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.

Wine Book Reviews: Cork Dork

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 03-28-2017

1489172544550Calling all gonzo wine geeks, aspiring somms, restaurant lifers, science nerds and culture critics. There is something in Bianca Bosker’s book “Cork Dork” for all of you. The book goes on sale today from Penguin Books Original.

The run-on title (“A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste”) aside, this book is as fresh and fun as a Wachau Riesling. Bosker’s book is packed with helpful information, wrapped in honest inquiry, and slathered with humor and wit. “Less a journey from grape to glass… this is an adventure from glass to gullet,” she writes. And, sure enough, there is a whole lot of cork-popping, glass-draining hedonism recollected in 300-something pages. But there’s also plenty of information that should be useful for both wine novices and other “cork dorks.”

Many readers may have seen the movie “Somm,” and its sequel, which chronicle several sommeliers studying for the Master Sommelier exam. While I liked “Somm,” I feel Bosker’s book may provide an easier hook for casual wine fans who want to know about the fast-paced, bottle-clinking life of America’s wine stewards. Bosker’s book jumps into some of the same waters (the pre-blind taste test jitters, cramming for the written test with appellation flash cards, stressing out of the service exam), but she tells the story from the perspective of an outsider, a neophyte, a “civilian.” Combined with her punchy, intelligent prose, this outsider perspective on the hardcore New York wine subculture makes it accessible.

Having spent much of her journalism career focused on technology, Bosker strives to break complex subjects down into digestible parts. Where there is myth, she wants to find demonstration. Where there are powerful personalities making wide-sweeping claims (there might be a few of those in the wine world), she wants to find out if those claims hold up to scrutiny.

But Bosker does more than rehash stories about the intensity of wine study programs and the difficulty of big blind tastings. She spends time with flavor scientists and neuroscientists to try to figure out whether wine expertise is a definitive, demonstrable thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Wines of the Finger Lakes, by Peter Burford

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 02-16-2017

WOTFL Book CoverPeter Burford’s Wines of the Finger Lakes is a straightforward guide to New York’s most famous wine region and frankly the only one you need.

Burford—no “expert,” but whose credentials as a resident of Ithaca and genuine appreciator of the region prove more than adequate—organizes his work logically. He begins with some Finger Lakes history, then proceeds to the region’s grape varieties and winemaking processes, and ends with an extremely useful catalogue of key producers. Each section is well researched and limited to the essentials.

Having minimal historical knowledge of the region beyond the name Dr. Konstantin Frank, I found the first section helpful. Burford takes it all the way back to Reverend William Bostwick, who made sacramental wine from labruscas on Keuka Lake in the 1820s. Also featured are the stories of winemaking pioneers like Charles Fournier, Dr. Frank, Walter Taylor, and Hermann J. Wiemer. The Farm Winery Act of 1976 figures prominently, too, having been the kindling for so many winemaking ventures in upper New York.

Part two of Wines of the Finger Lakes is a rundown of prominent vinifera and hybrid grapes in the region. The major players you’d expect are there—Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, Riesling—but so are rarities like Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Rougeon, Aurore, Marechal Foch, and Elvira. Novelty and pure variety are clearly reasons enough to visit the Finger Lakes.

For my money, the book’s final section, which covers key wineries, is its greatest asset, and why it’s worth consulting.

Burford prefaces the section, which is organized by the three major lakes, Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka, with an explanation: “The wineries profiled . . . are a subjective list of those that the reasonably serious wine enthusiast will want to learn about and explore.” I appreciate that Burford is keen to give readers a highlight reel and save them the trouble of wasted tasting fees.

The winery profiles are concise, at only a few paragraphs, yet comprehensive. For each, Burford covers history, land and winemaker information, and a lineup of offerings. He gives you everything you need to know about a winery to decide whether or not you’ll taste there.

There’s not much to criticize about Wines of the Finger Lakes. It’s a pretty basic guide, written in plain English. I do however take issue with Burford’s repeated praise for the wines at Lamoreaux Landing, which on my recent visit I found far from spectacular.

