Book Review: A Natural History of Wine, by Ian Tattersall and Rob Desalle

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 05-31-2016

a-natural-history-of-wine-thumbnail_body_largeWine writing is saturated with the scientific. Tattersall and Desalle’s A Natural History of Wine follows suit, but distinguishes itself by at least making an effort to accommodate the layman. With wit and an abundance of references to pop culture, Tattersall and Desalle take us through the molecular nooks and geological crannies of wine. What results is a book that hits the mark at every turn for the scientifically inclined, but leaves the oenological everyman with only occasional passages of non-technical brilliance.

A Natural History of Wine nonetheless has much to recommend, especially for those interested in the confluence of science and wine. The first half of the book is full of geological, biological, and chemical specifics. While I did find myself at times merely skimming along, there are occasional factual gems that would interest any reader. For example, Tattersall and Desalle explain how “male fruit flies deprived of the opportunity to mate showed a stronger preference for ethanol than their more successful counterparts” and pen-tailed tree-shrews, when drunk, show “no physiological impairment.” Such conclusions, based on actual scientific studies, allow us to draw comparisons to our own relationship to alcohol as humans… and perhaps realize a kinship with fruit flies?

For me the real pleasure came in the second half of the book. The section on the science of rootstock grafting, vine hybridization, and vine propagation is particularly interesting. Who knew that so much scientific effort is being dedicated to tracing the genetic history of vines and pinpointing particular places of origin?

Seedless grapes were another topic that attracted my attention in the latter chapters. Only a pair of wine-loving scientists like Tattersall and Desalle can explain in exact detail how and why grapes became seedless on one page and then on another tie it all together with statements like: “nobody has yet been able to produce a seedless grape that makes good wine, so the seeds buried within the grape must provide an essential element of the chemical complexity” of wine.

Speaking of essential elements, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention terroir. When Tattersall and Desalle declare, “only zealots would deny that terroir has to mean something,” I couldn’t help but think of Mark A. Matthews’s new book, Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, which has been sitting on my nightstand for weeks now. I am, however, a bit skeptical about Matthews’s theory (and this is based solely on the book’s title), especially when Tattersall and Desalle do such a good job of laying out all the microscopic variables that go into winemaking. I had never even considered that the whole microbial universe, wild yeast included, can be considered a component of terroir. That’s so cool to think about! We’ll see how I feel after reading Matthews’s book.

By far my favorite part of A Natural History of Wine is the section on the lifecycle of an ethanol molecule in the body. Beginning with the moment of consumption, Tattersall and Desalle chart the movement of the ethanol molecule through every inch of the human gut and into the brain, explaining in precise detail along the way each biological interaction and its resulting effect (e.g., spinning vision, hangovers, acid reflux). It’s like reading an oenological retelling of Osmosis Jones. (Bill Murray was in that one, remember?) If there is a single reason to purchase this book, this section is it.

Content aside, A Natural History of Wine is just beautifully put together. It’s hardcover and printed on thick off-white paper, with gorgeous illustrations throughout. When I found myself struggling to comprehend the text, the pictures really saved the day.

My Recommendation
It’s clear to me that the authors intended their book to be scientific yet entertaining, and appeal to more than just those who like to drink their wine from a beaker. I don’t think they nailed it. There is so much great information, but there is still plenty of weighty stuff that needs to be penetrated. I would recommend this book only to those with a semi-serious to serious interest in the science of wine.

Daily Wine News: Falling Out of Favor

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 05-31-2016

Hunter Valley in Australia. (Wikimedia)

Hunter Valley in Australia. (Wikimedia)

In Meininger, Jeni Port delves into what happens when a wine region falls out of favor, focusing on the impact on wine industry professionals after the collapse of the Australian wine boom.

In Decanter, Andrew Jefford pens a letter to a young wine taster. “I must introduce the notion of ‘drinkability’. When we taste on behalf of others, we taste on behalf of drinkers, not of tasters. Wine is for drinking.”

In Wine-Searcher, Sam Behrend considers the “halo effect” and looks at the wider impacts of big wine scores.

In Vinous, Antonio Galloni looks at the challenging 2014 vintage in Alto Adige, and says the 2015s “suggest a much more promising and consistent vintage across the board.”

Richard Hemming reviews the play adaption of Sideways in London for Purple Pages.

