Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wine for Dummies Book review

Wine for Dummies
Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan
ISBN: 0-470-04579-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 432 Pages
Pub Date: October 2006 by IDG Books Worldwide
Suggested retail price: $21.99 (US)

Frank’s take:

My copy of Wine for Dummies is looking a little worn and tattered. I have a sentimental soft spot for this book; it was the first wine book that I purchased. My wine library has grown by a couple of hundred volumes since then, but this little volume was my first.

It helped me decode a German wine label, started to lead me through the interstices of the French wine appellations. The pronunciation guide for wine terms was invaluable. The ten excuses to drink Champagne proved the most useful list in the book; I still use them and have added some of my own. The authors also explained the difference between Champagne the region and Champagne the wine and why both should always be spelt with a capital “C.”

When people ask me which book to buy for a wine novice, Wine for Dummies always the first book I suggest. Usually the comment is: no seriously, a Dummies book? It has all the basic information, how to read a wine list, grape types, and the major wine regions of the world. I know quite a few wine geeks who have a copy of this tucked away somewhere. Sure, they have their Oxford Companion to Wine all six pounds of it, but still keep their Dummies book around.

With the Christmas season coming up, it would be a good stocking stuffer for the wine novice in the family, or the young adult you are trying to wean away from Coca Cola. This volume will help take away some of the so-called mystery of wine.

The authors have the qualifications to write a book such as this. Mary Ewing-Mulligan is a Master of Wine, and both Mary and Ed McCarthy are Certified Wine Educators. They know how to present the material factually and with a lot of humor thrown in as well. Thanks for the introduction to wine, guys.

Susan’s take:

Wine for Dummies is a fun read that packs tons of information into a format you look forward to flipping through. For me, this is a “Dipper.” I like to dip into the pages at random, discovering new bits and pieces, ideas and knowledge I can stash away for recall at some unexpected point in the future.

Like all the Dummies books, there’s plenty of humour, and the authors don’t hesitate to poke a little good-natured fun at themselves and each other. I find myself laughing as I learn.

Now in its fourth edition, Mary and Ed have also written four companion books: White Wine for Dummies, French Wine for Dummies, Italian Wine for Dummies, Champagne for Dummies.

PS: For those of you who can’t wait to lay your hands on a copy, here’s a short excerpt to explain why it’s Champagne and not champagne.

“Champagne is a specific sparkling wine (made from certain grape varieties and produced in a certain way) that comes from a region in France called Champagne. Unfortunately for the people of Champagne, France, their wine is so famous that the name champagne has been borrowed again and again by producers elsewhere, until the word has become synonymous with practically the whole category of sparkling wines. For the French, limiting the use of the name champagne to the wines of the Champagne region has become a cause célèbre. European Union regulations not only prevent any other member country from calling its sparkling wines champagne, but also prohibit the use of terms that even suggest the word champagne, such as fine print on the label saying that a wine was made using the “champagne method.” What’s more, bottles of sparkling wine from countries outside the European Union – such as the US and Australia – that use the word champagne on the label are banned from sale in Europe. The French are that serious.”

So now you know. If you want more, check out the latest edition of Wine for Dummies for yourself.

Free the vines!

Susan’s Warning:

Okay, so I have to admit sometimes – just once in a while mind you – Frank becomes a little bit, shall we say “focused.” Sure some might call it “obsessive,” the more diplomatic suggest “tunnel vision,” but I’d argue there is a fine, although distinct line between soapbox oratory and a good, get it off your chest rant.

Truth be known, I love them both but the latter are usually way more fun. Today’s missive, judging by the length of Frank’s run-on sentences and total lack of paragraphing (at least in the original draft he showed me) are the clearest indications this is a soapbox rant par excellence.

So here’s a bit of history for our more civilized neighbours who can actually purchase their favourite vintages through a variety of suppliers including – imagine that – the local grocery store. Here in BC, we have long suffered a stifling monopoly known as the LCB (Liquor Control Board). One supplier? You read it right – one supplier.

It’s changing, but not quickly enough for either one of us. Still we take heart in the fact some truly outstanding wines now grace the shelves of stores like Marquis Wines ( and the Kitsilano Wine Cellar (no website yet but an interesting hot sheet by signing up at

Frank’s Rant:

I have just spent the morning reading wine reviews. The good news: I found over a dozen wines that look interesting. The bad news: it took less than 15 minutes with the LCB listing book before it became apparent our government monopoly imports not a single one of them.

Time for a little more research. Do you know those evil bastards only list 115 wines from Burgundy? One hundred and fifteen wines, total – including all the reds and all the whites. Most are from the general appellations, basic everyday table wines.

Burgundy has over 400 AOCs and thousands of producers. We get 115 wines to choose from? Four bottom end Meursaults? Four out of 29 premier crus and over a hundred domaine bottlers in Meursault alone? Just thinking of other examples where we only get the bottom one or two out of a rich range of products available could absolutely send me over the edge.

Now here’s where it gets even more entertaining. Why don’t I import some of these wines myself? They’ve already thought of that. By the time I add duties, taxes, and miscellaneous other charges from our provincial monopoly and some extra assistance from the Canadian government, the price doubles.

