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The Pour Man: Four fine wine books, and a big beer chaser

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There is no better way to learn about beer or wine than to drink it. We can agree on that.

But a little supplemental reading never hurts, either, especially if you’ve had your fill for the day, or the week, and there are no knowledge-spewing experts — bartenders, sommeliers, shopkeepers — within earshot. Learning-by-doing rules the night in beer and wine education, but straight-up facts, figures and anecdotes can help you place those tastes within the bigger picture.

On top of that, now is the time of the buying of the gifts. Maybe the gifts are for someone else, or maybe they’re for you. Nobody will judge you for buying yourself a book at this time of year or any other. Keep drinking and start reading. Here are five great new books for you and your people.

The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine (Little Brown, $35) by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg comes at the idea of pairing wine with food from several different angles. The authors’ expertise stands side-by-side with tips from dozens of other wine experts on topics such as picking alternate wines based on what you already know you like, thinking like a sommelier and thinking of wine as a very American drink — not some esoteric finery from a foreign land. The easily digestible lessons are joined by at-a-glance profiles of more than 250 wines (characterizing a wine style’s color, weight, acidity, flavors, food pairings and notable producers, among many other things). The book also offers a list of 150 budget wines for $15 or less.

A Toast to Bargain Wines (Scribner, $15) by George M. Taber explores the bargain wine topic by delving into the phenomenal success stories of “Two Buck Chuck” and Yellow Tail, detailing various technological advances in wine-making and packaging (hello, box wine), and touching on some key history in the winemaking industry. But perhaps the most tantalizing parts of the book are the specific lists Taber offers of his favorite bargain winemakers categorized by country, and his favorite $10 or less wines categorized by type. He also includes a couple of splurges in the $15 to $25 range in each category. This is a book half-full of stories and half-full of very specific, very useful resource material for the person ever in search of good, inexpensive wines.

Unquenchable (Perigee, $24) by Natalie MacLean is an entertaining travelogue and a resource for finding good, inexpensive wines. A self-described descendant of hard-drinking, penny-pinching Scots, MacLean treks around the world meeting wine people and searching for quality wines that won’t drain the purse. The book offers handy lists of quality bargain wine producers and their specific bottlings. But it is more of a collection of wine-centric travel stories set in wine locales — from Australia and Argentina to Sicily and South Africa (and some places that don’t begin with A or S) — than it is a flat-out resource guide. In other words, it is a book for people who like to get lost in good stories (and pick up some bargain wine-hunting tips along the way).

Voodoo Vintners (Oregon State University Press, $19) by Katherine Cole is an exploration of the fascinating world of biodynamic winemaking, specifically in Oregon. Cole’s book includes compelling information on the history of the movement and its founder, Rudolph Steiner; very detailed information about the mystical practices of biodynamic viticulture (filling a cow horn with the manure of a lactating bovine and burying it 21/2 to 5 feet underground), and a chapter called “The Naysayers,” among others. Some say biodynamic viticulture is a bunch of New Age hogwash. You can decide for yourself after reading the book and, of course, drinking a few bottles of biodynamic wine.

The Oxford Companion to Beer (Oxford University Press, $65), edited by Garrett Oliver, is perhaps the most comprehensive beer reference book ever published. Clocking in at around 900 pages, this encyclopedic door-stopper volume features more than 1,100 entries written by 166 beer experts and edited over the course of five years by Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. Entries range from hyper-technical to entertaining, often on the same page, as is the case with the compound “(E)-2-nonenal” and “East India Company,” which helped give birth to India pale ales. There are some great beer books out there, but if for some reason you could own only one, this should be it.

Most importantly, do not let any of these fine reads take you so far away that you forget to carry on the tradition of learning by drinking. Remember to keep the reading always where it belongs in relation to tasting beer and wine — on the side.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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