Book Review: True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words, By Matt Kramer

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 08-12-2015

True TasteMatt Kramer’s newest book is not a lineup of tasting adjectives. If it were, I would never have read it.

Instead, I found True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words to be an important contribution to the current push — in the vein of recent pieces like “The Wrath of Grapes” — to rethink how we ascribe value to wine.

Like many oenophiles these days, Kramer is tired of watching contemporary wine critique morph into some kind of pretentious thesaurus. Today, tasting notes are ubiquitous, despite the fact that they are full of increasingly bizarre and wholly subjective flavor descriptors, “without any inherent meaning,” that tell us “surprisingly little about a wine’s actual quality.” But the real problem, Kramer says, is not the “descriptors in themselves,” but “the near exclusive use of them in ‘discussing’ wine,” which “leaves wine drinkers with the impression that, if you can’t find all these flavors, you as a taster of wine are somehow lacking.”

Kramer is spot on. We’ve all seen wine drinking at social gatherings devolve into a forum where those “in the know” rattle off a list of esoteric terms masquerading as value judgments, while the “uninitiated” shy away from voicing an opinion. True Taste is for the initiated and uninitiated alike, attempting to reform the former and encourage the latter. The book is “about those values that involve actual judgment.” It is about “tasting wine with discernment rather than a game of I Spy flavor description.”

Kramer’s seven “essential” words are insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. Each gets its own chapter, in which Kramer, in his casual and straightforward style, breaks down how the particular word plays out in a bottle of wine. I most enjoyed the chapter on “layers.” Kramer suggests that this word is in many ways superior to its more commonly used sibling, “complexity.” Whereas “complexity” connotes multiplicity, “implicitly suggest[ing] that more is better,” “layers” connotes order, pattern, coherent depth. The subtle differences between seemingly synonymous wine words, according to Kramer, matter a great deal.

It is in the “layers” chapter that Kramer makes his most important point of the book. He discusses the term “good” as it relates to wine and argues that it is not only a subjective term. In wine, “‘Good’ exists independently of one’s personal preference.” The popular viewpoint that “if it tastes good to you, then it’s good” is erroneous. As Kramer explains, we as humans are wired to seek out increasingly complex stimuli over simpler stimuli. Thus, things that are more complex satisfy an innate human desire, and are objectively good. But this complexity must have coherence—our minds demand order—so it must have “layers” that aggregate to a pleasant whole.

As much as I agree with Kramer’s arguments about contemporary wine critique, I do think the book could have worked better as an article, or series of articles. It is definitely short enough. I also have a problem with the last chapter, “A Word About Nuance and Cheese,” which seems out of place. An epilogue that provides guidance on how to put these newly acquired “true tasting” skills into practice would have been more useful to readers. Lastly, I am not entirely convinced that Kramer’s seven words are mutually exclusive. For example, there is overlap in the words “layers” and “nuance.” Although Kramer does an excellent job of describing each word, the line, for me, is sometimes too fine.

Situation in which I would purchase this book: At just over 100 pages, True Taste makes for great weekend travel reading. It’s not a “must have” for all wine drinkers, but it does contain a very important message about wine valuation. If you wish to expand the way you think and speak about the quality of the wine in your glass, True Taste is probably your most efficient option.

Book Review: Sediment: Two Gentlemen and Their Mid-Life Terroirs, by CJ and PK

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 07-16-2015

Book+jacket+REVSediment is the first book from bloggers CJ and PK, authors of the “nearly” award-winning wine blog of the same name.

The book is a collection of brief, three-to-four page thought pieces, written on a variety of topics and possessing all the wry humor that can be found on the duo’s blog. Seinfeldian in their astute observations of contemporary conventions in the world of wine, CJ and PK beg us to ask questions like: Why is drinking alone bad? How cheap can a bottle of wine get and still be potable? And what’s the deal with all these crazy corkscrews?

Somewhere, Larry David is nodding in agreement.

CJ and PK are not wine snobs. Rather they are bargain hunters, connoisseurs of the cheap. Although each seems to possess the knowledge of a well-read oenophile, they are largely self-deprecating, and relish every opportunity to render wine snobbery (or any wine drinking convention, for that matter) absurd. For instance, when it comes to the decanter, PK uses it not for aeration, but purely as an alternative to displaying the cheap bottles of wine he serves his guests.

The tasting note also figures in the two Brits’ lampoon. A bottle of Shiraz leaves PK’s mouth “resembling a cat’s anus” and CJ describes smelling “an invisible chemical gas I can’t put a name to, the kind of smell that comes out of a car body shop or the duty-free section of an airport in the tropics” in a glass of cheap Bordeaux.

