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Eight Good Books about California Wine

September is California Wine Month here in the golden state. It’s our annual reminder to do more than just enjoy a few glasses. We think about the significance of the wine industry locally, nationally and globally. We consider new trends, the latest sales and crush statistics, etc.

California Wine Month is also a good time to brush up on our knowledge regarding California wine. Like a nearby tourist attraction you’ve never actually visited yourself, it’s easy to take our local product, its producers and its growing regions for granted. They surround us, their ubiquity breeding nonchalance. Many Californian lovers of wine spend more time learning about the vineyards of France or Italy than those close to home.

So let’s crack a book this month or resolve to take a class. Here are eight of the many books on California wine I recommend.

American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy
Sonoma County-resident Linda Murphy, formerly wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, did the vast majority of research and writing for this invaluable resource. It’s billed as a book on American wine and is certainly that. However, 128 of its 279 pages of text, maps and photos are devoted to California. Books focused on individual regions in California will have more depth, but the breadth and meaty overviews make this one well worth the money.

A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present by Charles L. Sullivan
Sullivan’s encyclopedia is one of my favorite resources and the California wine book to which I most frequently turn for answers. If you want an amusing little challenge, try to think of people, wineries and vineyards that are important in California wine history but not found in this book. It’s not easy. 

The Finest Wines of California: A Regional Guide to the Best Producers and Their Wines (The World's Finest Wines) by Stephen Brook
There is always controversy with books such as these. Why is this producer included and not that one? Some people have complained that Screaming Eagle is not covered. I’m sure other people think the omission appropriate. Nonetheless Brook, a contributing editor at Decanter Magazine since 1996, does chronicle many very important California wineries. The final pages of the book provide excellent synopses, up to half a page each, of every California vintage from 1990 through 2009. As a both a writer and a collector of California wine I refer to it often.

The Wines of California (Faber Books on Wine) by Stephen Brook
This book was originally published in 1999 and there have been some updates. I like the original though, because it’s a snapshot of history—what California wines were like then and how they were perceived. Included in the 685 pages are profiles of 630 wineries, plus vineyards that were significant at that time, and more. Comparing those descriptions to the present day highlights the evolution of California wine. I find that both enlightening and useful. And, since you can get a used paperback (the book is out of print) for as little as 21 cents plus shipping, it’s an inexpensive pleasure.

New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff by Steve Heimoff
Heimoff spoke with a good number of important winemakers and published the transcripts. He’s divided the book into three sections based on which decade a winemaker came onto the scene: 1970’s, 1980’s or 1990’s. The style is casual and, of course, conversational. The reader will get to know the winemakers in a way that’s not normally possible without speaking to them in person. Having done so myself with many of these folks, I can tell you that their personalities, speech patterns, etc. are authentically represented. I can see and hear them speaking while I read the words.

A Vineyard in Napa by Doug Shafer, Andy Demsky and Danny Meyer
This is a personal account of the founding and development of Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley's Stags Leap District. Shafer came to the valley as a high schooler in the 1970’s when his father moved the family from Chicago to get into the wine business. It’s a story about the growth of a premier winery, but also the growth of the industry and the evolution of Napa Valley.

Zin: The History And Mystery Of Zinfandel by David Darlington
This book was originally published as Angels’ Visits in 1991. Our knowledge about the genetic origin of Zinfandel has since grown and superseded that element of Darlington’s book. Wineries have come and gone too. Young winemakers have become... seasoned winemakers. Yet Zin is still an engaging read with interesting background on iconic wineries such as Ridge and Ravenswood. Enjoy it like you would old home movies.

Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (California Studies in Food and Culture) by Charles L. Sullivan
Charles Sullivan is a serious historian. His in-depth research leads to a less page-turny book than Zin but one that is rich with accurate and sometimes surprising detail. Here you’ll find the truth about Zinfandel’s origins, the role played by Agoston Haraszthy and more.

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