Wine-book crop is humbler but assertive

Smaller, less expensive volumes include nifty pocket guides and a tip: Freeze leftover wine.

This year's harvest of holiday-season wine books favors the smaller (and less expensive) over the massive and photo-festooned. If there is a common theme, it is back to basics. Following are some of the more noteworthy efforts.

Wine Secrets, by Marnie Old (Quirk, $19.95)

Among the more sprightly and practical books is this one from Philadelphia-based sommelier and educator Marnie Old. For this stout little primer, Old solicited short essays from a roster of vinous heavyweights and arranged them under the headings Wine Basics, Wine Tasting, Wine Shopping, Wine and Food Pairing, Wine in Restaurants, and Wine at Home.

Suited to wine novices, it's sort of a Whitman's Sampler of guidance served up in a near-random manner. Wine 101 basics are covered in a chatty manner - how to sniff, how to detect acidity and sweetness, wine lingo - but some of the best counsel is in the chapter on shopping.

Many casual wine buyers waste time and money pirouetting down the aisles hoping the perfect wine will fall off the shelf. Some shoppers are shy about this, but make it easy on yourself - frequent stores where knowledgeable and enthusiastic salespeople get to know your preferences and budget, says one of Old's experts, wine importer Robert Kacher.

And here is the most utilitarian advice in the book: Master sommelier Ronn Wiegand enthusiastically recommends freezing leftover wine - really. Just put back the cork (it must be clean) and stand it in the freezer (it must be vertical). What's more, in summer these bottles can serve as ice packs in picnic coolers - drinkable ones at that.

Living With Wine, by Samantha Nestor with Alice Feiring (Clarkson Potter, $75)

If you lack the space or resources to create a proper residence for your wine - aside from kitchen cabinets, freezing garages, and mini wine racks set out in overheated living rooms - this jaw-dropping coffee-table book will be either inspiring or depressing. More a tome about very expensive design than wine - in fact, there are virtually no wine descriptions - it walks you through one mind-blowing home cellar after another, 30 in all. The book is thematically partitioned into chapters like "The Entertaining Pair's Lair," where you can catch a movie in a home theater or sip vintage port by the hearth, and "The Sybarite's Sanctuary," which features a cellar fitted out with a restaurant-sized bar, a billiards room, and, for those of a melodic bent, a music room (drum kit supplied).

The authors, design specialist Samantha Nestor and wine writer Alice Feiring, interview the well-heeled owners about how they came to love wine and how they decided upon their cellar motifs. One question I would like to ask (but am too polite to) is why you need 1,000 bottles in the house when a good number will pass their expiration dates before you or your guests get to them. Especially whites. I'd also love to know how much these awesome abodes cost. Evidently the authors were polite, too. Above all, this book is about the dazzling, beautifully lighted photographs by Andrew French. And if you want to run out and replicate any of these gems, there is a convenient directory of designers and suppliers.

Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, Sterling, $27.95

This reference marks its 25th anniversary with a much expanded and updated text.

Zraly's user-friendly and entertaining wine textbook is one of the best-selling books on the subject, and with good reason. Employing a question-and-answer approach and clear and concise writing, it's organized like a breezy and unpretentious beginner's wine course. This is not surprising, as Zraly has operated a wildly popular one-man wine school for more than 30 years, first atop the World Trade Center, and after the 9/11 tragedy, in Midtown Manhattan. (On Sept. 11, 2001, he escaped certain death by arriving late to work because of traffic.)

Zraly is said to have visited 20 countries and 80 wine regions in expanding and updating the book. Additions include Hungary, Greece, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria. Unaccountably, Australia, which is now among the top wine producers and exporters in the world, is covered in four pages, as is New Zealand. Nonetheless, few if any books on the subject hold such appeal to amateurs and aficionados alike.

Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine, Harmony Books, $19.99

This is good book to leaf through on a train or airplane. It's a compilation of randomly presented, brief essays on subjects ranging from "Who first invented wine" and "What is terroir, and should we care?" to "Why did Omar Khayyám write so much about wine?" and "Did Clarence really drown in a butt of malmsey?" (from Shakespeare's Richard III).

Coauthor Kathleen Burk, a historian and wine writer, and Michael Bywater, a journalist and broadcaster, surely had a merry time cobbling together this entertaining and illuminating repository of history, oenology, sociology, and pure whimsy.

The compact compendium is great grist for cocktail-party conversations. The authors recall the 1980s scandal when certain Austrian wines were found to be sweetened with diethylene glycol, a sweet compound that was associated with automobile antifreeze. This occasioned the recalls of hundreds of thousands of bottles, and resulted in widespread enactment of anti-tainting laws. Yet the authors contend that the entire episode may have been based on a fallacy: Most antifreezes, they point out, consist mainly of ethylene glycol, a sweet compound, not diethylene glycol. The latter is only half as efficient as ethylene glycol, they note, so it's unlikely that diethylene glycol would be added to radiators. If true, this is big news.

"Therefore," they conclude, "what was added to the wine may not have been nice, but it was not antifreeze."

The Concise World Atlas of Wine, 6th edition, Mitchell Beazley, $29.99

Hugh Johnson, or I should say team Hugh Johnson, is a juggernaut in the world of wine, best known for his indispensable classic The World Atlas of Wine, as well as Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book and the hefty Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion (see below). Now appears a paperback version of the wine atlas, compiled with another vinous heavyweight from the U.K., Jancis Robinson. It's virtually the same as the hardcover published two years ago, with short texts on wine regions around the world and a wealth of fine maps, only smaller.

Also freshened up for the holiday season is Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion (Mitchell Beazley, $60), an exhaustive encyclopedia of wines around the world (revised and updated by wine expert Stephen Brook). More than 70 percent of the content is new, and for the first time there are color maps. Not only is this a must for any wine library, it also comes with the nice picture of Johnson tasting, then spitting, wine.

Have you ever stood in a wine shop holding an interesting-looking selection yet had no idea whether or not it is good? This is where pocket wine guides are invaluable. In a small package, wineries are described and rated in a sentence or two, and the better ones include vintage charts, descriptions of grape varieties, and maps (and they fit in Christmas stockings). Here are two that I like:

Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2009, Mitchell Beazley, $14.99; and Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine Guide, 2009, Harcourt Books, $14.95.