Experiencing ZD Wines

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 10-18-2018

ZDWinesThe most exciting thing about a bottle of wine is the potential it holds for fostering community, intimacy, and relationship. As I said before, nobody drinks wine in a vacuum. We empty our glasses in all kinds of places, among friends, family, and even strangers.

This past month I received three bottles from ZD Wines, a Napa Valley producer that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this harvest. My wife and I even used one of the bottles as an occasion to get to know our neighbors.

2016 ZD Reserve Chardonnay (SRP $77)
It could’ve been the post-Ultimate Frisbee thirst and fatigue, but this bottle stood out as the true winner of the trio. All it took was Jim Croce on the record player and a cool glass of ZD Reserve Chardonnay to sooth our aching bodies. “Apply,” was my wife’s first impression. I smelled lychee, something floral (maybe chamomile), vanilla, and allspice.

The extended yeast contact came through quite clearly, as the wine was nice and creamy and coated my tongue. It left my mouth watering slightly, despite any notable acidity. I tasted spice and—surprisingly but not at all unpleasantly—a hint of salinity. The winemaker did well to forgo MLF, as too much butteriness would surely have marred the harmony of oak, flowers, and spice. Sprawled out on the floor and sweaty, ceiling fan whirring, we agreed it was an excellent Chardonnay.

2015 ZD Cabernet Sauvignon (SRP $75)
When you live in a four-unit apartment building, you don’t have much excuse for not knowing your neighbors. After a year and a half of passing pleasantries, my wife and I decided it was high time we get acquainted with the couple our age living below us. And what better excuse to do so than a premium bottle of wine?

Turns out the gentleman preferred beer. So over dinner, board games, and dessert, while he put back the Yuenglings, the lady, my wife, and I savored the ZD Cab—and I discretely scribbled tasting notes on a pad of paper under the table. The wine was dark and dense with a notable lack of tannin but a delightful blueberry character. 22-months in American oak had given it rich aromas of vanilla and cola. The bottle emptied quicker than I could record all of my impressions, but it did its job facilitating great conversation and laughs. Our neighbors have promised to reciprocate with dinner soon and I’m sure the folks at ZD will be happy to know they’ve played a part in what looks to be the beginnings of a more neighborly relationship.

2016 ZD Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir (SRP $82)
Okay, sometimes I just drink wine alone. It had been an insanely hot week and, of course, my AC unit decided to give up the ghost. With my wife gone and the windows down I popped this beauty in the refrigerator. The evening’s aptly selected movie, Mississippi Burning, played as I puzzled over what turned out to be quite an enigmatic Pinot.

From the start, nose firmly in glass, it wasn’t giving me much. It just sat there, dense and ruby, mocking my inadequacy. So I let it alone, until it would relent and reveal to me all of its wonderful qualities. I blinked first, of course, and the wine greeted my tongue with a wonderful acidic tingle—just what I needed in the heat—and gave forth odors of overripe strawberries and anise, but little else. At a point, I stopped trying to figure this wine out and just enjoyed it. It was well structured and enjoyable, but didn’t have the wow factor I would expect at this price.

Book Review: Tasting the Past, by Kevin Begos

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 07-02-2018

Tasting the Past - Book CoverThis book wouldn’t exist had Begos not found himself bored in a hotel room in Jordan. Reaching for a bottle from the minibar, he encountered Cremisan Cellars, and sparked a journey that has culminated in Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine.

Begos documents his visits to some of the oldest wine sites in Europe and the Middle East, searching for (but as you’d expect, not conclusively finding) the origins of wine. Along the way he encounters experts, scientists, and passionate winemakers who, each in their own way, are seeking to discover and experience wine in its most ancient forms.

A former MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow, Begos does an excellent job striking a balance between travel writing, history, and science—the science, thankfully, isn’t too heavy handed. What I admire most, however, is his relentless curiosity.

Begos could not shake his desire to learn more about Cremisan’s unusual grapes (Baladi, Jandali, Hamdani) and to understand why, in a world full of thousands of wine grape varieties, each suited to its particular clime, we have limited ourselves to just a handful. Most of it is market driven, of course, but Begos laments how we’ve “rammed the famous [i.e., French] varieties” into so many unsuitable habitats.

