Book Review: Champagne Charlie: The Frenchman Who Taught Americans to Love Champagne, by Don and Petie Kladstrup

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 02-07-2022

We take for granted that champagne has always been part of the American experience. It hasn’t. In Champagne Charlie, former journalists Don and Petie Kladstrup chronicle how a Frenchman by the name of Charles “Champagne Charlie” Heidsieck became the torchbearer of bubbly onto the American scene. It’s a story I’d venture few know (but should!) and the Kladstrups do it great justice.

In the mid 19th Century, the American market was still largely uncharted territory for the Champenoise. The likes of Moët and Clicquot had done modest business, but getting the product across the Atlantic was a chore (particularly before French pharmacist Jean-Baptiste Francois discovered the formula for determining how much sugar could be added without causing bottles to explode) and American tastes could be quite fickle.

Charles Heidsieck saw in America an opportunity, a chance to make his name and fortune. Having established a champagne business with his brother in law, he made his first journey across the Atlantic in 1852. Five years later, Charles Heidsieck & Co. was selling 300,000 bottles a year in the states, roughly equal to all other champagne houses put together. By 1859, America had become the largest market for champagne. Heidsieck was a celebrity; the face of Champagne in America. People started calling him Champagne Charlie, and patrons at bars everywhere could be heard ordering “a bottle of Heidsieck.”

There were of course plenty of struggles too. Heidsieck’s travels, for instance, brought him far from his family for months on end, which weighed heavily on his marriage. During his time in the American South, he witnessed firsthand the realities of slavery, which, as his journal entries bear out, shook him greatly. And all the while he was making in-roads throughout the American market, his New York sales agent was screwing him, refusing to pay overdue payments, which eventually rose in excess of a million, in today’s dollars.

This was also America in the 1860s, and Heidsieck could not have known that he was endeavoring to cement himself as the king of champagne in a country that was itself an over-pressurized bottle about to explode. The American Civil War would upend his business and nearly cost him his life.

The Kladstrups weave a wonderful narrative, rich in history both well-known and obscure. I have a great interest in the history and literature of the Civil War era, so to learn something (actually quite a bit) new was a real pleasure for me. For example, I never knew much about Major General Benjamin “Beast” Butler of the Union Army. His patently checkered military historyincluding the role he played in Heidsieck’s incredibly ill treatment during the waris so outrageous as to read like fiction.

My recommendation
As I like to say, good books transport their readers, putting them smack in the middle of the time, the place, the people, the action. Champagne Charlie does just that. Simply captivating; especially for those, like me, who love 19th-Century American studies.

Book Review: Steven Spurrier: A Life in Wine, by Steven Spurrier

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-31-2021

A second subtitle to Steven Spurrier’s memoirs could easily have been “O, the decadence!” His life seems to have been one long, exuberant dinner party featuring the best bottles of wine, the best food, and a who’s who of wine. It’s an absolute pleasure to read about and to live vicariously through, but I’ll admit I was left wishing for a fuller picture of the man himself.

Spurrier, who passed away last year at the age of 79, is best known as the man behind the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known as the Judgment of Paris. I’d never heard of it, or Spurrier, until I saw the movie Bottleshock. Alan Rickman plays Spurrier, portraying him as stern and somewhat pensive. But the man on the pages of A Life in Wine has more of an endearing roll-with-the-punches attitude, and certainly more joie de vie.

Spurrier was born in Cambridge, England, in 1941. At the age of 13, he shared a glass of port (Cockburn 1908) with his grandfather, which inspired him to pursue a career in wine. “It was probably the wine trade that saved me from an early demise,” says Spurrier. “For although I never minded losing my inhibitions socially, relying on charm to smooth over the consequences, I soon realized that I could not do this professionally.”

He got his start at Christopher’s, one of the “big three” wine merchants at the time, which afforded him opportunities to travel, even working in the cellars in Burgundy and Champagne. At the age of 23, two very important things happened to him: He met his future wife, Bella, and he inherited more than £5 million (in today’s dollars, which is about $6.7 million) from the sale of the family gravel business.

But just a few years later Spurrier notes, “my large inheritance began to slip through my fingers. The decisions were all mine, but I always expected the results to be better than they were.” I’m sorry to say (because there are so many wonderfully interesting and positive aspects of this man’s life) that his financial ebbs and flows are what captured most of my attention. A twenty-something who inherits such wealth should be set for life! Unfortunately, as Spurrier admits, “I was an easy target for adventurers who needed backing for a nightclub or for making a movie, and since they all seemed like good ideas at the time and were proposed by friends, it was both tempting and flattering to go along with them.”

To his credit, as A Life in Wine bears out, Spurrier was nothing if not a loyal friend.

Beyond his financial mismanagement, there isn’t much else in the book about his personal failings. His vices. His fears. His marital and parental struggles. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to expect the memoirs to go beyond their explicitly stated scope (i.e., A Life in Wine), but I would’ve liked to have seen more of the raw details that make up, well, all of our lives.

Spurrier gives ample space for his famous Academie du Vin and the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. I learned a great deal about that historic event that I hadn’t known. He also shares the story of how he came to be making world class wine in England.

I won’t chart the full course of his life (you’ll have to read the book), but I will say that it’s a whirlwind of wine and global travel. To read it is compelling. To have lived it… well, that’s something to envy!

My recommendation
Steven Spurrier is a classic. He’s so endearing and he lived life with such gratitude and an open hand–something I certainly admire and aspire to. If you’re a fan of biographies, or just interested to learn more about this icon of the wine world, A Life in Wine is a terrific read. Enter the discount code TERROIRIST5 for $5 off your purchase of the book.