But the book is not all cynicism and bashing of popular wine culture. There are some legitimate, even poignant observations. For example, I empathize with PK’s lament that not enough wine is available in half bottles. (A 375 certainly makes a night of solo drinking more manageable.) He is also rightly suspect of mixed cases of wine, calling them the “libertines of the wine world, offering carefree promiscuity over serious commitment.” CJ and PK truly appreciate and understand the “serious commitment” of consuming and collecting expensive wine; and while they can certainly mingle with the aficionados, they instead elect to dwell with (and bring empathy and education to) the average wine drinker.

What I enjoyed most about Sediment is the brevity of its sections, which makes for a convenient yet still very entertaining read. Although the reading is light, the book maintains a certain flair. Its style is distinctly British, with all the wit, colloquialisms, and turns of phrase we would expect. In a market dominated by serious wine writing, Sediment is a refreshingly different flavor.

Scenario in which I would purchase this book: If you feel like you need a hiatus from reruns of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm (and if you’re a true fan, it’ll be a brief hiatus), take a look at CJ and PK’s blog. If you like what you read there, buy the book.

Book Review: The Mad Crush, by Sean Christopher Weir

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 06-02-2015

The mad crushA dead coyote, a British expat, 100+ year-old vines, and buck-naked bohemians stomping grapes: these are just some of the elements that comprise Sean Christopher Weir’s new semi-autobiographical book, The Mad Crush. It is a fascinating, intergenerational story about a three-acre plot of Zinfandel, the men who tended it, and the wine they made.

It is not entirely “mad,” but certainly entertaining from start to finish.

In 1880, an Englishman named Henry Ditmas planted Zinfandel in California’s Saucelito Canyon, just south of San Luis Obispo. Nearly a century later, in 1974, Bill Greenough, a soft-spoken man from Santa Barbara with no formal winemaking training but a good deal of determination and imagination, discovered Ditmas’s vines. Bill found that, miraculously, they were still viable. Armed with only a few hand tools, he singlehandedly restored all 1,200 vines by digging down to the base of each vine trunk, installing grape stakes, and training up new shoots. By 1980, he had a thriving vineyard.

This is the backstory of The Mad Crush, the bulk of which concerns the 1995 crush at Bill’s Saucelito Canyon Vineyard. Weir actually worked this crush, and he incorporates numerous anecdotes—both funny and interesting—into his book. He describes how, on one occasion, an inexplicably leaky winepress had to be covered in shrink-wrap, and would later be dubbed the “Intergalactic Prophylactic Press.” At another point, he explains why a twelve-gauge shotgun became a necessary part of his harvest toolkit. His eyewitness accounts are informative and entertaining, and they really are what drive the story forward.

What I find most enjoyable about the book are the descriptions of Bill’s winemaking style, which can only be described as laissez faire. Bill was clearly not concerned with doing things in traditional fashion. For example, during the ’95 crush, the large open-top fermenting tank at his winery lacked refrigeration of any kind. It “was a hand-me-down from another winery. It fit the space and the budget, and so there it was.” But, as it turns out, this tank was not only utilitarian; it also contributed a unique nuance to Bill’s wine. In the tank, fermentations would often reach temperatures in excess of 100 degrees—far too hot according to conventional winemaking wisdom. But the way Bill saw it, more heat meant more extraction, and since only a portion of the batch was being fermented in this vessel, it would add a layer of complexity without dominating the blend.

As a self-taught winemaker, Bill does not seem to have been overly concerned about measurements and technicalities. He simply let the wine do its thing. As Weir says, Bill understood that “Wine is a living thing, and like all of us it goes through awkward moments and growth spurts and rebellious phases.”

The Mad Crush is a pleasure to read. Part Thoreau, part Bourdain, it strikes a solid balance between poetic winespeak and countercultural intrigue. In a matter of pages, Weir can go from poignant statements like “Terroir is what elevates wine beyond a mere recipe or a commodity like a can of soup,” to calling the man who introduced the European Starling (a pesky bird in the vineyard, and the reason for Weir’s twelve-gauge) to North America a “pretentious assclown.” Weir’s writing has the readability of a magazine article, which allows the reader to fully enjoy the story.

Scenario in which I would purchase this book: If I were looking for an excuse to take a weekend sabbatical from my smartphone, I would immediately use my smartphone to order The Mad Crush. Unpretentious, fun, and only 150 pages long, it is a book for everyone.

