Can it really be almost 5 years since I wrote a review of Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, the original work that gave birth to this line extension? That was near the beginning of a Potter-like quest to learn as much as I could about Italian wines. And though I've been at it diligently (after all it's not my day job and it has a tendency to interfere with my day job), I still feel like I'm merely up to my ankles in the juice with a long way to go before complete immersion occurs.
As we'll explore, I think the proper way to review this book is to compare it both to Vino Italiano, so you see in what way it differs from its parent, but also the incomparable and indispensable Gambero Rosso Guide, which appears quietly in the bibliography. To save space and keystrokes, from now on I'll refer to the subject of this review as VIBG.
VIBG is a more or less pocket-sized review of Italian wine producers whose wines are available in the US. It is organized as an alphabetical list, with comments ranging from brief Hugh Johnson Pocket Guide to Wine-type descriptions to a longer entry for a heavyweight like Gaja. I'm going to devote the rest of this paragraph to the organizing schema because it's integral to your ability to use the book. It `s no easy task deciding on taxonomy for Italian wine producers. I'm telling you from experience, VIBG should receive a medal for making it easy to find the winery/wine you're looking for. Their choice to strip away all the Azienda Agricolas, but keep the Tenute, Podere, Fattoria and Castello nomenclature before alphabetizing is the most rational approach I've ever encountered and truly makes it possible to thumb through the book and reliably find what you're looking for, especially with the safety net of extensive cross-indexing (By the way, this is also the only book on Italian wines I've seen that actually defines what each of those terms above means.) Anybody who has read one of my Gambero Rosso reviews knows how frustrating it can be to use that book, which is organized by region and by town so that you have to first know which town a producer is located in to find their listing. I think another reviewer pointed out that VIBG does not group by regions, so it cannot be used to survey Umbria for example, and find all the wineries there if you are planning an Umbrian menu or a trip. That's a shortcoming that could be addressed with a regional cross-index, but you'd still have to flip alphabetically back through the book to find each individual entry. The point of all of this is there are two basic use cases for getting value out of VIBG: (1) quickly locating a specific producer of interest, for example, while perusing a wine list or browsing in a retail store or (2) randomly flipping through the pages to read comments on producers you already know or might like to get to know in the future.
Since I effectively labeled the writers of the original Vino Italiano as geniuses when I first reviewed it, it would be disingenuous now to do anything but praise the accuracy and quality of their specific assessments here in VIBG. In fact, Vino Italiano has an index of 700 or so producers in the back, so I guess they decided to beef it up and convert it into a free-standing book of its own. Vino Italiano is too big to lug around, so the idea of a portable version makes sense. I didn't count `em all, but the authors state there are roughly a thousand producer reviews in VIBG, representing perhaps 10% of all Italian producers whose wines you could theoretically buy in Italy. The list here is culled as I mentioned earlier for commercial availability in the US and the premise is that if the producer is in the book at all, it's because they deserve to be. The one drawback is that you won't find mention of a terrific wine from one of the other 9000 producers who are not in the book that just got shipped to the US for the first time last week by a diligent importer.
Like many "pocket guides," each entry in VIBG is packed with information in addition to the brief descriptions of the producers and their best wines. Also included are the following details and ratings, where they apply: wine region; relative price; relative availability; overall quality (elite, premium, rising star, value); address, phone number, and website, if any; and whether or not it has a restaurant or accommodations on the property. All of this is quite useful if you're thinking about trying to visit a winery on a trip to Italy, though I didn't notice any warnings about whether specific places won't accept visits from consumers, as can sometimes happen (A bit of advice: even if they say no, persistence and enthusiasm have been known to overcome even hardcore policies about trade-only visits...).
Also of great value are the numerous little chapters and appendices crammed with useful information and fun facts. In VIBG you get: a guide to wine labels; principal grapes of each region; a very helpful list of about 250 tried and true wines to sample if you're looking for an introduction to a specific theme in Italy (e.g., "10 great indigenous whites"); a super vintage chart through 2003 that actually has ratings for sagrantino and taurasi among other age-worthy reds, something I've never seen before; listings and brief descriptions of what must be almost every grape grown in Italy, including the most obscure ones I've personally encountered like ansonica and barbarossa; all the DOC's and DOCG's; a guide to Barolo and Barbaresco with a breakdown of the single vineyard crus and the characteristics of each producer's style; and finally a glossary of Italian wine terms. In all of this the one thing missing is a comment on vintage variation and its impact on Italy overall or specific regions. 2002 was wet in many parts of Italy and only gets a "one star out of five" rating in Taurasi. Does that mean avoid at all costs?
In sum, this book is a truly useful extension of Vino Italiano with enough differentiation in content and format to make it well worth the purchase. Its only drawback is the inevitable result of the authors' decision to focus on the producer rather than individual wines. To do so requires them to depart from a formula that is familiar to Americans and may be hard for some to swallow, and that is the individual rating and scoring of specific wines by vintage, as you would find in the Wine Advocate or Spectator. But if you can set that prejudice aside and embrace the idea that a track record is generally worth believing in, you'll get a terrific and quite portable companion to enjoying the best Italian wines you can find here.