I also have to buy a full case of each wine. No mixing and matching – it’s a full case of each wine or nothing. Adding insult to injury, I have to pay half up front, and it’s going to take up to three months with no guarantee the wine will even still be available by the time the peons process their masses of paperwork – we are, after all, talking about vineyards that sometimes produce as little as a couple of hundred cases in a given vintage. Somehow I doubt these winemakers are going to wait around while our Canadian government processes the requisite forms, files, and registries.

The Australians will not even ship to a private address in Canada. I talked to two distributors – Victoria Wine Cellar and Vintage Direct – both firmly established, well-respected producers of Australian collectable wines. Neither one will even think about shipping to Canada. So much for that bottle of Penfold’s Grange.

I did an online search for American wine distributors. As soon as I entered “Canada” into the address alarms bells go off, red lights flash, and it’s basically an instantaneous “No Go.” I even called one of these companies and talked to a very nice young man about buying some wine – a limited production Amarone.

We were trucking right along until the word “Canada” came up. No way. Too much trouble, too much time filling out forms, not worth the cost. In short, no wine. He did suggest he had some Canadian customers who had a box number somewhere in the US, and, as he put it, “made their own arrangements for bringing it home.”

Off to visit some English websites. I found the same Amarone at a shop in the UK. It was a little cheaper than in the US, but it still carried a hefty price tag of £160. I sat down with the trusty calculator.

By the time I’d added duties, shipping, and currency exchange, I could fly to London on a commercial jet, spend a night at the opera or threatre, pick up two bottles of wine, bring them home, and be completely legal with Canada customs for less money than shipping them to Canada. Am I missing something here?

Susan’s note:

Actually, there is something to be said for flying to London and checking out Agatha Christie’s the Mousetrap. You buy three bottles, drink one in the hotel that night and come back with two that have just cost you less than staying home. You probably don’t even need to pack more than carry on baggage. Seems like there’s an opportunity here, although I will likely need to cultivate the attention of every single shirt-tail relative in the general London area as it also sounds quite deliciously habit forming.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Quirky Champagne Corkers

by Frank

The Australians have taken the alternate stopper gone too far! Crown caps on Champagne? The same crown caps that are on your six pack of Bud or Coors on a bottle of Cristal? Has the world gone mad?

No pop, no ceremony, and – worse yet – one more tool you have to carry: a beer bottle opener. Race car drivers will have to search through their uniform pockets uniforms after checkered flag falls at the 24-Hour Le Mans. Perhaps hockey victors will find what they need rattling around in the bottom of the Stanley Cup.

Imagine executives negotiating the final details of the big merger with a beer bottle opener waiting on the high gloss, oak boardroom table – I hope not. And think about opening the customary bottle of Mumm’s to toast your daughter and new son-in-law – just wait a minute, dear, while I pull out my plastic coated, dime store bottle opener.

I attempt to visualize how this scenario will work. White linens, elegant place setting, chilled Riedel flutes, oysters resting on their bed of salt… and opening the Veuve Clicquot with a bottle opener. This picture just does not work for me.

I admit you can do some damage opening a bottle of Champagne or any other sparkling wine. There is a danger of possibly breaking a fingernail or putting out someone’s eye. I’ve seen people crack windows and chip the chandelier. But, there is a natural thrill in correctly opening a bottle of your favourite bubbly, hearing the familiar pop that inevitably means a party or celebration. I suppose you could still sabre a bottle with a crown cap to create some festive aspect, some sense of “event” to go with your bottle of Taittinger.

We can only hope the Champagne houses do not follow this trend from “Down Under.” There are some bottles of wine that should always come with a cork, with some sense of event and social gathering attached to it. I am sure cork producers can carry on doing their research in avoiding cork taint and still leave our Champagne intact. They should be strongly encouraged to stay the course and save us all from this threat to civilization as I know it.

Susan’s Note:

I didn’t actually think this was the best time to engage in a conversation about Stelvin caps on our favourite bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, so I waited until initial horror of this whole Champagne cork situation wore off. As usual, I confess I’m somewhat more concerned with what the contents of my glass taste like than what kind of closing was used.

About an hour later, we opened a bottle of Veuve Clicquot – thankfully, with a cork that gave a delightful pop – Frank shucked us a few oysters, and we cruised around the web looking for more cork info.

There’s plenty out there, but if you really want to get into this whole question – that is of course risking life, limb, and bottle opener – here’s a site we discovered that you can have a lot of fun with. You’ll even get a certificate to become a Certified Cork Expert.

For example, did you know that cork trees produce up to 20 harvests over the course of their lifetime? Or that the average lifespan of a tree is typically between 170 and 200 years? Portugal leads the way in cork production supplying over half of the world’s supply, followed by Spain, Algeria and Italy.

Let us know what you think of this great little resource. And in the meantime, I think I’ll keep one of those cutesy, artsy fartsy bottle openers – probably the one with the fake lava carving of some obscure Hawaiian god. I’d hate to actually have to go out and buy a dime store beer bottle opener. I’ll just keep this item of sacrilege shall we say “well hidden” – at least for now.