The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics (Second Edition) - Tara Q Thomas

By Kerry Scambler
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The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics by Tara Q. Thomas

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics by Tara Q. Thomas [©Penguin Books (Australia 2009)]

The first line in the introduction of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics got me hooked, it says  "Let’s get this straight right off the bat: you’re not an idiot”.

This was a great comfort to one who has spent more time in the world of hops and barley, and goes by the simple wine philosophy of drink what I like to drink and when someone asks me “red or white?” I simply say yes.

And of course, at the back of my mind lurked the concept that there was a subtle hint in the offer for me to review this book – yes, I knew I should brush up my knowledge having joined the team but let’s face it the world of wine can be overwhelming. Perhaps this book would be my starting point…

In each chapter there are breakout boxes:  Off the Vine -  extra tidbits of information; Quick Sips – the very least but most important things you need to know; Sour Grapes – warnings about confusing or challenging issues and Winespeak – definition of unfamiliar words used in the wine world. At the conclusion of each chapter is a wonderful section called The Least You Need To Know which contains easily read dot points of the most important items from that chapter. 

So we’re off to a good start: Part 1 – The Basics and into Chapter 1 – What Is Wine, Anyway? This is a simple overview of history, growing good wine and turning grapes into wine.  All written in plain English and easily understood.

From there it’s onto the slightly more difficult subject of decoding the wine labels which is quite helpful but with a US focus. Next there's practical advice on how to get the most out of your glass of wine and setting up tastings - this part includes some useful tips on popping corks gracefully and how to, I quote, “Screw like a pro”.  You'll have to read the book to find out these secrets.

Tasting wine apparently is as easy as remembering the five “S”s – see, swirl, smell, sip and swallow (or spit).  How easy I think and pretty much like tasting beer (well, except you don’t spit beer out – for technical reasons, let me assure you!).  Included here is an aroma wheel to help us put wine into words which we're told can take practice, a lot of practice – well I’m all for that so on to learning about the wine types, starting with Part 2 - The Big Nine.

The book is written in an engaging and entertaining style – for example I now realise the cabernet grape has its own sex appeal, that riesling is the “acid-head’s grape”, and that shiraz grapes have more structure and “ummph” than merlot. I also now know there’s an NZ Sauvignon Blanc called “Cat’s Pee On A Gooseberry Bush” but given recent coverage on the influx of this wine to Australia, we might leave this one there.

It predominantly covers the US and European wine world but does include many references to Australia and New Zealand. In the shiraz chapter we have our own "claim to fame" section and again a great example of simple language to convey a concept. Tara starts on South Australia by describing a Cherry Ripe bar as being a heady combination of cherries and coconut wrapped in dark chocolate - imagine this she says, and you're getting the idea of the character of a South Australian shiraz.

To the wine initiated this language may be almost offensive but to those of us who are beginning our journey into the wine world, it’s a pleasant change to have such straightforward language and a sense of fun added to the learning process.

Part 3 covers regional specialties and Part 4 special styles including sparkling and here I surprisingly discover mention of our home state Tasmania with Jansz.  Credibility of the book has been confirmed! Part 5 and it’s on to the practicalities of wine shopping time including why it costs what it does and starting your very own wine “stash”.

Part 6 covers navigating the wine list, wine and food pairing and dinner party preparation and this is one of my favourite sections. Some useful tips on what to do when presented with the wine list with friends at a restaurant or at a business dinner and some great advice to remember in restaurants with one – the sommelier is your friend.

The concluding section gives some great suggestions on what to do now you have read the book and got the basics down. With the sage advice to keep on learning, Tara suggests using free tastings, courses, wine clubs, wine festivals and of course, the big world wide web which is right where comes in! She also stresses that there’s no better way to get to know a wine than to go to its source.  Actually standing in the vineyard taking in the sights and smells of that location and talking with the winemaker then tasting the wine in the cellar door  – these experiences will give you a special insight into the wine itself. Of course this isn’t always possible with overseas wines, but here in Australia we have fabulous wine regions on the doorsteps of most of cities. (And as a Subscriber or Member of you'll always have the best information on hand to guide your wine travel.)

But I digress: already littered with tags denoting certain references for later, a humorous line or three  I can see this will be my first and most frequently used go-to reference when I need to learn more or refresh my  wine knowledge.  It’s stunningly simply written, entertaining and therefore easy to take in the information. I will never be truly knowledgeable on wine but I have some confidence now that I won’t be considered a complete idiot either. 

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine Basics (Second Edition) by Tara Q. Thomas is published by Penguin (Australia March 2009). RRP A$26.95.

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October 30th, 2009
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