Wine books for the holidays

Here’s our list of gift-worthy wine and spirits books worth seeking out this year.|

George M. MacLeod was 53 years old and still working at Monsanto when, with wife Greta and several children in tow, he went in search of land he could farm.

Having scoured California, and ready to give up, he finally zeroed in on 50 acres in Kenwood on the slope of Sonoma Mountain, overgrown with blackberries and abandoned cherry, fig and apple orchards, where old vineyard rows had once stood.

Unsure of what he had done, MacLeod started taking viticulture classes at UC Davis and Santa Rosa Junior College, making the initial leap into grape growing. MacLeod Family Vineyard at Indian Springs Ranch is now a respected source of sauvignon blanc.

At 93, MacLeod tells his hardworking tale in “Journey to Harvest: How to Grow Great Grapes, Make Distinctive Wines & Live Forever,” a self-published detailing of his personal and viticultural triumphs and travails.

His is among the most locally inspired wine books to consider this holiday season. Here’s our list of other wine and spirits books worth seeking out this year.

“The Essence of Wine: Celebrating the Delights of the Palate,” by Alder Yarrow, a San Francisco-based wine blogger, is a stunningly visual exploration of wine’s aromas and flavors. The successful result of a Kickstarter campaign, Yarrow’s book will appeal to hard core wine aficionados as well as the more laissez-faire. An opening two pages on cherry, for example, detail how the aroma and flavor we associate with cherry can play into what we experience in a wine. Yarrow then includes wines to look for that will help illustrate the point on the nose and palate. Similar explorations occur with apple, graphite, rose and earth.

“50 Premiere Winemakers of Napa Valley: Their Insights and Inspirations,” by Nicola Siso, is a large-format, coffee-table-sized book with portraits of Napa Valley winemakers complemented by a series of probing wine- and life-related questions and answers along the lines of, “If you were stuck on a desert island...” Good guy Corey Beck of Francis Ford Coppola Winery answers that he’d “hope it would be with my wife. We would enjoy a cold glass of sauvignon blanc together.”

“Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent,” by Berkeley-based writer Mandy Aftel, is an investigative, literary exploration into the history and philosophy of scent, with much ado about food and wine, including recipes. Aftel goes into detail on five landmark scents – cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris and jasmine – using them as jumping-off points to talk about cooking and flavoring. Among her discussions of flavor, within the cinnamon section, she includes the original formula for Coca-Cola, which featured essential oils of cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and orange, not to mention cocaine. She provides a less-stimulating version for people to try at home.

“GQ Drinks: The Cocktail Collection for Discerning Drinkers,” edited by Paul Henderson, is a beautiful compendium of 150 cocktail recipes, broken down by spirit, with mouthwatering photography and bartender’s tips for each one. Fun quotes float throughout, like W.C. Field’s advice to “always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore, always carry a small snake”; and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous admonition that “too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right.”

“The World Atlas of Whisky,” by Dave Broom, is a must-have for fans of the brown spirit, in its second, fully revised and updated edition. Compelling photography brings the subject to life alongside profiles of more than 200 distilleries around the world, plus hundreds of tasting notes and detailed maps. In addition to the usual suspects in Scotland and Ireland, Broom provides depth and breadth to what’s going on with whiskey in Canada, Japan and Scandinavia, not to mention the explosive growth in craft distilleries across the United States. Kentucky and Tennessee are appropriately represented, but attention is also paid to new producers in New York, Texas, Michigan, Washington and California, among many others.

“Wines of California: The Comprehensive Guide,” by the World Wine Guys, Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, with foreword by Michael Mondavi, is a long-overdue, up-to-date survey of the wines and wineries of California, stretching from Mendocino and Lake counties all the way to the South Coast AVA outside San Diego. Along with strong recommendations for where to go and what to taste, the authors include a section of interviews called “In Their Own Words,” profiling many of the state’s leading people in wine. But that’s not all. The ending chapter offers a plethora of divine recipes intended to be enjoyed with wine. An example of one is below.

Quail a la Plancha with Roasted Grapes, Cracked Hazelnuts and Saba

Courtesy of Chef Mark Stark, owner of several restaurants including Stark’s, Bravas, Willi’s and Monti’s.

Wine pairings: The Calling Dutton Ranch Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir Russian River

Serves 4

For the marinade

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 sprigs fresh lavender, leaves finely minced (you may substitute rosemary)

¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

4 quails, semi-boned

For the roasted grapes

1 bunch red seedless grapes, stems removed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons cognac or brandy

- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the hazelnuts

2 tablespoons butter

½ cup hazelnuts, toasted

2 tablespoons Saba (grape must reduction) or good aged balsamic vinegar

- Salt to taste

Combine marinade ingredients and rub quail, inside and out, with the mixture. Let quail marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 400 F with a sheet pan in the oven. Toss the grapes with the oil, cognac, and salt and pepper to taste. When the sheet pan is hot, put the grapes on the pan and roast the grapes just until they start to pop. Transfer grapes and juices to a bowl.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat until hot. Season the marinated quail with salt, then transfer to the hot pan and cook until brown and crispy, about 2 minutes. Flip the quail over and repeat on the other side. The quail should be well browned but still slightly pink on the inside. Transfer the quail to a serving platter and keep warm. Pour off any fat in the pan and reduce the heat. Add the butter and the cracked hazelnuts and cook for 30 seconds until the nuts are aromatic. Add the roasted grapes and the accumulated juices and cook until the grapes are just warmed through. Season with salt.

Arrange the quail on plates and drizzle with the Saba. Serve with the hazelnuts and roasted grapes.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at and followed on Twitter @vboone.

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