The best recommendation I can give the book is that it has inspired me to start planning another trip to the Finger Lakes, because evidently, on my first go round, I missed so many gems—like the single vineyard Pinots and Rieslings at Bellwether, the award winning sparkling wines at Atwater Estate, or the red-only endeavors of Shalestone.

My Recommendation
Wines of the Finger Lakes is “well worth” your time (you’ll get that joke after you read it) and almost a requirement if you’re visiting the region. Make the most of your trip, as I didn’t, by consulting Burford’s quick and easy guide.

Book Review: Slave to the Vine: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand, by Darren Delmore

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 01-03-2017

Book-CoverTo judge a book by its cover, Darren Delmore’s Slave to the Vine is yet another tale of wine, drugs, and sex.

That was my impression, even once I started reading.

But at some point in the book’s 196 pages Delmore’s direct, flowerless prose won me. I began to look forward to my daily read and marveled at the ease with which I could escape into his Sonoman world.

Slave to the Vine is a work of nonfiction, with Delmore as first person narrator and protagonist. It chronicles, in truth and self-deprecation, his experience working the harvest at Hirsch Vineyards on the extreme Sonoma coast. Supporting Delmore is a dynamic cast featuring David Hirsch, the Zen-like proprietor, Mick, the irascible winemaker, Barbara, the kind-hearted coworker, and a lineup of Delmore’s various friends and ladies.

The book’s success rests squarely on Delmore and his ability to carry the story forward. Likeable, with enough shortcomings to be believable, his shoulders prove broad enough. As Delmore tells it, he married young, got separated, and dove into winemaking. He surfs, plays a mean guitar, smokes weed, drinks good labels as often as he can, and tries his best to work hard and endear himself to the crew at Hirsch.

Delmore’s vices are relatively mild, but I’ll admit I was repeatedly confronted with the urge to get judgmental. His relationships with women, however mutually cavalier, and episodes of stoned driving were frustrating. But then I realized that my visceral reaction as a reader is actually to Delmore’s credit as a writer. He got me invested in the story and its characters—enough to care. I grew to respect his raw candor, like when he confesses to accidentally slicing into his scrotum with buzzing clippers. Damn!

Slave to the Vine is a relatively even tale, with few peaks and valleys. The stakes never get as high as Delmore does when he hotboxes the Hirsch’s guesthouse. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book’s many characters, or from simply going along with Delmore on his journey to find meaning and purpose—or at least his next gig.

In the vein of works like Eric Arnold’s First Big Crush, Delmore’s Slave to the Vine is a look at winemaking in all its gritty glory—another dent in the romantic façade.

My Recommendation
Slave to the Vine reads like fiction. It draws you in. I’d recommend it to anyone who prefers Sonoma to Napa, has read Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, or needs a primer on how wine is really made.

Book Review: Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, by Mark A. Matthews

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-05-2016

Book CoverMark A. Matthews’s controversial new book, Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, will force you to reconsider everything you know (or thought you knew) about winemaking.

In it, Matthews, Professor of Viticulture at UC Davis, masterfully deconstructs the most popular and longest-held beliefs about how fine wine is made — including the ubiquitous terroir – and reveals them to be built on little more than intuition and anecdote.

Terroir and Other Myths is compelling, expertly researched, and just may prove to be one of the most disruptive works of wine literature ever written.

Matthews’s basic contention is that much of the conclusions about wine in the collective mind and popular press today do not jive with scientific study. As a scientist, he demands empirical evidence, and the book is largely an examination of the data and history behind various wine “myths.” Don’t be confused by the clever title, this is academic work, with footnotes and back matter. That — the limited nature of the book’s target audience — in my view, is the one thing that might inhibit Terroir and Other Myths from turning the world of wine on its head. Which is sad to say, because it needs to be read widely. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy, by Peter M. F. Sichel

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 06-29-2016

9781480824072When I asked Peter why he chose to list Vintner first in the subtitle to his memoir—as opposed to the more enticing Prisoner, Soldier, or Spy—he replied, “Because it read better that way.” At ninety-four years old, Peter speaks with eloquence, wit, and candor. He writes that way too. The Secrets of My Life—which had to be cleared by the CIA before publication—is a fascinating account, plainly told, of a man who actively participated in some of the most significant happenings of the twentieth century.