A recurring theme in the book is the friction between nature and viniculture: what the vine desires to do and what man makes it do. It’s actually what I found most compelling. For instance, I was surprised to learn (so was Begos, when Swiss grape geneticist Dr. José Vouillamoz told him) that “if you plant the seeds from any grape … the new vine will have different flavors and characteristics.” It seems obvious, until you realize what this actually means, that the varietals familiar to us today have all been propagated through the centuries by cuttings alone.

How had I not known this?

Take Cabernet Sauvignon. It was born of a “vineyard love affair,” as Begos calls it, between Sauvignon Blanc (yes, a white grape) and Cabernet Franc, 200-300 years ago in southwest France. Carole Meredith, plant geneticist at UC Davis, puts it simply: “A single pollen grain landed on a single flower and a single seed grew into a single plant. Every Cabernet Sauvignon vine across the world comes from this one original vine.”

The modus operandi of modern winemaking is to “lock in the tastes but shut down any evolution,” says Begos. But this desire for vinicultural consistency comes at a price.

Because today’s most popular wine grapes exist in a state of arrested evolution, they’re particularly susceptible to pandemic disease (which is what happened during the Irish Potato Famine). Climate change, too, will increasingly come negatively to bear on a world full of vines that have been artificially kept from adapting and evolving. For winegrowers, if Begos’s experts are right, it looks to be a losing battle.

The silver lining here is novelty. There exists the possibility for entirely new varietals with new flavors—flavors not merely coaxed out of existing varietals by the next great winemaking process innovation, but flavors born organically of seed and soil. A few winemakers are already on it, says Begos.

Tasting the Past is a rallying cry for the obscure grape and for regional particularity. I’m on board with that. There’s a great big world out there beyond the French grape.

My Recommendation
There are so many great stories and characters contained within Tasting the Past’s 250 or so pages, and Begos’s journalistic style keeps it all moving. I liked, too, that each chapter concludes with information on how to obtain the wines he discusses (although some are unattainable outside of the wineries themselves). Anyone who wants to know what else is out there, beyond even what your local Total Wine can supply, will want to read this book. Those with a bent toward wine history, paleobotany, or grape genetics will be especially pleased.

Experiencing the Wines of Stewart Cellars

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-05-2018

stewartMost wine reviews consist of two things: a series of sensory descriptions (which are increasingly imaginative, to say the least) and a number between 85 and 100. There are exceptions, to be sure. But in most publications—this one included—the wine review now fits a standard template.

For those who taste and review thousands of wines annually, I would imagine that the process can get quite clinical. I picture a clean, controlled environment, like a science lab, complete with white coats, laboratory flasks, and perfectly polished glasses.

Sure, that might be hyperbole. And don’t get me wrong; I love the reviews on Terroirist from Isaac Baker. But I can’t help but think about how most reviews don’t convey enough about how we actually experience wine.

For me, the most exciting thing about a bottle of wine is the potential it holds for fostering community, intimacy, and relationship. With the right person or people, in the right setting, and with the right food, that which a winemaker has passionately and painstakingly crafted to be good, can become very good. Those are the stories I want to hear!

Stories are what captivate us, what draw us in. So, what if wine assessment took the form of a vignette, that documents and entertains, interlaced with the qualitative notes we’ve come to recognize and value?

A month or so ago I received three new releases from Stewart Cellars as samples. This (below the fold) is how my wife and I experienced them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Napa at Last Light, by James Conaway

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 04-16-2018

Napa at Last Light Book CoverWith Napa at Last Light, James Conaway brings his trilogy on America’s most iconic wine region to a close. His conclusion, based on decades of experience in the region, is that Napa, like so many other once-pure places in America, has been despoiled by commercial interests, and perhaps irrevocably so.

But Conaway does more than state the obvious. He does an excellent job of exploring some of the specific instances of self-interest and political and legal maneuvering, if not outright corruption, that drove Napa to this place.

In 1968, the powers that be in Napa County voted unanimously in favor of the Napa County Agricultural Preserve, an ordinance that established agriculture as the “highest and best use” of land in Napa Valley. Conaway homes in on a “small change” to the ordinance from 2008 that “seemed innocuous but was in fact as potent as an aggressively metastasizing cancer cell.” That change was an eight-word addition (see italics) to the long-held definition of agriculture: “Agriculture is defined as the raising of crops, trees, and livestock; the production and processing of agricultural products and related marketing, sales and other accessory uses.”

