Book Review: Godforsaken Grapes by Jason Wilson

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 07-05-2018

Godforsaken_Grapes_By_Jason_WilsonMany wine nerds have likely heard a similar statistic: about 80% of the world’s wine comes from about 20 grapes. Meanwhile, planet Earth boasts some 1,400 grape varieties used in winemaking, which means there is a whole lot of “obscure” wine out there. Since I’ve been paying close attention to wine, for about a dozen years now, I’ve seen a huge uptick in excitement about wines like Mtsvane from Georgia, Trousseau from Jura, orange wines from Slovenia, etc. Even though I’m still totally happy sipping California Chardonnay, I think this increased attention on lesser known wines has been extremely positive in many ways.

In his new book, “Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine,” Philly’s Jason Wilson digs deep into the other 20% of the world’s wine. After focusing on spirits and cocktails for much of his life, Wilson caught a bad case of the wine geek bug, and soon began traveling to Austria, Switzerland, Northeast Italy, and other regions, searching for obscure wines and the interesting people who keep them alive.

In an interview with Wine Enthusiast, Wilson said this about his motivations behind writing the book: “This book is very personal, dealing with my own growing obsession with wine during my late 30s and 40s. I wanted to write about what happens when one goes down the rabbit hole into serious geekdom. I also saw a bigger story. The wine industry is undergoing a massive sea change and the influence of a certain type of ‘serious wine critic’ is on the wane. I wanted to capture this moment.”

The title of the book was taken from a now infamous screed posted by Robert Parker in 2014, in which he complained that a younger generation of wine-lovers (which he called a “group of absolutists”) was engaging in, “near-complete rejection of some of the finest grapes and the wines they produce. Instead they espouse, with enormous gusto and noise, grapes and wines that are virtually unknown.” These “godforsaken grapes” (like Trousseau, Savagnin, Blaufränkisch and others), Parker decreed, made wines that were “rarely palatable.”

A lot of people were ruffled by Parker’s post, but I remember feeling a bit sad. It reminded me of an old metalhead ranting about how bands these days don’t make music like they used to. Blah, blah, blah. This thinking also sets up a false dichotomy, pitting what Wilson calls “serious wines” against the “obscure” or “natural” or “geeky” wines. I’ve never felt the need to pick a side in this fight — Napa Cabs are great, so is Schiava from Alto Adige. The world is big enough for everything. Isn’t there enough tribalism in the world already? It’s just wine — right?

The most refreshing aspect about Wilson’s voice is his sense of self-doubt, the way he questions his own assumptions and applies skepticism to his own views when he feels he might be getting ahead of himself. Since wine, as the cliché goes, is a journey, I appreciate how Wilson always checks his tracks to see where he’s been and where he’s going.

“Was all of this just a privileged exercise in geekiness and arcane trivia?” Wilson asks himself. “I’d started to worry I was falling down the same rabbit hole as those hipper-than-thou wine snobs who sneer at people who order chardonnay.”

Several times in the book, Wilson compares extreme wine geekism to bizarre, obscure performance art, and wonders if some of us are seeking out oddity for oddity’s sake: “I occasionally worry that the pursuit of even more obscure and lesser-known wines is sort of like Dada. What’s cool and enigmatic one day — trollinger from Germany or encruzado from Portugal or malagousia from Greece — could very well become boring tomorrow.”

And sometimes we can get so caught up in wine geek navel gazing, perhaps sometimes we miss the entire point. I mean, isn’t this all about happiness and pleasure anyway? Again, Wilson asks: “But has this quest into pleasure led toward some enlightenment or happiness, or has it simply succeeded in making me a miserable person? I occasionally worry about these sorts of things. I am well aware how ridiculous or pathetic that may sound, the ultimate First World Problem.”

Wilson’s book is divvied up into self-enclosed chapters focusing on a certain region or a certain type of wine. I will say, some of the chapters (like the one on Port) seem tacked on, and sometimes Wilson rambles on for far too long about his travel logistics. That said, I genuinely enjoyed this book, learned more than a few things, and finished it feeling invigorated about where we are in this moment of wine’s history.

If you’re still looking for a wine-related summer beach read, this is a great one. I confess that reading this book on a beach in Portugal (while sipping a chilled white made from Antão Vaz) was a delightful experience.

$26, hardcover
Abrams Press

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