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