This new definition said, in effect, that the activities of wine tourism were just as much a “highest and best use” of Napa land as grape growing.

Napa at Last Light looks at both sides of this battle between agriculture and commercialism, preservation and development, through the stories of individuals and families living in valley. Conaway’s account is, however, highly biased; it’s by no means objective journalism. (He actually describes it as a combination of “narrative journalism and personal reflection.”) Conaway distinctly aligns himself with the farmers and preservationists who hold to the spirit of the original ordinance and the old definition of agriculture, not the “drifting one percenters” who flock to Napa to develop the land and become “lifestyle vintners.”

I understand Conaway’s protective stance toward the place he holds dear and once labeled an American Eden, but I grew tired of his negativity. He tends to draw stark good-vs-evil contrasts, and even gets nasty with the people he dislikes, referring to a group, at one point, as “lucky spermers.” There’s no need for that.

It’s hard to keep track of all the characters in the book, but perhaps the most interesting, even admirable, and foremost among those whom Conaway glowingly profiles, is Randy Dunn, winemaker and owner of Dunn Vineyards. It was Dunn who, in 2005 and 2006, led efforts to acquire and preserve a 3,000-acre parcel of land on Howell Mountain known as Wildlake, even putting up $5 million of his own money. Conaway, who appears to be a friend of Dunn’s, admires the winemaker’s mix of sentimentality, agricultural know-how, and self-determination, and shares the story of the time he helped Dunn safeguard his property against approaching wildfires.

Conaway has a flair for the dramatic. In the wildfire story he imagines a scenario in which the fires have encircled them and he and Dunn are forced to stand in the middle of the property’s pond and listen to the fire consume all that Dunn had built.

You can tell what Conaway dislikes by what he renders absurd. Most notable are his belabored descriptions of Napa’s more opulent attractions, like the Red Room at Raymond Vineyards. But the root of his ire are the wealthy individuals, particularly from Texas (which made me laugh), who, having accumulated their fortune elsewhere, move on Napa like they would any land ripe for development and profit taking.

Conaway’s crosshairs here fall on Craig Hall, owner of HALL Wines and one time part owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Conaway laughs at the décor at Hall’s winery, calls his wine “another overripe cabernet sauvignon reaching for cult status,” and delivers a selective biography with emphasis on Hall’s shortcomings. But Hall’s principal sin is Walt Ranch, a vineyard project, potentially including some other development, which would level thousands of oak trees and steal the water supply from a community of innocent retirees.

While I take issue with Conaway’s unwillingness to take a serious look at opposing viewpoints and his tendency to disparage those he disagrees with, I ultimately come down on his side. Napa is a finite resource and there has to be a line drawn when it comes to development.

A few final comments on the structure of Napa at Last Light.

I admire Conaway’s non-linear approach, but it jumps around a bit too much. The storylines converge and diverge, characters appear and disappear, making it hard to keep everything straight—although the moments when everything clicks together are rewarding. There’s something to be said, too, for simple expression. There’s no need, in my view, for opaque sentences like this one from the first chapter: “The essence of a thing that by virtue of excellence testifies to an aspirational ethos promptly loses it by embracing brand, which is primarily the assertion that one has arrived, whether or not one really has.“

My Recommendation
Napa at Last Light is one-sided and pessimistic, but strangely, still a great read. And few books are timelier. With a major vote on what some consider the fate of Napa to occur in June (for a great overview, see Esther Mobley’s recent article), Conaway’s book is essential background reading that’ll give you at least half the argument.

4th Generation Mondavis on the Rise

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 03-19-2018

mondaviAmerican wine as we know it doesn’t exist without the Mondavis. What two Italian immigrants, Cesare and Rosa Mondavi, started in Prohibition-era Napa has become one of the greatest success stories in not just wine but American history. Today, the story—which has always been about family, for better or worse—continues, with a formal announcement that the fourth generation Mondavis have taken on a more prominent role at CK Mondavi and Family, as shareholders, board members, and brand ambassadors.

