Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Book Review: Educating Peter

Right away, before I get started on my review: I still am planning to review On Rue Tatin. I'll get there. Really.

Now, on to the book at hand: Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference between Cabernet and Merlot or How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert by Food & Wine wine editor Lettie Teague. In the interest of full disclosure, and because my internal honor code would never let me sleep at night if I didn't mention it - I received a comped copy of this book from the publisher. I wouldn't have accepted it, though, if I hadn't already been planning to get my hands on a copy to read. So I promise, the fact that I didn't pay for the book hasn't had any sort of impact on my objectivity.

What may have had an impact on it, though, is the fact that Lettie Teague's F&W column is, without fail, my favorite part of the magazine. I think she's a great writer and she demystifies wine without dumbing anything down for her audience. With as much wine as I drink, I should be an expert at this point. But considering that 75% of what I drink is of the "cheap" variety, well, let's just say my palate's got a ways to go.

But that never stops me from enjoying Teague's columns. And in particular, I loved the three-column series she wrote about her interactions with her neighbor, Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers. Peter started out as a blind devotee of cheap, "fatty" chardonnay but by the end of Teague's introductory lessons, he'd expanded not only his vocabulary, but his palate, too. Basically, he was willing to drink a Cab here and there.

These three articles, and the preliminary lessons on which they were based, blossomed into a full-fledged campaign to "Educate Peter". The book chronicles the lessons, which begin with a tasting and instruction about the products of each major wine-producing region in the world, then expands into how to shop for wine, how to attend a wine auction and how to speak with a sommelier. The book ends with a bang: a trip to Napa to learn more right at the source. There's a lot of conversation and tons and tons of funny little stories, which adds some levity to the book as a whole (if it lacked humor, it would read like a textbook - thank God it doesn't). Oh yeah, and then there's a quiz. Which I am absolutely dorky enough to love.

In my opinion, the only cons about the book are that the structure sometimes feels a little forced (but I might have been overly sensitive to that because I knew that it grew out of a couple of articles) and that Teague's student, Peter, does more than his fair share of name-dropping. Actually, the name-dropping, along with Peter's seeming willingness to say whatever pops into his head to just about anybody, can be very funny to read. I'm just not sure I'd want to hang out with him in person.

Overall, though, I think Teague gets a difficult balance just right: her book is truly informative and a great reference, but it also reads like a novel. I finished it in just a few nights - but unlike most books I plow through that quickly, this one has earned a permanent spot on an easy to reach bookshelf, so I can grab it before my next wine store trip.

Verdict: Totally recommended - it would be a fantastic gift for someone who's just starting to learn about wine (though completely appropriate for people with a little more knowledge, too).

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