Fall Reading: Three Wine Books With Fascinating Plots

There are so many great wine reference books that it would be a sin to try to list them all here. Through the years, there have been volumes organized like encyclopedias, like atlases and in any number of other formats.

Sometimes overlooked are the wine books that focus on a single topic, taking a deep dive into who did what to whom or why something happened the way it did. There have been plenty of those tomes as well.

If you’re looking for a good fireplace or porch read, or if you have a long flight coming up, here are three books I’ve enjoyed, along with the “jacket notes” that provide accurate summaries of what to expect. All are readily available from online booksellers.

THE BILLIONAIRE’S VINEGAR

The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine

By Benjamin Wallace

“…Tells the story of a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux — supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson — that sold for $156,000 at auction and the eccentrics whose lives intersected with it. Was it truly entombed in a Paris cellar for two hundred years? Or did it come from a secret Nazi bunker? Or from the moldy basement of a devilishly brilliant con artist? As Benjamin Wallace unravels the mystery, we meet a gallery of intriguing players — from the bicycle-riding British auctioneer who speaks of wines as if they are women to the obsessive wine collector who discovered the bottle. Suspenseful and thrillingly strange, this is the vintage tale of what could be the most elaborate con since the Hitler diaries.”

A TALE OF TWO VALLEYS

Wine, Wealth and the Battle for the Good Life in Napa and Sonoma

By Alan Deutschman

“When acclaimed Vanity Fair journalist Alan Deutschman came to the California wine country as the lucky house guest of very rich friends, he was surprised to find a civil war being fought between Napa Valley, which epitomized prestige and wealthy excess, and neighboring Sonoma Valley, a ragtag bohemian enclave so stubbornly backward that rambunctious chickens wandered freely through town. In “A Tale of Two Valleys,” Deutschman wittily captures these stranger-than-fiction locales and uncorks the hilarious absurdities of life among the wine world’s glitterati. The cast of characters brims with eccentrics, egomaniacs and a mysterious man in black who crashed the elegant Napa Valley Wine Auction before proceeding to pay a half-million dollars for a single bottle. What develops is nothing less than the struggle for the soul of one of America’s last bits of paradise.”

WINE — A GENTLEMAN’S GAME

The Adventures of an Amateur Winemaker Turned Professional

By Mark Miller

“This is the story of how one man and his family, with no prior experience and only their determination, made a dream of owning a producing vineyard come true… Benmarl Vineyards, overlooking the majestic Hudson River and the distant Berkshires, is the oldest known vineyard in America, tracing its roots to George Washington’s first administration. But its vines had long been neglected and it was only marginally in operation when the Millers bought it and set about turning a weekend hobby making homemade wine into something much more ambitious… Then work on the vineyard had to be held up for six years when the author’s need to earn a living required him to focus on his original profession of magazine illustrating and move the family to Europe. But there was an unexpected bonus to this setback: The Millers were able to live in the heart of Burgundy in France’s wine country, and the knowledge, lore and friendships gained from that experience proved invaluable in the years ahead. On their return to America the Millers settled permanently at Benmarl where, over the next twelve years, they perfected what they had begun earlier.”

Almost 31 years ago to the day, I had an opportunity to spend a morning with Mark Miller. We chatted about two of my favorite topics — wine and magazines — and he displayed his impressive line drawings of Benmarl, many of which appear in the book.

Although now more than three decades old, “Wine — A Gentleman’s Game” remains a fascinating read, not to mention a cautionary tale for anyone who has daydreamed about one day owning their own winery. As I’ve heard from more than one vintner through the years, “If you want to become a millionaire in the wine business, start with two million dollars.”

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