Last month, I met with Riana Mondavi, one of the so-called G4, at a coffee shop in the Philadelphia suburbs. She was making the rounds with local media (and probably also paying a visit to her alma mater, Villanova, where I also attended and where she earned her bachelor of arts in marketing and international business).

Riana is the great granddaughter of Cesare Mondavi (pronounced chez-a-ray), the granddaughter of Peter Mondavi, and the daughter of Marc Mondavi, current co-proprietor with his brother, Peter Jr., of Charles Krug Winery and the CK Mondavi and Family brand. Joining Riana to form the G4 are her three sisters, Angelina, Alycia, and Giovanna, and her cousins Lucio and Lia. (Family tree.)

When we hear the name Mondavi, we think Robert, not Peter. However, both brothers made significant contributions to winemaking—winemaking lore, too, famously brawling over a mink coat in the family vineyard, a fight that was less about a garment and more a clash of ideals.

For twenty-three years, Robert and Peter worked side by side at Charles Krug, Napa’s oldest winery, which their father Cesare, at Robert’s urging, had purchased in 1943. As Robert would later write, “For years I clashed with Peter over the quality of our wines.” Robert’s ideal was of continuous improvement. “I went throughout the world to find out what my competition was. And then I stopped at nothing to improve what we are doing, to excel.” Peter’s ideals, on the other hand, seemed to align more with those of his father and Italian immigrants like him who treated wine as less exotic and more household staple.

In Robert’s son Tim’s estimation, “Robert had a vision. Peter had a vision too, but went at a slower pace; he was more introspective and methodical.”

So, the brothers went their separate ways.

I asked Riana if Mondavi family relations have normalized in the more than fifty years since the notorious schism. I forget her exact words, but she indicated that they had, and that the Peter and Robert lineages do cordially cross paths these days.

Before our meeting, I had known the basics of the Mondavi story, but Riana added quite a bit of color, especially to Peter’s side of things, and brought the human aspect to what was already compelling history. She told me about working in the family winery at ten year’s old alongside her siblings, a family tradition that included such tasks as cleaning dishes and the lab, all for twenty-five cents an hour. Riana told me the story behind her great grandfather Cesare’s transition from wine-grape shipping to winemaking. It was pure happenstance, really: Cesare couldn’t in good conscience allow a shipment of unusually wet grapes, due to be sent east, succumb to mold en route. So he made wine, the logical and most profit-saving solution.

The tone of reverence and appreciation with which Riana spoke about her relatives, along with all the looking back at Mondavi history I’ve done since our time together in the coffee shop, have given me a greater appreciation for some of the low- and mid-shelf selections I tend to ignore.

In joining CK Mondavi and Family, the G4 are taking up the Mondavi mantle, but it’s more Peter’s than Robert’s. The CK Mondavi portfolio features exactly the type of inexpensive, massively produced table wine that was foundational to Cesare’s success, then Peter’s, after Robert left, and then Marc’s and Peter Jr.’s, in their time.

CKMondaviReLaunchBottleShot_LowResThe current CK Mondavi lineup includes a Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a Red Blend (Cab, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, Malbec). Each has a vintage (unusual for wine in this price point) and retails in the seven dollar range. I’ve found them to be exactly as advertised: balanced wines for casual, everyday drinking.

Many serious wine drinkers will shy away from brands like CK Mondavi. But as I said before, having acquired more of the story behind these screw-capped bottles with marketing-friendly labels—understanding that they hearken back with care and fidelity to the staples of the Italian table—I now have a greater appreciation.

In a curious plot twist, Riana and her three sisters are actually making their own wine under a label called Dark Matter, which is of a considerably different caliber than CK Mondavi. “It’s kind of my side hustle,” said Riana. Fruit is sourced from two vineyards on Howell Mountain. The first, the sisters own together—appropriately called Four Sisters and planted entirely to Zinfandel. The other, called Rocky Ridge, owned by their parents, Marc and Janice, provides the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Allocations are extremely limited for Dark Matter (120 cases each of the current two offerings). As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get a sample.

I like to think the sisters’ dual allegiance to the high craft of Dark Matter and the quality-for-the-quantity of CK Mondavi is appropriate homage to pay the family legacy. Even though Robert and Peter had their own way of doing things, both discovered that there’s room at the America table for a broad spectrum of wine, from Woodbridge “Bob Red” and CK Mondavi White Zin, to Opus One and Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet.

