OK, so you have been drinking wine for a while and you have developed what you consider a good appreciation for it. You have a local or two with a good wine list and a staff you enjoy discussing it with. In your vast group of friends are a couple of people that enjoy wine, and when you are out with them you compare your perceptions, furthering your comprehension. Now you want to go out on your own, bring a new thing to the experience. Plus you are not sure any more that your guy isn't making stuff up, to stay ahead of you at this point. What to do? Buy a book.
I don't know if Vino Italiano by David Lynch and Joe Bastianich is as great as I think it is, because it was my first and probably helped me learn more, faster, then any other book, but in my mind it is how all wine books should be written. Vino Italiano never separates wine from food; at each point in the book you are close to a page that will tell you what is eaten with the wine you are learning about. Loving both food and wine equally, and seeing them as almost inseparable, this jibed well with my approach.
The first section is about the basic rules of Italian wine. Although the Italians as a whole seem very willing to change absolute rules very regularly in the interest of marketing, knowing what DOC, DOCG, and IGT are will at least help you start to navigate the aisles. There is a section here that explains the markups involved in importing wine to America and how it gets so out of hand. It doesn't, however, explain how Bastianich's store IWM comes to their markups. Don't fret very much over this section. Regionally, the importance of these laws is very different; Helmet's favorite Italian wines were outside the codification forever and have just recently been folded in.
The next nineteen chapters comprise Section Two, and this is where the book starts to cook. The nineteen chapters are divided into the sections of Italy that make wine (with a couple of regions combined in the interest of efficient writing). Each chapter breaks down into parts: the region, the wines, a quick reference, and the food.
The first part of each chapter, the region, is where Joe and David's great familiarity with the streets of Italy pays off. Really it is just an anecdote about the area, but it does a great job of setting the mood. At one point you are on a wild boar hunt in Tuscany, the next you are eating raw fish in the Marche; in all of them you are meeting the people of the region.
The wines make up the second section of the chapter, and are divided into white, red, sparkling, and sweet. There is a discussion of the significant wines from each area and how they are made. The DOC and DOCG wines are covered, as well as significant IGT wines. When a region has a particularly group of interest, like the Super Whites of Friulli and the Super Tuscans, they get an inset of their own which offers an overview.
The data section that follows serves as a quick guide to the region -- where it is, what DOC's and DOCG's are there, and a breakdown by grape -- and then the first truly unique thing about this book comes into play. The authors make suggestions for flights of three red wines and three whites, from the region that should be obtainable in the States. Sometimes they choose the same type of wine from three different producers, sometimes different types. Either way, the exercise provides a good practical base on which to build your comprehension. The last bit in this section is suggested stops along the way for wine-traveling in Italy.
Finally comes the food, and here lies the true genius of the book. Each chapter concludes with either a recipe from Mario Batali or Lydia Bastianich. The recipes are very easy to make, and are very specific to the area. An appropriate wine is suggested as an accompaniment. The first chapter is Friuli-Venizia Giulia and once you have read the book you have a basic understanding that this is a northern region that makes great white wine and good red, you know the cuisine and wine are heavily influenced by the region's position between three or four major nationality influences, and you know that this is the crossroads that people used to get everywhere in the region. Once you make Lydia's frico and wash it down with a Tocai or a Super White, you feel it all, even if you are in your kitchen in Greenwich Village.
In the final section, the book goes into some of the most in depth indexing I have ever seen. To be honest, it scares and frustrates me.
I took this book one chapter/region at a time. The chapters average about thirty pages apiece, and were easy to read when I wasn’t beating myself up trying to memorize all the IGT's and grapes. When I finished a chapter I would either make the food and buy the wine, or go to a restaurant and do the region. After reading the section on Veneto, I went straight to 'Ino and got a bottle of Prosecco and four little panini that had the meats of the region in them and had a fantastic lunch. Then, inspired by the book, I bought a bottle of Valpolicella at Crossroads, wrapped it in a brown bag, and enjoyed a hot spring day walkabout with Pappa and Apostrofus, sipping all the while.
There are all kinds of wine books. Much like wines, I suspect different ones appeal to different tastes (look at Lambrusco). My feeling is you will know in thirty-five pages if this is the book for you. If it isn't, bring it back and exchange it till one strikes a chord. Heck the American wine world is desperate for the guy that loved the Austrian wine book. We could all use a guy that loves talking about the wine without pretending he is Colonel Klink while pronouncing their names.