 

Book Review: Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine, by Alex Liddell

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 01-12-2015

If I wanted to know anything (or everything) about Madeira, I would pick up this new, fully revised edition of Alex Liddell’s 1998 book. Liddell is a recognized expert on the island of Madeira and its wine, and his knowledge and passion come through in the level of detail he employs. An exhaustive, scholarly work, Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine is full of statistics, charts, and maps, which the author skillfully coheres into a picture of an alluring island with a very special wine.

Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic WineWhat I most appreciate about Liddell’s book is its organization. The opening portion of the book proceeds chronologically and tells the history of Madeira from its fourteenth-century inception to the present. These chapters highlight the island’s volatility, from vine plagues and bureaucratic struggles to rampant fraud and world war. Liddell then proceeds to an examination of the island’s terroir and the unique ways in which the wine is made, including the heating methods that make it distinctive.

For Madeira collectors, the latter chapters are particularly helpful, as they address notable producers and vintages. Liddell even includes his personal tasting notes on vintages as far back as 1715! The notes are extremely thoughtful and a fascinating read for novice and seasoned Madeira drinkers alike.

Do not let the vibrant-colored, cartoonish book jacket fool you, Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine is a serious study intended for those seeking to know every nuance of the island. It is a technical book, and not for the casual reader. On the whole, however, I think it wonderful (and rare!) to have one book that so completely tells the history of a place.

Scenario in which I would purchase this book: I would buy this book if I were seeking either to become an expert on Madeira or expand my collection of wine reference books. If you’re truly a fan of Madeira, count its bottles amongst your cellar treasures, and wish to know everything about the island and its wine, then this is the only book you need.

Book Review: Wood, Whiskey and Wine, by Henry H. Work

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 01-08-2015

Did you know it takes two hundred years for a French oak tree to reach maturity? Or that, even then, each tree only yields enough staves—staves that must first dry outdoors for two years—to construct three barrels? It’s no wonder why oak barrels are so expensive!

Wood, Whiskey and WineHenry H. Work’s Wood, Whiskey and Wine is an enlightening study of this humble wooden receptacle. In simple, non-academic prose, Work traces the wooden barrel from its Celtic roots, through its heyday as a necessity for seafaring industries, to its current utility in aging alcohol. The opening chapters go into archeological detail, showing why the barrel first supplanted other ancient containers—which were mostly ceramic—and how it evolved into a form that has changed little over the centuries and remains to this day. Despite friction with competing vessels and materials, the wooden barrel has endured, although its uses, as Work laments, have become increasingly limited.

What I found most interesting about the book are the sections dealing with the role of oak barrels in winemaking and distillation. Of course we all know the basics of what oak lends to wine and whiskey, but Work highlights other, less well-known aspects of this marriage. For example, something I never considered, but that winemakers are keenly aware of, is the fact that the terroir of the oak tree itself matters, as does the tightness of the wood’s grain. I was also interested to learn about the manner in which the trees are planted: in rows, close together so as to inhibit lower branch growth, which limits knots in the finished wood. Such considerations escape even avid wine drinkers. Work’s book enlightens, and leaves the reader with a greater appreciation for the cooper’s craft.

For Work, a cooper himself, the oak barrel is a friend, and his appreciativeness glows on the pages. But despite this inherent bias, he has no agenda, no hostility toward progression away from wood and into plastics and other, more economical materials. Work is certainly no Luddite. Rather, he is a craftsman quietly petitioning for the respect and attention that his ancient-yet-still-important product deserves.

Scenario in which I would purchase this book: Casual and concise, this is a book for every wine drinker who enjoys a bit of history. If, like me, you find yourself growing increasingly interested in the finer details of how cooperage comes to bear on winemaking, pick up a copy of Wood, Whiskey and Wine.

Book Review: Dial M for Merlot, by Howard K

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-29-2014

dial m for merlotWhen I first saw the title of Howard K’s debut novel, Dial M for Merlot, I was expecting to read a murder mystery. Instead, I found myself navigating a sort of coming-of-age story involving a 30-year-old nerd and his wine utopia. The world occupied by Justin James, the novel’s protagonist, is indeed a utopia, in the strictest sense of the word. It does not exist. And after finishing the book, I am still uncertain whether Howard K has written fantasy or if he expects us to believe that a Trekkie virgin can suddenly become the object of every good-looking woman’s desire and the boon companion of so many wealthy altruists of the vine.

Justin James is a Fed-Ex employee who loves science fiction and Comic Con. He lives in Orlando, Florida, in a house left to him by his aunt, who raised him after his parents died. Justin’s life consists of work, comics, an endless series of first dates, and little else. But everything instantly changes when he decides to accept an invitation to a wine tasting.