Book Review: Around the World in Eighty Wines, by Mike Veseth

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 02-12-2018

book coverWhen a copy of Mike Veseth’s new book hit my doorstep, part of me was hoping for a clever retelling of Jules Verne’s classic novel. (Perhaps featuring the bawdy misadventures of a drunken-yet-loveable Phileas Grogg?) Instead, I found the book to be an interesting if selective exploration of the global wine scene, as well as—much more interestingly and of greatest value—a look ahead at how incredibly dynamic the world of wine will be ten or twenty years from now.

To be clear, Around the World in Eighty Wines isn’t a novel. But Veseth uses Verne’s tale skillfully as a framework for taking readers on a fast-paced, anecdote-filled journey to wine regions at all corners of the globe.

Here are a few of the more memorable stopping points. In Lebanon Veseth introduces us to the Saadé family, Orthodox Christians making wine in the heart of the Middle East, who count inbound rockets among their vine-tending struggles. Off the coast of North Africa we visit Lanzarote, where the winds are so strong that vines are planted in conical depressions in the island’s volcanic ash. In Kenya and Bali—well, have you ever even considered that wine is made in Kenya and Bali? Then there’s Tasmania, which Veseth calls “one of the hottest emerging wine regions on earth.”

Veseth seems to me like the guy who knows all the good bands before they get famous. In fact, you could treat Around the World in Eighty Wines as an insider’s guide to the wines you should seek out and buy now, before their extremely marketable stories hit the global audience and their availability dwindles even further.

You can trust, too, that Veseth knows what he’s talking about, as a prolific author on topics in wine and economics, editor of the blog The Wine Economist, and professor emeritus of international political economy at University of Puget Sound. And in most cases he’s actually visited the places he features in the book.

On a critical note, I think he devotes too much time to America, and the final chapters feel a bit rushed. Also, at the end he deploys a bit of deus ex machina to fill the remaining slots in his imagined 80-bottle case of wine. I would rather have seen him insert another chapter, another visit to a unique wine region, to fill that case.

To sum Around the World in Eighty Wines in one sentence: it’s a concise guidebook, as educational as it is entertaining, to some of wine’s most curious and iconic expressions.

My Recommendation
If you’re interested in expanding your horizons beyond the traditional New and Old World, Veseth will accommodate you with a glimpse at what else is out there. He’s written a wonderful preface to global wine, but you’ll need to grab another resource if you want to go deeper.

Book Review: The New Wine Rules, by Jon Bonné

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-01-2017

The New Wine Rules - CoverIn naming his book The New Wine Rules, Jon Bonné has essentially asserted the authority of his own line in the sand. But hey, someone has to do it. Because in a world of 24-hour opinion sharing, sometimes we need to hit the pause button, collect ourselves, and establish basic guidance for those who, amidst so much noise and so little objectivity, are just trying to enjoy a bottle of wine.

We need, in Bonné’s words, a “framework for embracing this weird, wonderful wine world that we get to live in.”

There’s something for everyone in Bonné’s book, which consists of 89 rules. But it will be especially helpful for beginner wine folks in need of a confidence boost—the two words I think best capture the sentiment of the book. From the five essential wine tools you should own, to the basics of malolactic fermentation, to starting a wine collection for under $300, you’ll get practical information, concisely presented.

Bonné has an impressive resume: senior contributing editor at Punch, author of The New California Wine, wine consultant for JetBlue Airways, and former wine editor and chief wine critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. But he won’t overwhelm you with knowledge. Each rule is pared down for quick consumption and broad understanding.

I particularly enjoy Bonné’s aggressive attempts to wrest wine from a past marked by pretentiousness and exclusivity—“Screw that. Fear was the guiding principle of the past. We’re officially done. Wine is too great a thing to be limited by fear”—and a present drowning in an abundance of choices—“Endless fretting takes place over this simple question: what do I drink with what I eat? … In any case, stop worrying. There is no single perfect pairing. Drink what you like. … We’ll all get out of this alive.”

The New Wine Rules is a sharp book. It’s small (roughly 5”x7”) with a stitched binding and full of crisp, colorful diagrams and pictogram-like illustrations.