In the Washington Post, Dave McIntyre reflects on many recent acquisitions in the wine business, including the latest news of Jackson Family Wines purchasing Copain winery in Sonoma County.

Grape Collective on Argentina’s new wave of Malbec producers.

In Beverage Media, David Lincoln Ross looks at how Torrontés is attempting to move out of Malbec’s shadow.

Both the New York Daily News and VinePair spread the word about Vinho Verde.

Daily Wine News: Spain’s Conundrum

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 05-30-2016

La Mancha DO label (Wikimedia)

La Mancha DO label (Wikimedia)

In the New York Times, Raphael Minder investigates how an emphasis on producing bulk wine is now impacting Spain’s wine industry, particularly in Castile-La Mancha.

Grape Collective talks with Angéline Templier from Champagne J. Lassalle about grower Champagne. “When you are a grower Champagne you just want to have another approach. You want to understand the winemaker. You want to discover a vineyard. Some terroir…”

Jancis Robinson wants people to take English wine seriously. “The English wine scene can draw on many strengths. Its climate is increasingly favourable to good-quality wine production… English wine producers are also, as I have already argued, surrounded by one of the world’s most vibrant and influential communities of wine trade and wine media.”

In the Financial Times, Adam Thomson reports on Moët Hennessy’s latest wine, called Ao Yun, a red wine produced and bottled in China.

In Salon, David Schwimmer shares how he first learned about wine, and why he believes everyone should work in the service industry.

According to Caroline Henry in Wine-Searcher the polarizing natural wine movement hasn’t gone away — evidence shown by two recent wine fairs in London.

The Drinks Business imagines which wines Thomas Jefferson would stock his cellar with today.

In Palate Press, Becky Sue Epstein shares impressions of the Bordeaux 2015 vintage.

Wine Reviews: Alma Rosa & KITÁ

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-28-2016

If you know Cali Pinot, you know Richard Sanford. This Pinot Noir pioneer has been exploring the potential of the Santa Rita Hills for more than four decades. In 2005, he and his wife Thekla founded another project, Alma Rosa, which focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The 2013 Blanc de Blancs and the 2013 Brut Rosé El Jabali Vineyard are the first sparkling wines Alma Rosa has produced since the project was founded in 2005. While new to the sparkling wine game, Alma Rosa’s wines show no evidence of a learning curve. They’re bright, crisp, complex and will likely age well.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Interview: Steve Lutz

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 05-27-2016

Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz

Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring Steve Lutz, the winemaker at Lenné Estate in Willamette Valley.

After graduating from college, Steve started several careers before finding his current career in wine. He spent two years in the corporate world; he worked at Napa producers in the cellars and at the tasting room; he started a pizza business in Santa Rosa, California; and then he moved to Oregon, where he had attended college, to return to the wine industry.

In 2000, Steve and his wife Karen bought some land in the Willamette Valley and planted 15 acres of Pinot Noir in 2001 — and that was the beginning of Lenné Estate. Steve’s first vintage at Lenné Estate was 2004. He opened a tasting room in 2007. And Lenné Estate continues to grow.

Check out the interview below the fold!

Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Wine News: The City of Wine

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 05-27-2016

La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux.

La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux.

La Cité du Vin (City of Wine), a new wine museum in Bordeaux, opens next week to the public. The Telegraph gets a preview of what’s inside. Ray Isle also gets behind-the-scenes in Food & Wine.

“Czech authorities have discovered a 150-year-old wine collection secretly stashed in a medieval Czech monastery after the second world war and found almost 40 years later is now worth more than €1.1m,” according to the Guardian. The wines, including an 1896 and 1899 Chateau d’Yquem sat undiscovered beneath the floorboards of the monastery for years.

“The organization behind Auction Napa Valley partners with Christie’s auction house to bring its Premiere Napa Valley sale to China for the first time,” reports Wine Spectator.

In the New York Times, Eric Asimov offers his thoughts on the latest wine school, Barberas from Piedmont. Naturally, rosé from Provence is up next.

The World of Fine Wine profiles Georg and Julia Weber, owners of Monteverro in Italy.

Reuters reports on how Chinese consumers are helping support the South African wine industry.

In the Wall Street Journal, Lettie Teague visits TurnStyle, the new underground shopping plaza between 57th to 59th streets in the Columbus Circle subway station that features New York’s only wine shop in a subway station.