Peter’s memoir covers, and is organized according to, what he calls his “three lives”: his childhood as a German Jew in the midst of a burgeoning Nazi regime and his eventual escape to America; his time working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the CIA; and his successful career in wine. While the former two occupy the majority of the book’s pages, wine was, and continues to be, an integral part of Peter’s life.

His ancestors started a wine business in the mid-1800s in Mainz, Germany, selling bulk wine to merchants. The business would grow into a family wine empire of sorts, spanning countries throughout Europe and into America. In the book, Peter discusses the ways in which wars and varying national allegiances came at times to divide the family and the business. Despite this, the Sichel name “became something of a brand,” and endures to this day, with several of Peter’s cousins running operations in Bordeaux and his daughter the proprietor of Laurel Glen Vineyards in Sonoma.

In the first section of The Secrets of My Life, Peter shares what it was like to grow up amidst the uncertainty and instability of post-WWI Germany—and the utter confusion that came with being both German and Jewish at this time. One day the Sichels were law-abiding members of their home country, and the next they were outcasts. For Peter’s father, it was “like being rejected by a lover.” In reading these vivid accounts of this period of Peter’s life, I found myself drifting into memories of listening to my grandfather tell his own postwar-era stories, and how I marveled at his ability to recall every minute detail.

If there is a common thread in Peter’s life, it’s his enduring relationships with family and friends. In fact, during our interview, when asked for his secret to longevity, he replied, “Have many good friends and treasure them and enjoy them.” I’m convinced after reading The Secrets of My Life that it was Peter’s extensive web of friends and family that enabled him to survive so much disaster and go on to achieve such success. His life is a true testament to the value of investing in people.

The middle portion of Peter’s memoir is an intriguing inner look at espionage in the post-WWII era. After escaping Germany with his family in the late 1930s, being held in an internment camp near Bordeaux by the French government, reaching America in 1941, and enlisting in the US Army a week after Pearl Harbor, Peter became a member of the OSS. He spent many years in Berlin, where he played the spy game against East Germany and the Soviets. He also spent time in Hong Kong and in Washington D.C., where a general joie de vivre characterized the CIA world at the time. Peter speaks of men who did great work for the country, all the while “drinking like fish,” as was vogue and apparently culturally acceptable at the time. Alcoholism is a topic Peter discusses at length, and he credits his own ability to reduce his consumption as one of the reasons he is still around today.

In 1959, Peter left a seventeen-year career in intelligence for a career in wine. The balance of the book is devoted to this part of Peter’s life, including an account of his involvement with the Blue Nun brand, as well as a chapter entitled “Some Advice on Wine.” Peter is keen to educate others. Once, he was even asked to record an LP, which had him providing wine advice to a young couple on one side and on the other some lovely “music to drink by.” The LP—I was shocked to read—sold over 100,000 copies!

I must say that it is quite an uncanny (or, unheimlich) experience to first read someone’s memoir and then speak with them for the first time. I felt as if I knew Peter, but didn’t really know him at all. But it was a pleasure. You can read further selections from my conversation with Peter below the fold.

A short review cannot do justice to the fascinating life of Peter Sichel. I was (again) shocked to learn that The Secrets of My Life is self-published—it has the stuff of a New York Times best seller. Perhaps major presses were deterred by the lengthy battle with the CIA for publication approval. In any case, I am thankful that Peter decided to share his story—it is one worth knowing.

My Recommendation

The Secrets of My Life is not a book about wine per se. It’s more of a journey through major occurrences of the twentieth century with a man whose life also happened to be tied to the wine industry. Nonetheless, it is a captivating read—a gem among the thousands of books self-published each year. What I loved most is the way the book historicizes wine, placing wine’s romanticism beside the blackest of human action. Peter has great wisdom and experience, and he shares it humbly in his memoir. Read it!

Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: A Natural History of Wine, by Ian Tattersall and Rob Desalle

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

a-natural-history-of-wine-thumbnail_body_largeWine 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.

My Recommendation
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.