My Recommendation
As Bonné says, “Certainly the world doesn’t need another ‘drink this, not that’ book.” I think he’s succeeded in giving us something else: an expert’s compilation of practical advice for the average drinker who wants to talk intelligently with friends and make semi-educated choices for Friday nights and special occasions. It’s an ideal read heading into holiday party season. On that note, I’ll leave you with Rules 81 and 82: “Don’t be the guest who brings the cheap stuff” and “Don’t assume your bottle will get opened.”

Book Review: Drink Progressively, by Hadley and TJ Douglas

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 11-13-2017

Drink Progressively CoverIt’s difficult to put a new spin on wine, but TJ and Hadley Douglas have done it with Drink Progressively, a gorgeously printed volume capturing the rhyme and reason of their award-winning wine shop, the Urban Grape, in Boston’s South End.

I met with TJ on a recent trip to Boston. Over a few glasses of Pinot, picked right off one of the store’s wall-to-wall racks, he got down to telling me about his Progressive Scale, a 0-10 ranking for white and red wines that enables average and seasoned drinkers alike to make informed buying decisions.

For whites, it starts with the 1Ws. These are oakless, steel-fermented whites with lip-smacking acidity (“lemonade,” says TJ), like Alvarinho from Portugal. It ends with the 10Ws, which see full oak and ML, like the butteriest of California Chardonnays. For reds, 1Rs have bright acidity and low tannins, like Trousseau from the Jura, and 10Rs are jammy with tons of new oak aging, like Syrah from Walla Walla.

The scale moves from light to heavy—or skim to whole milk, as TJ puts it, paying homage to Zraly’s Windows on the World, the book that launched a thousand wine careers.

It’s all meant to minimize the stress of wine selection. For those of us who hate relying on the name-tagged folks walking the aisles at Total Wine, the Urban Grape is a sanctuary. The wines are grouped by their similarities, from light to heavy, and not by region or varietal. It makes everything easy, fun, and actually encourages experimentation, which is one of TJ and Hadley’s ultimate goals.

The scale helps with food pairing too. As the subtitle (A Bold New Way to Pair Wine with Food) suggests, the book is filled with recipes. Each chapter contains a summary of a progressive category (2W, 7W, 6R, etc.), regions where the wines can be found, an example bottle, and two recipes, one from the Douglases and one from award-winning chef Gabriel Frasca. TJ and Hadley’s recipes come right from their family table, simple yet lovingly crafted amidst the hustle and bustle of raising two children. Gabriel’s, on the other hand, are fancier and require a bit more time and effort, but from the pictures they appear well worth it.

The Urban Grape is a labor of love, and that shines through in Drink Progressively. TJ and Hadley’s relationship was forged around wine—special bottles shared, tasting trips to famous regions. TJ provides the vision and content, based on his years of experience in food and wine, and Hadley brings it to life in writing. And because I’m such an appreciator of killer descriptions, I have to call out Hadley’s equating tannin to “a dragging sensation like corduroy pants on a velvet couch.” Nice!

If you’re fortunate enough to live within a reasonable distance of the Urban Grape, visit! If you’re not, Drink Progressively is the next best thing and a truly helpful guide for everyday drinking and pairing.

My Recommendation
Drink Progressively isn’t just a reshuffling of existing information, like many wine “How To” books out there. It’s unique, it’s something special, and it’s an important step, in line with so many others of late, toward making wine more accessible. If you’re interested in experimenting beyond your standard drinking wine, or concerned with learning how to match your meals with a perfect bottle, this book should be on your kitchen shelf—it’s on mine!

Book Review: In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire, by Peter Hellman

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 08-14-2017

In Vino Duplicitas - Book CoverPeter Hellman’s In Vino Duplicitas is the best account to date of super-taster turned wine forger Rudy Kurniawan‘s elaborate con of the upper set. It’s also a delight to read.

Hellman, longtime contributor to Wine Spectator, has been on the journalistic front lines of the Rudy story since the beginning. He was there at the infamous Acker Merrall & Condit auction of April 25, 2008, when Burgundian winemaker Laurent Ponsot compelled the removal of several of his domaine’s wines from bidding. The consigner of the dubious Ponsots had of course been Rudy.