In the Napa Valley Register, Allen Balik ponders the idea of demystifying wine.

Cathy Huyghe covers Colorado’s wine scene in Forbes.

Daily Wine News: Donn Chappellet

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 05-26-2016

Donn Chappellet (Source: Chappellet)

Donn Chappellet (Source: Chappellet)

In Punch, Jon Bonné reflects on IPOB’s brief history and wonders whether IPOB achieved its goals. “Its work was important, for sure—where California pinot and chardonnay are concerned, it’s a very different world than it was five years ago—but the constant bickering over style has become tiresome.”

In Vinous, Antonio Galloni remembers Donn Chappellet, “one of Napa Valley’s true pioneers,” who passed away on May 22 at the age of 84.

In the New York Times, William Grimes’s obituary of Donn Chappellet.

In Decanter, Jane Anson considers some of the ways Spanish red wine can take the next step up.

Mike Veseth, the wine economist, thinks that Portugal’s Adega de Borba is “the very model of a modern cooperative winery.”

On the blog for First Vine, Tom Natan talks to cookbook author Pati Jinich about Mexican food and wine, and rises to the challenge of pairing wine with one of her recipes.

In Wine-Searcher, Wink Lorch gets geeky about the importance of rare grapes.

Eater surveys several somms to find out which countries is offering the best value in wine.

In Food & Wine, Henry Jeffreys looks at Spanish reds beyond Tempranillo.

And in case you missed it, David was on NPR to talk about the Judgment of Paris!

Daily Wine News: Tribes of Wine Buyers

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 05-25-2016

Randall Grahm.

Randall Grahm.

Harpers details a recent report released by the W2O Group that uncovered “five distinct tribes of wine buyers,” and also social media’s impact on wine buying.

“If the map of the world’s wine consumers has changed radically over the last few decades, the map of the world’s vineyards has changed even more radically and more recently,” says Jancis Robinson in a consideration of the changing shape of the wine world and climate change’s impact on it.

In Food & Wine, Ray Isle chats with Randall Grahm about his “weird, different, crazy” vision and the new Popelouchum vineyard.

Returning from a brief hiatus from blogging, Jonathan Lipsmeyer finds Napa’s Golden Age is alive in Spring Mountain, where he was happily surprised to discover Smith-Madrone and Stony Hill are proponents of dry farming despite California’s current drought.

Late last week, Sotheby’s New York auctioned off 20,000 bottles from the cellar of billionaire collector Bill Koch. According to Wine Spectator, the consignment fetched a staggering $21.9 million, topping the presale high estimate of $15 million by 46 percent and making it one of the highest ever achieved by a wine auction.

Headed to this year’s Auction Napa Valley? In Bloomberg, Elin McCoy has some advice: “Be sure to bring a very, very fat wallet.”

“April showers hit the Chile 2016 vintage, with some producers describing conditions as more like those on France’s Atlantic coast and overall production down by a fifth versus 2015,” reports Amanda Barnes in Decanter.

In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Austin surveys the dry furmint scene.

Book Review: A Glass Full of Miracles, by Mike Grgich

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 05-24-2016

Today is the 40th anniversary of the world’s most famous wine tasting. The Judgment of Paris pitted the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy against some underdog Cabernets and Chardonnays from California.

This momentous blind tasting was chronicled in the 2008 Hollywood film “Bottle Shock”, and the far more historically accurate book, “The Judgment of Paris” by George Taber, the only reporter present at the event. This tasting brought together wine experts from France and the United States to blind taste a wide range of wines. White Burgundies competed against California Chardonnays, while Bordeaux reds were pitted against some of California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons. In 1976, when the tasting took place, California wines were already rocking, but they were relatively unknown to the wine cognoscenti.

That all changed when the wines were unveiled. The French loved the Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet more than Bordeaux, and they chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay over white Burgundies. The floodgates burst. The world wanted California wine.

