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.

Book Review: Behind the Bottle: The Rise of Wine on Long Island, by Eileen M. Duffy

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 01-04-2016

2015_0425_behind_the_bottleLong Island wine is “world class.” At least according to Eileen M. Duffy. Behind the Bottle, Duffy’s first book, is a collection of vignettes featuring Long Island winemakers. A well-balanced blend of biography and history, it paints a portrait of a region brimming with passion and innovation.

Behind the Bottle is divided into four sections—“The Pioneers,” “The Craftsmen,” “A Vision of a Sustainable Island,” and “The Future of Long Island Wine”—which progress chronologically from the dawn of viticulture on the Island to a look at the new wave of winemakers, like Anthony Nappa and Regan Meador, who are currently shifting both traditional and regional paradigms.

Duffy begins by paying homage to the region’s early players. She opens with a chapter on Louisa Hargrave, who along with her then-husband Alex planted vinifera (Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon) in Cutchogue on the North Fork in 1973. At the time, the region was mostly potato farms and the Hargraves’ decision to plant French wine grapes was considered absurd. But they were not alone in their endeavors. Equally brave and idealistic individuals, like Richard Olsen-Harbich, former winemaker at the now defunct Bridgehampton Winery (an “expensive lesson” in what not to do) and current winemaker at Bedell Cellars, and Dave and Steve Mudd, the father-son team who, beginning in 1974, pioneered vineyard management on Long Island, were more than willing to help the Hargraves carve out a Northeast winemaking niche.

While the early chapters of the book establish the region’s history, the later chapters foreground its uniqueness. The aforementioned Nappa and Meador are prime examples of up-and-coming winemakers who are bringing novelty to Long Island wine. Nappa is the winemaker at Raphael, but he also manages the Winemaker Studio, a cooperative tasting room in Peconic, and even has his own label, Anthony Nappa Wines. Under his label, Nappa has many uniquely named creations, among them Anomaly, a popular still white Pinot Noir. Duffy musingly labels him “The Master of White Pinot Noir.”

In a similar vein, Meador, co-owner and winemaker at Southold Farm + Cellar (which is currently having some legal difficulties), prides himself on liking “weird grapes.” A few years ago he ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $24,900, which has allowed him to plant three acres of Lagrein, two and a half of Teroldego, two of Syrah, and one of Goldmuskateller. While he waits for these vines to mature, he busies himself with making curiosities like his 2014 Damn the Torpedoes, a lambrusco style dry red made from Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Pinot Noir.

As editor of Edible East End and Edible Long Island, Duffy has an intimate knowledge of the North and South Forks. Although she certainly has a bias for the place she calls home, her claim of “world class” wine on the East End is not entirely hyperbolic. This past October, I spent four days tasting on the North and South Forks, visiting many of the wineries mentioned in Behind the Bottle, and find that I agree that Long Island is making some serious wine—especially for a region not even half a century old.

Like a bottle of Frizzante (Nappa’s version of a pét-nat), Behind the Bottle is refreshingly accessible and easily consumed. I especially appreciate the simplicity of Duffy’s journalistic prose. The only real demerit for me is the book’s numerous typos, which I did find distracting. The book would certainly have benefited from better proofreading before going to press.

My recommendation…
The greatest compliment I can pay Duffy’s book is that reading it made me want to go back and re-experience Long Island wine country. If you live anywhere in the Northeast, you should be checking out the East End. It’s certainly been overshadowed by the Finger Lakes, but it’s really a worthwhile wine destination. But before you plan a visit, I suggest picking up or at least thumbing through Behind the Bottle to get some guidance for your itinerary.

Book Review: The History of Wine in 100 Bottles, By Oz Clarke

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 10-19-2015

The History of Wine in 100 Bottles is oversHistory of Wine Imageized, hardbound, full of colorful pictures, and has relatively little text. It looks like it belongs on a coffee table. But open the cover, start reading, and you’ll find a well-distilled and easily digestible history of wine. Oz Clarke has taken on a bold project, attempting to take readers from “Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond” through the stories of one hundred bottles of wine.

I love the concept of this book and hope the text is given as much attention as the pictures.

The range of Clarke’s book is impressive. It spans eight thousand years, opening with a fascinating look at ancient winemaking techniques dating back to 6000 B.C. and proceeding chronologically up through the case of Rudy Kurniawan in 2014. But it’s not just a recitation of worn out facts. Clarke includes more than just, in his words, “the big moments in wine.” He also calls attention to “the eccentric, the bombastic, the mundane,” and, I would add, the esoteric.

From page one, you are learning something new. The first few pages, for example, reveal the deeper-than-expected roots of orange wine. Although trendy, cuff-rolling sommeliers have made it popular today, orange wine, as Clarke shows, is far from a recent innovation. Georgian vintners, using traditional techniques, have actually been producing it for thousands of years. Later portions of the book touch on other intriguing subjects like the advent of the airtight cork, Nazi wine, Louis Pasteur, and China’s growing involvement in the international wine market. The lesser-known bits of history and the curious minutia are what make The History of Wine in 100 Bottles worth reading.

Not only does Clarke select interesting subjects, he also tells the stories in an entertaining style. One of my favorite sections of the book focuses on the year 1801 and Jean-Antoine Chaptal. Clarke gives Chaptal, the father of chaptalization, credit for taking a scientific approach to winemaking, but also calls Chaptal’s sugary creation “a fairly miserable base wine botoxed up and fattened for the slaughter.” That made me laugh.

The pictures in this book really are exceptional. They are well chosen and vibrant. The only downside is that they distract from the text, which is wonderful in its own right. The History of Wine in 100 Bottles is great to look at, but also deserves to be read.

Who should buy this book? Serious readers of wine history may find this book unsatisfying, as the content is relatively light. It’s better suited to those who don’t enjoy reading long chapters but still want a comprehensive historical overview.

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.