“Hey, Rudy, what happened with those Ponsot wines?” Hellman asked. “We try to do the right thing,” answered Rudy, “but it’s burgundy. Shit happens.”

That Hellman actually interacted with Rudy, and engaged with the story as it unfolded, adds a level of credibility to the book, and makes it all the more compelling. (Apart from the epilogue, that is, where compelling turns to creepy as Hellman talks about his visits to California’s Taft Correctional Institution and a failed attempt with a pair of binoculars to spot Rudy in the exercise yard.)

As is the privilege of text, In Vino Duplicitas is rich in detail, far more so than previous accounts of the Rudy story, most notably the 2016 documentary Sour Grapes (my review), which is still an excellent overview. Hellman’s book just goes deeper.

I was pleased to see in the book a more robust history of Rudy’s fakery, including some of his earliest cons. Between 2003 and 2005, Brian Devine, then CEO and chairman of Petco, was sold $5.3 million in wine, which later proved to be “amateurishly fabricated,” by an online seller named “Leny,” who was in fact Rudy. During this same period, a noted collector with a more trained palate discovered a “uniform oxidative quality” in the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars worth of wine he’d purchased from Rudy. But in that case a refund was given, so the forging scheme remained undetected.

Hellman’s book also includes selections from Rudy’s email correspondence, the tone of which vacillates between confidence and urgency, and affability and anger. Rudy’s trial, too, gets its own chapter. Noteworthy there is a look at the strategies of both defense and prosecution.

While In Vino Duplicitas is the most comprehensive account so far written, questions still remain. Like, where did Rudy’s money really come from? Did he have accomplices, either foreign or domestic? And how many Rudy bottles are still in circulation? Despite the millions spent by Bill Koch, a serial victim of wine forgery, to unearth the truth about Rudy, the story sits irritatingly incomplete.

My Recommendation
I can’t recommend In Vino Duplicitas enough! I read this book lying oceanside on my honeymoon in Belize, so maybe I’m biased, but it’s the most captivating thing I’ve read all year. Hellman has really done his research and written something that will appeal to any and all who appreciate wine and/or enjoy tales of true crime in high society.

Book Review: Your Wine Questions Answered, by Jerry Lockspeiser

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 06-14-2017

e04ff4_bbb954651e2c4fb489743c439d31f286.jpg_srz_406_578_85_22_0.50_1.20_0The premise of Jerry Lockspeiser’s Your Wine Questions Answered is simple: 25 questions every ordinary wine drinker wants to know, answered. Although I wonder about the place of books like this in the age of Google, I found the illustrations charming and Lockspeiser’s guidance expertly distilled for the layman.

Best of all: “100% of the author’s revenue from sales of this book will be donated to The Millione Foundation,” which Lockspeiser co-founded, “to build primary schools in Sierra Leone.”

Lockspeiser has worked in wine for over thirty years and currently writes an opinion column for Harpers Wine & Spirit. So he’s more than qualified to write a guidebook. His target audience is the average wine drinker, not experts, and his aim is to offer clear and practical advice for selecting and consuming wine. “After all, it’s only a bottle of fermented grapes.”

Your Wine Questions Answered addresses many of the questions you’d expect, like “Does all wine improve with age?” and “How long will wine keep in an open bottle?” The answers are conversational and concise, keeping to just two or three pages. Lockspeiser also includes his thoughts on less-typical intro topics like the psychology of taste, varietal-specific glassware, and supermarket “own label” wines—the last of which I found very useful for my strolls down the aisle at Trader Joe’s.

I love the colors and layout of the book. Each section begins with a vibrant two-page spread, with an illustration appropriate to the section’s particular question. Honestly, without the artistic flair of Lotte Beatrix, this book loses a lot of its appeal. I can best describe her style as palatably grotesque. (That’s a compliment!) What the book also has going for it is its shortness—I finished it in just two short sittings. The average wine drinker will not be interested in going deep, so Lockspeiser is wise to hang his hat on brevity.

My Recommendation
The cynic in me thinks I can find all of this information online. On the other hand, while we may not need more of these types of “just the basics” books, we certainly need more projects like this that endeavor to combine individual passion (in this case, the author’s passion for wine) with improving people’s lives. Your Wine Questions Answered is a great gift for anyone new to wine, especially if they’re charitably inclined.