Justin, who has never been drunk before, discovers that, incredibly, he has the palate of a seasoned sommelier. His talent for tasting wine is noticed by others (and praised ad nauseum throughout the book) and he quickly becomes absorbed into a clique of wine lovers who call themselves the “Juice Brothers.” What follows is the story of Justin’s burgeoning love affair with wine, food, and, for the first time in his life, women. The novel also has several parallel narratives—involving, among others, a pair of disgruntled nuns, a devious housewife, and a French villain—which intersect amidst a murder scenario at novel’s end.

There are two fundamental concepts that are generally accepted in creative writing. First, it is better to show than to tell, to let the reader discern nuances of plot and character rather than explain them outright. Second, no one wants to read a story about the largely perfect lives of characters with only minor flaws. Howard K breaks from both these concepts. He has a talent for description, but it is a talent upon which he relies too heavily. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Shadows in the Vineyard

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 07-29-2014

Sshadowsinthevineyardhadows in the Vineyard is the “true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine.” The author, Maximillian Potter, initially covered the story for Vanity Fair in May 2011. In his book, he digs deeper into the crime and peels back the personalities surrounding the attack on the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 2010. It debuted today and is available at Barnes and Noble.

As I read, I found myself feeling almost guilty. I tend to choose books that cause a little struggle — they’re satisfying, yet not always pleasurable. Shadows in the Vineyard is not that kind of book. It’s admittedly easy to read and, for wine lovers and novices alike, a way to soak in Burgundy through another appreciative discoverer’s point of view. Turning the pages, I noticed that I was loosely involved in the drama of the contemporary crime, and I more wanted to hear how the pieces of history fit together, framed by the book’s romantic narrative.

Feeling that same allure, Potter explained to me, “Crime is what took me to Burgundy. The poetry is what brought me back.”

He’d first heard rumors about the crime on a trip to Napa in the summer of 2010, traveling with his wife and a good friend from undergrad, who had just started making wine in the area. At the time, Max couldn’t tell a Burgundy from a Bordeaux, and frankly didn’t care. However, after touring wine country, he started noticing that all the stories were the same – good people, making wine, and lots of passion. He had spent the last 20 years writing about topics that weren’t always fun to cover and was feeling burnt out, losing faith in humanity. He thought, “I have to find a way to profile these folks. This stuff will be my Prozac!”

His friend gave him the perfect lead: a rumor that someone had poisoned or tried to poison the wines of the most revered vineyard in the world, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

The resulting article and book are, in my opinion, remarkable in that they reveal not just the vulnerability of DRC itself, but really the vulnerability of the people and the culture of Burgundy. Burgundy is a place of subtlety, nuance, and quiet introspection. The wines and the place are beautiful, but what make it magical is what’s below the surface: the terroir, the complexity, the community, the history. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: “The Road to Burgundy”

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 07-08-2013

ray walker“I just can’t see that I’m getting much out of this job… At best I’d make great money, but I’m just not happy. I’m going through the motions, and I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.”

With those words, Ray Walker did it. Unhappy in his conventional office job, Walker decided to walk out and instead pursue his dream of making wine, becoming a hero to all of us who have ever gazed out the window (or over the cubicle wall) and wondered if there was something more and better out there for us. Walker’s is a story that will hit too close to home to many wine-loving office drones.

There were a couple problems, though. First, Walker had no experience, no job prospects, and limited connections to the wine industry. Second, he had a wife who was seven months pregnant and had a job that could not support a family on her own.

“If you can get a job at a winery, I’d support you in it. . . . I believe in you.”

With those words, Christian Walker became the first of many heroes in “The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France.” From letting Ray quit his job with no other position lined up, to convincing him to purchase Chambertin grapes without having funds in place, to allowing him to rent them a house sight unseen in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Christian was the very picture of a loving and supportive wife, without whom all of this – the new career in winemaking, the winery in Burgundy, called Maison Ilan, and in turn this book – would never have been possible.

Make no mistake, though, there is no shortage of champions throughout Walker’s tale. First, there’s Ed Kurtzman, the winemaker and partner in August West, a San Francisco-based winery. Kurtzman provided Walker with a harvest job for fifteen dollars an hour – the one (and only) winery position Walker would have before launching his own winemaking operation, thereby solving the first problem alluded to above.

