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