That 1973 Chardonnay was crafted by none other than Miljenko (a.k.a. “Mike”) Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who had worked his way up in the Napa winemaking ranks. Perhaps more than any other individual, Mike Grgich was on the front lines of the Napa Valley wine revolution. When he first game to California in 1958, Mike was hired by Brother Timothy Diener of Christian Brothers Winery, which was the largest winery in Napa Valley at the time. He then took a position with legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards. From there, he bounced over to Robert Mondavi at the point when his winery was really taking off. Then, with Jim Barrett, Mike became a partner and integral part of the newly revitalized Chateau Montelena in 1972. It’s incredible to think that, in just a year’s time, Mike would craft a Chardonnay that blind tasters deemed higher quality than the best white Burgundies.

However, Mike didn’t even know the tasting was taking place. He figured something was up when Chateau Montelena received a telegram saying: “We won in Paris,” followed by a call from a New York Times reporter.

It was a miracle, Mike said. He recounts this event in his new autobiography “A Glass Full of Miracles,” which the 93-year-old published last month. It’s a beautiful and awe-filled foray into the life of a true California wine icon.

“The Judgment of Paris energized the wine world. Not only in California but around the globe, winemakers realized that they too might have the terroir to produce premium wines,” Mike writes. The 1973 Montelena Chardonnay was honored in a Smithsonian book titled History of American in 101 Objects. “It is amazing to me that as an immigrant to this country, I would live to see my Chardonnay considered an ‘American object.’”

This success gave him the last jolt he needed to kick off his own winery, Grgich Hills, which broke ground in 1977. It remains an exceptional source of Napa Chardonnay, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

Grgich’s prose, like his wines, is delightful and lively. Unlike his wines, the prose is simple and uncomplicated, but I mean those words as praise, not criticism. Reading this book, I felt like I was sitting on a couch listening to Mike spin tales of the old days.

Grgich was born in Croatia and raised by a winemaking family. His memories of his pastoral upbringing are wonderful to read. From a very young age, he was drawn to wine’s ability to bring people together. “People like to celebrate with wine in good times, but it also helps them forget in bad times,” he writes. “In fact, it adds pleasure to any day.”

But World War II ushered in a brutal fascist occupation, which also disrupted and destroyed the winemaking cultures of coastal Croatian communities. When the partisans drove out the fascists, Croatia quickly transitioned to a Communist dictatorship. After years of such chaos and destabilization, Grgich had to leave. With no freedom to move about or move ahead with his aspirations, Grgich fled the country. He had heard that California was paradise, and he knew he had to get there. Somehow.

I’ll leave the story of his escape and travels to Mike, who tells it beautifully, but suffice it to say: his is an exceptional and inspiring story of a poor immigrant who refuses to let his dreams go unfulfilled.

If you’re at all interested in those thrilling years of Napa Valley’s evolution, this book is full of great stories and history. Also, for the Zinfandel lovers out there, Mike tells of his role in tracking down the mysterious origins of Zinfandel to its birthplace in Croatia, which is my vote for the coolest and most fascinating stories of a researching a grape’s heritage.

The book is essentially self-published by Grgich’s daughter, Violet, but it’s put together very well and includes a host of great color pictures. The hardcover sells for $40 from Violetta Press, the Grgich Cellars’ website (with a discount for club members), and Amazon.


Daily Wine News: An End to IPOB

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 05-24-2016

IPOB-LogoIn Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) will cease operations at the end of 2016. Esther Mobley reports details in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Elsewhere in the San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley says what we’re all thinking (or, maybe it’s just me): “I’m getting Judgment of Paris fatigue.” Still, she takes the opportunity to discuss why it really matters, and also why it doesn’t. “Not only an affirmation of Napa, it also helped shift the paradigm by which we judge wine quality.”

Over at the Washington Post, Tom Acitelli is also thinking about the Judgment of Paris and what helped make American wine “a true global phenomenon.”

Susan H. Gordon takes a global look at the natural wine movement in Eater.

In Wine Spectator, Robert Camuto visits J. Hofstätter in Alto Adige and is impressed by the “elite wines” made by Martin Foradori, “a gifted interpreter of the vineyards.”

In Decanter, Andrew Jefford delves back three decades to find out if Châteauneuf du Pape both needs and merits age.

The Decanter staff also puts on a tasting of California Chardonnay to assess how styles are — and aren’t — shifting away from oaky, burly wines. “If there is a move in California to more balanced, elegant wines, it certainly hasn’t reached Napa.”

Can cava shake off its bargain image? In Wine-Searcher, James Lawrence thinks so, but not without a struggle.