Book Review: A Glass Full of Miracles, by Mike Grgich

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 05-24-2016

Today is the 40th anniversary of the world’s most famous wine tasting. The Judgment of Paris pitted the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy against some underdog Cabernets and Chardonnays from California.

This momentous blind tasting was chronicled in the 2008 Hollywood film “Bottle Shock”, and the far more historically accurate book, “The Judgment of Paris” by George Taber, the only reporter present at the event. This tasting brought together wine experts from France and the United States to blind taste a wide range of wines. White Burgundies competed against California Chardonnays, while Bordeaux reds were pitted against some of California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons. In 1976, when the tasting took place, California wines were already rocking, but they were relatively unknown to the wine cognoscenti.

That all changed when the wines were unveiled. The French loved the Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet more than Bordeaux, and they chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay over white Burgundies. The floodgates burst. The world wanted California wine.

That 1973 Chardonnay was crafted by none other than Miljenko (a.k.a. “Mike”) Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who had worked his way up in the Napa winemaking ranks. Perhaps more than any other individual, Mike Grgich was on the front lines of the Napa Valley wine revolution. When he first game to California in 1958, Mike was hired by Brother Timothy Diener of Christian Brothers Winery, which was the largest winery in Napa Valley at the time. He then took a position with legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards. From there, he bounced over to Robert Mondavi at the point when his winery was really taking off. Then, with Jim Barrett, Mike became a partner and integral part of the newly revitalized Chateau Montelena in 1972. It’s incredible to think that, in just a year’s time, Mike would craft a Chardonnay that blind tasters deemed higher quality than the best white Burgundies.

However, Mike didn’t even know the tasting was taking place. He figured something was up when Chateau Montelena received a telegram saying: “We won in Paris,” followed by a call from a New York Times reporter.

It was a miracle, Mike said. He recounts this event in his new autobiography “A Glass Full of Miracles,” which the 93-year-old published last month. It’s a beautiful and awe-filled foray into the life of a true California wine icon.

“The Judgment of Paris energized the wine world. Not only in California but around the globe, winemakers realized that they too might have the terroir to produce premium wines,” Mike writes. The 1973 Montelena Chardonnay was honored in a Smithsonian book titled History of American in 101 Objects. “It is amazing to me that as an immigrant to this country, I would live to see my Chardonnay considered an ‘American object.’”

This success gave him the last jolt he needed to kick off his own winery, Grgich Hills, which broke ground in 1977. It remains an exceptional source of Napa Chardonnay, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

Grgich’s prose, like his wines, is delightful and lively. Unlike his wines, the prose is simple and uncomplicated, but I mean those words as praise, not criticism. Reading this book, I felt like I was sitting on a couch listening to Mike spin tales of the old days.

Grgich was born in Croatia and raised by a winemaking family. His memories of his pastoral upbringing are wonderful to read. From a very young age, he was drawn to wine’s ability to bring people together. “People like to celebrate with wine in good times, but it also helps them forget in bad times,” he writes. “In fact, it adds pleasure to any day.”

But World War II ushered in a brutal fascist occupation, which also disrupted and destroyed the winemaking cultures of coastal Croatian communities. When the partisans drove out the fascists, Croatia quickly transitioned to a Communist dictatorship. After years of such chaos and destabilization, Grgich had to leave. With no freedom to move about or move ahead with his aspirations, Grgich fled the country. He had heard that California was paradise, and he knew he had to get there. Somehow.

I’ll leave the story of his escape and travels to Mike, who tells it beautifully, but suffice it to say: his is an exceptional and inspiring story of a poor immigrant who refuses to let his dreams go unfulfilled.

If you’re at all interested in those thrilling years of Napa Valley’s evolution, this book is full of great stories and history. Also, for the Zinfandel lovers out there, Mike tells of his role in tracking down the mysterious origins of Zinfandel to its birthplace in Croatia, which is my vote for the coolest and most fascinating stories of a researching a grape’s heritage.

The book is essentially self-published by Grgich’s daughter, Violet, but it’s put together very well and includes a host of great color pictures. The hardcover sells for $40 from Violetta Press, the Grgich Cellars’ website (with a discount for club members), and Amazon.

 

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.