Then there are all of the people who helped Walker once he made his way to France: Olivier Leflaive, the famed producer of white Burgundy, who gave Walker and his family a place to stay while looking for grapes; Roz Seysses of Domaine Dujac, who convinced Walker to think bigger than just village wine; Thomas and his father Dominique, the courtiers who arranged for Walker to purchase the grapes for his first vintage harvest; Dave Warco and the other nameless investors who loaned Walker the money to get his upstart operation running; Fabrice from the Chamber of Commerce, who helped Walker navigate the byzantine French business laws; and Pierre, who rented Walker space in his cellar to crush and ferment his first wines.

(Walker’s story is not without its villain, however; Pierre’s partner Xavier threatens to prematurely end Walker’s dream at almost every turn.)

Many of us are already familiar with the basics of Walker’s tale; after all, he has been profiled in The New York Times, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and of course interviewed right here at Terroirist. However, I had no idea just how many obstacles Walker had to overcome to produce the bottles that are now resting in our cellars. The second half of the book is a breathtaking series of events – pratfalls, near misses, and sleepless nights – that must be read to be believed.

Naturally, given his ultimate success, the real protagonist of this story is Ray Walker himself. His journey from suit and tie to wine-soaked Led Zeppelin t-shirt will sound all too familiar to the wine geeks among us. Walker went from thinking red wine was disgusting, and wine drinkers pretentious, to gradually becoming obsessed with wine. The catalyst was an engagement trip to Italy, where Ray and Christian learned the magic of wine and food pairing. Upon returning, Walker dove headfirst into the world of wine tasting, gadgets and online wine bulletin boards. He started, as many of us do, with Bordeaux before discovering Burgundy.

“Bro, you just got yourself an expensive hobby,” said Justin, the store clerk who poured Walker his first taste of Meursault. Like I said, this story hits close to home.

Reading his book, you can feel Walker’s passion for Burgundy. The way he describes wine is a message straight from his soul, the words leaping off the page and into your own heart and mind. “To me, each bottle . . . was an expression caught in a moment and stored in a time capsule waiting to be opened and shared with others,” Walker writes about Burgundy. “It was like a meditation.”

Walker, on the other hand, would surely deflect any attempt to call him a hero. He would say the wine – his beloved Chambertin, and the other grand and premier cru wines he makes – is the central character of his story. Walker is just the “wine shepherd.” His philosophy is just to “nurture [the] wine in a way that allow[s] it to express its true self.”

His humility aside, Walker’s story is no doubt heroic in the true sense of the word: he made bold decisions resulting in a dramatic story that is as compelling as it is unlikely. For a first time author, his book is well crafted in an eminently readable (I finished it in two days), entertaining way.

But like his winemaking, in which Walker says his job is “to simply get out of the way,” my sense is that the writing of this book was much the same. If you have a story as good as Walker’s, it pretty much writes itself. Walker was just the shepherd.

Terroirist.com received a preview copy of “The Road to Burgundy” from the publisher. It is available for pre-order now and will be on sale in stores this Thursday, July 11.

Book Review: The Drops of God

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 11-17-2011

The Drops of God, the Japanese graphic novel (or manga) that took Asia by storm when it was first published in 2004, has finally been released in English.

The book follows the adventures of Shizuku Kanzaki, the rebel son of a wine critic, who must complete a Herculean set of wine-related tasks to secure his inheritance. To complicate matters, Shizuku’s father adopted a second son on his deathbed — a slightly evil superstar wine critic who must compete with Shizuku for the rights to the estate.

What follows is an amusing mix of Japanese kitsch and beautifully rendered wine descriptions. In a sip of 2001 Château Mont Perat, Shizuku finds Freddy Mercury:

“It’s powerful,” he says of the wine, “but it also has a meltingly sweet taste, with an acidic aftertaste that catches you by surprise. It’s like the voice of Queen’s lead vocalist, sweet and husky, enveloped in thick guitar riffs and heavy drums.”

The authors, a brother and sister team writing under the nom de plume Tadashi Agi, endeavor to create links between wine tasting and more familiar experiences. Hyperbole aside, the authors manage to conjure a version of wine that is intensely personal, yet widely comprehensible.

Flowery metaphors are counterbalanced by a fair bit of instruction in technical wine history, vocabulary, and viticulture. For example, one of Shizuku’s adventures traces the legacy of one of Burgundy’s most influential terroirists, Henri Jayer, by mapping the degree of his influence in the wines of his students, relatives, and friends.

It is precisely this balance of imaginative storytelling and technical material that makes “The Drops of God” a refreshing departure from your typical wine reading. It is an accessible, if slightly exhausting story that expertly blends instruction with entertainment.

Although it will likely be less influential in the U.S. wine market than it was in Asia, The Drops of God is a worthwhile read, particularly for those who can enjoy their wine with a grain of salt.