Brain Pickings

Vino Sans Snobbery: A Charming Illustrated Scratch-and-Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert

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“No one decides what you are going to have for dinner, what’s your favorite ice cream, and what flavor fluoride you take at the dentist, so why would you let someone else tell you what to drink?”

As a lover of activity books for grown-ups and all things Wendy MacNaughton, I was instantly smitten with The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert (public library) — a delightful kid-style board book about a grown-up topic, written by expert winemaker Richard Betts, one of the world’s fewer than 200 Master Sommeliers, illustrated by MacNaughton and designed by Crystal English Sacca.

Unlike the air of snobbery that often surrounds vino culture, the approach Betts takes is all about swinging the cellar door open and inviting us to savor the everyday wonders of this beloved yet surprisingly unassuming beverage. The ability to do that, however, is a skill — and, like anything worthwhile, it’s better learned with hands-on joy than with theoretical drudgery. Fittingly, Betts, who abandoned a career path to becoming an attorney when he found himself mesmerized by the world of wine and who professes to being “completely possessed by the conviction that wine is a grocery, not a luxury,” playfully guides us into discovering and developing our very own sensibility of wine rather than adopting popular taste. (For, as Frank Lloyd Wright famously scoffed, “taste is a matter of ignorance. If you know what you are tasting, you don’t have to taste.”)

Betts writes:

You want to use your own terms to talk about what’s really important — namely, what’s a good wine? And who decides that? … No one decides what you are going to have for dinner, what’s your favorite ice cream, and what flavor fluoride you take at the dentist, so why would you let someone else tell you what to drink? … Instead, trust your palate and then educate it so that it serves you better.

The illustrations, equal parts irreverent and illuminating, explore the different scent and flavor profiles, brought to life by scratch-and-sniff delights on each spread for a fully synesthetic experience. In the process, we learn about everything from the funk element in wine and what it has to do with penicillin to why the chemistry of wet cork makes it smell like wet dog — amidst, okay, some rather more appetizing learnings.

The greatest treat of all, however, is a magnificent fold-out poster tucked inside the back cover, which breaks down the entire wine world into a handy wheel that helps you flowchart your way to the wine best suited for your sensibility.

For some delicious and artistically worthy pairings, complement The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert with some recipes from illustrated Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.

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