Book Review: American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, by Tom Acitelli

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 03-29-2016

American Wine Book CoverI’ve never really considered the cultural significance of Julia Child independent of Dan Aykroyd. But after reading American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, I think I should. Tom Acitelli convincingly demonstrates how the rise of fine wine in America from the 1960s into the present is creditable to a surprisingly few individuals, including Child and a handful of others.

For Child, it all started with a meal. On November 3, 1948, she and her husband Paul sat down to lunch at a restaurant in northern France. On this particular occasion, Julia, the soon-to-be pioneer of French cuisine in America, was more intrigued by the wine (a bottle of Pouilly Fume) than the food. The prospect of wine at lunchtime fascinated her, and sparked a career interest in the complementary possibilities of fine dining and fine wine.

Acitelli has a flair for taking moments in time and explicating their larger significance. It’s a rhetorical strategy he seems to have perfected. He begins by highlighting something small or seemingly insignificant, like the Childs’s meal in France, and then traces the ways in which it inaugurates some contribution to American wine. This is Acitelli’s style, and it’s both effective and engaging.

American Wine contains a host of biographical sketches, some more recognizable than others. Considerable attention is given to well-knowns like Child, Steven Spurrier, Robert Parker, and the Mondavis, but Acitelli also devotes time to the contributions of individuals like Andre Tchelistcheff, Mike Grgich, and Leo McCloskey.

Tchelistcheff, a Russian who fought the Communists in his own country before coming to America, was a pioneer of barrel-aging, frost prevention, cold and malolactic fermentation, and, most importantly, cleanliness in winemaking. Croatian-born Grgich, who apprenticed under Tchelistcheff, was an essential part of the winemaking team in the early days at Robert Mondavi’s winery in Napa. And McCloskey is the founder of Enologix, a company specializing in predictive analytics for high-end winemaking and a major contributor to the homogenization (and Parkerization) of wine in America.

I find the book’s greatest asset to be these more esoteric bits of biography. I’ve heard enough about Spurrier and Parker. I enjoy learning of the men (and women) further behind the scenes.

Also, before reading Acitelli’s book, I had never realized how vital immigrant winemakers were to the development of American fine wine. Men like Tchelistcheff and Grgich risked their lives to come to America, and then proceeded to break new ground for the wine industry at every turn. It’s truly a humbling revelation.

It’s a point that needs repeating: this book is not a general history of American wine consumption. Rather, it’s a story about the cultural evolution of fine wine in America. Acitelli has an exceptional capacity for condensing seas of information, and with American Wine he has given us something both easily consumable and refreshing.

My Recommendation

American Wine is a story every American wine drinker should know. Acitelli’s research is excellent and, most importantly, expertly assembled into a captivating narrative.

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