This is the most recent addition to Matt Kramer's "Making Sense" series of wine books. If you've read any of the others, you know that the dumbed-down "Making Sense" tag is a bit of a misnomer. The original Making Sense of Wine is one of the most intellectual wine books ever written, with thoughtful chapters on the nature of connoisseurship, the importance of typicity of place, and wine's changing role at the dinner table throughout history. And then there is Kramer's rare, inexplicably out-of-print Making Sense of Burgundy, which costs north of $100 if you can find it... rather like a prized Burgundy itself.
For better or worse, Making Sense of Italian Wine doesn't continue this deceptive labeling. It's organized like a buyer's guide for beginners and indeed Kramer states flatly in the introduction: "This book is not intended for wine lovers who are already deeply knowledgeable about Italian wines.... Instead, this book is for relative newcomers to Italian wines. It's for everyone who has enjoyed a bottle recommended to them in an Italian restaurant and would like a little guidance about how to go about having another such delicious experience."
The majority of the book consists of overviews of about 40 different types of Italian wine, broken down, for each category, into a brief history, a list of recommended producers, an overview of the cuisine typically served with the wines in Italy, various vital stats, and references to similar wine types. The culinary descriptions are particularly refreshing because they don't degenerate into any of the customary voodoo about what micro-elements in the wine and food "pair" with each other in whatever barely noticeable ways. Instead, Kramer just describes, quite evocatively, what the locals eat, so the result is a small lesson in culture rather than the usual dinner-table dogma.
The 40 wine categories cover about as much breadth as you can expect in a book of 250 pages without very much depth for any particular type. (Big guns like Barolo get 20 pages tops, mostly producer descriptions.) It's tempting to skip through a lot of this, but the fact is that Kramer has a real knack for isolating distinctive producers and tying their wine into the kind of story you want to retell to your friends when you have a glass of it in front of you. There's Saracco's Moscato d'Asti, for example, which Kramer describes as the closest thing on the commercial market to the genuine old-time Moscato d'Asti--the kind that was filtered through a sock and would often spontaneously explode in producers' cellars. If every chapter had a recommendation as on the mark and interesting as that one, the book would be indispensable, but unfortunately a lot of chapters seem to cry out for more flesh on the bones.
The three introductory essays are the emotional heart of the book in that they reveal Kramer having a real passion for the subject, rather than just a lot of expertise. The first is titled "Bella Figura--The Italian Love of the Beautiful Gesture" and is a warm account of the Italian obsession for the seemingly insignificant flourish designed to project the perfect image. For some producers, their "bella figura" is a fancy label or a heavy bottle; for others it's new oak barrels--"except for those traditionalist producers who, in a kind of jujitsu move, make the absence of small oak barrels their bella figura." Seen that way, suddenly it makes sense how both approaches can seem quintessentially Italian.