wines & Vines and WineMaker (and makes wine at his Berkley home) sent me a copy of this book when it was first published.
In med school, we used review books from a serries called “Ridiculously Simple” (as in: “Microbiology made ridiculously simple”) to help us memorize and organize the mountains of minutia necessary to progress in our education. They were succinct and to the point. They condensed the most relevant information and were packed with charts and mnemonics.
So, to me, a “For Dummies” book about winemaking should follow a similar paradigm: it should present key information in a step-by-step, outline format and it should have condensed charts of information for quick reference. More in-depth notes should play more of a footnote or “aside” role.
Just under 350 pages, organized into seven parts, 23 chapters and four appendices (glossary, grape and equipment sources, conversion tables and formulas for additions), the book addresses the basics of making red, white and pink grape wines as well as dessert and sparkling wines. Tim takes the role of a supportive and encouraging teacher and coach, guiding the reader through safe and sound practices.
The book follows conventions of all “For Dummies” books, including icons: “Remember” – most important point, “Tip” – ‘insider’ information, “Technical Stuff” – deeper background, “Warning!” – flags hazards in the process and “How the pros do it” – tips from commercial winemakers.
I have provided a more detailed summary of topics covered in the book here, but I wanted to distill the salient points as follows:
Part One starts with some reality checks: Home winemaking is a lifestyle (yes, you will have to forego Fall vacations). An overview of the general winemaking process is then presented. A sound round-up of necessary equipment, from crush to bottling, follows.
Parts Two through Four contain a didactic step-by-step discussion of the wine making process. The key post-fermentation procedures: racking, checking dryness, sulfiding, malolactic fermentation are given good coverage. Deeper detail is provided for reds, whites and aromatic whites with further focus afforded to more common varieties in each category.
Part Five takes the reader to the edge of conventional home winemaking: Starting with pink wines, Patterson continues on to late-harvest and fortified wines and vin doux naturel (for those who want to try their hand at making Angelica). He wraps up with a discussion of sparkling wine production, although he admits to a tenuous grasp of the style.
The book wraps up with “The Part of Tens” in which Tim reiterates key admonitions and gives money-saving tips. The “Ten Differences between Wine(makers) and Beer(brewers)” chapter is more entertainment than education. Of the appendices, Appendix D (“Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and pH“) should be read carefully and memorized.
Criticism (or: “Suggestions for the next edition”)
- Chalk it up to the way I prefer to have at-a-glance information, but I like more schematics, tables and flow charts or “decision trees” – especially in the case of making off-dry wine. That’s how my brain works. Others may not find this an issue, but a picture is worth a thousand words.
- The discussion of yeast nutrient addition in Chapter 6 does not give any guidelines. Work has been published establishing risk factors for YAN depletion as well as subsequent supplementation. There is such a chart available (here and here), so I am not sure why this was omitted in the discussion.
- I would have liked to see a more detailed and step-by-step discussion of lysozyme addition in Patterson’s discussion of preventing or arresting MLF. A clear flow chart or table would be useful.
- Chapter 7 could use a discussion of Volatile Acidity because it can occur before primary fermentation completes. It may also be transient or permanent. Patterson touches more on this flaw in Chapter 8 and in at least one more place in the book, but seems to be resigned to the idea that there is little that “homies” (his affectionate nickname for home winemakers) can do about this problem. Certainly, reverse osmosis is not an option for the home winemaker, but I have had some success in controlling or at least limiting VA. Maybe I’ve had the one-off success, but what would have been helpful is a list of evidence-based interventions to try once a home winemaker catches a whiff of VA in their wine – before they completely write off their wine as a total loss.
- While, likely for practical reasons, there is little discussion of making off-dry table wines (i.e. not dessert, late-harvest, fortified types) more discussion about how this style can be achieved successfully with sorbate additions and filtering could have been included. But, there is not much in this book about making this kind of wines. Again, I’m the kind who likes charts and tables….
- Finally, if you want to make sparkling wines (admittedly, a project for the advanced fermentologist), this book gives only very general pointers. This is more of a concern if you want your first wine (or other fermented beverage) to be a sparkler.
In robust learning, every explanation is followed by one more question. If, like me, you like more wonky, esoteric detail, background or depth, and you tend to know just enough to ask more questions as you read, this book may not satisfy your craving for esoteric knowledge. But that is not the point of any “For Dummies” book. However, this book is in no way deficient if you want to make wine at home without assimilating tomes of viticulture, enology, microbiology, and chemistry knowledge. Details and answers to sporadic questions can be obtained via Google and other sources I mentioned above.
Patterson’s “Home Winemaking for Dummies” is a good first-line text to get you through your first few wines – and likely beyond. It is not patronizing nor does is drown the reader in detail which may not be necessary at the first wine making attempt.
One other reference tool I have is the Defects Wheel For Wine. It’s not a book, but it is a handy tool that helps get one started on the right path to solving a problem with a wine. The wheel presents causes of and solutions to flaws in wine.
The user identifies an aroma, turns the wheel to that aroma, and the window aligns with a definition, origin and interventions. Of course, what is required of the user is the ability to correctly and accurately identify aromas.
Creator Sue Langstaff has told me that she is working on a reference aroma kit, but that is still in some way off in the future. Such a kit would be an excellent tool and companion to the Defects Wheel. The problem with reference kits, however, is that they are either too pricy (though accurate and long-lasting) like Le Nez du Vin, or their aromas are way off and volatilize out of the medium in the warehouse before the customer gets them – as was the case with a kit branded and marketed by Wine Enthusiast which I received as a gift a few years back.
I believe this kind of tool (and either a manufactured, or home-collected), set of reference books, a basic how-to wine making book (such as Patterson’s) plus quick-view charts and tables as well as relevant published articles on wine making are the core of any home wine maker’s and grower’s reference library.