Book and Wine Review: Unplanned Parenthood: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand, by Darren Delmore of Delmore Wines

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews, Wine Reviews | Posted on 02-10-2021

Unplanned Parenthood is the third installment in Darren Delmore’s Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand series and it’s very much in the same vein as the first two (Slave to the Vine, Lucky Country). It’s one man’s intensely vulnerable take on his journey in wine and search for contentment, stuffed to the brim with over-indulgence and poor decision making. It’s sad and frustrating, punctuated with enough laugh-out-loud moments and simple joys to pull you along—kind of the way life itself feels sometimes.

As I mentioned before, I was fortunate to run into Darren while cruising through Paso Robles a couple years ago. He was an incredibly gracious host to my wife and I at the Tin City co-op where he operates, even scaling the tall stacks of barrels with a wine thief to give us some samples. For this book release, he actually sent me some bottles (thanks, Darren!) to enjoy. I found his Pinots to be genuinely gulpable, and I greedily downed them, the Syrahs too. See my tasting notes below (“Read the rest of this entry”), and check out Darren’s website for more info.

In Lucky Country, Darren worked the harvest at Two Hands in Australia, and in Unplanned Parenthood we find him back in California, this time working at Goldeneye in Anderson Valley. It’s 2010 and he’s 34 years old. 

And it all starts with a bang.

One morning just before starting work at Goldeneye, Darren wakes up with a knee in his back, gun leveled at his head, and immediately second guesses the wisdom of planting that plot of Petite Sirah on a pot farm with his friend Willie. Luckily, they’re able to skirt jail time, as the authorities let them go, but it’s a scared-straight experience for Darren—at least for the moment.

The book covers a lot of ground, taking readers from California to Two Hands in Australia and back. (Those who’ve read Lucky County will be up to speed on the character lineup in Australia.) Darren drinks wine and beer (like, a lot); serenades friends, ladies, and crowds with his guitar; surfs some killer locales; walks with trepidation yet frothing desire into one fling after another, hoping for a love that lasts; and does his cellarhand thing. I also concluded by like page thirty that Darren should probably lay off the edibles.

This episode in the trilogy is more about Darren’s search for love than anything else. And that’s why I call the book intensely vulnerable. This is a real person, baring his soul on the written page, putting himself upon the altar of public critique and judgment. I judged Darren as I read. You’ll judge him too. That’s human. But I also think it’s the point. It’s all therapy: for Darren, who no doubt did some genuine self-reflection through the writing process, and for readers, who are called to reflect upon their own life choices, for better or worse.

Darren is building a great little brand here, based on his own style: oceanic, vagabond, raggedy, but with enough follow-through to actually pull off three legit books, a website, and 5+ bottlings of Pinot and Syrah. I dig it.

My Recommendation
I love reading Darren’s prose. It’s straightforward and honest—Hemingway’d approve. But I’m not a huge fan of the graphic nature of some of the scenes. I also struggle with the title, which is a bit misleading, since the “parenthood” component comes too late in the book and doesn’t play the role I’d expect. Those two disclaimers aside, Unplanned Parenthood is entertaining cover-to-cover, laugh-out-loud at times, and just a solid weekend read. We’ll see if Darren has a fourth installment in him!

Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: The Mythology of Wine, by Arthur George

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 01-25-2021

You don’t realize the extent to which wine has influenced humanity until you read a book like this. As things we consume go, perhaps only water has more significance to us, but it’s pretty close. Arthur George’s The Mythology of Wine outlines how wine has inspired our collective imagination through the ages, how it has shaped our mythology and, ultimately, our lives.

George begins with the biblical story of Noah and traces wine mythology through ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, Israel, and Egypt; Greek and Roman civilizations; and into modern Europe. Wine and religious belief are the greatest of bedfellows, and appropriately much of George’s book is dedicated to wine in the Bible. While I take issue with some of George’s conclusions about biblical history and text, I’ll also say I’m grateful to now have a better grasp of where wine history sits within the context of the Bible.

The greatest value of this book is its comprehensive treatment of the mythology of Dionysus. I count myself among those who had reduced this complex god to a synonym for wine and revelry. As George shows, he was so much more than that; his mythology is “vast, complex, confusing, and often contradictory.”

Dionysus was at times associated with, among other things, vegetation, crops, the forest, the mountains, the sea, beer, mead, and honey. The association with beer is noteworthy because, as George tells us, in stark contrast to wine, beer was regarded as the drink of the uncivilized. A mythology full of contradictions, indeed.

In the book’s most interesting section, George draws parallels between Dionysus and Jesus Christ. He explains that both were associated with the transformation of water into wine, or vice versa. This has led some to theorize that Jesus’s water-into-wine miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) may have developed “as a competitive response to the cult of Dionysus,” whose presence loomed large at the time John was written. Further, George suggests that New Testament (specifically, the Gospel of John) vine/wine imagery may have been a rhetorically expedient tool used by early Christians to convey the Gospel in Dionysian terms, which were familiar to the people of that time.

With any work of nonfiction, I like to know the credentials of the author. I’d expect a book like this to be written by a university professor, but George is actually a career lawyer who pursues his passion for history and mythology on the side. That’s no demerit, as I truly believe that, rather than title, what matters is the depth and breadth of knowledge one possesses on a topic. George has also lectured extensively and presented at a range of conferences. You can check out his blog: Mythology Matters.

My Recommendation
George achieves a lot in this little book. I never realized how rich and nuanced wine mythology is. This is a great book for a quick intro on the topic, and for those (like me) interested in the intersections of world history, the Bible, and wine.

Book Reviews: Brut Force and Firing Blancs, by Peter Stafford-Bow

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-09-2020

I’ve gotten a bit behind on my reading, but have just had the chance to read the two sequels to Corkscrew (which I reviewed back in 2018) by Peter Stafford-Bow: Brut Force and Firing Blancs. What I’ve found is that the Felix Hart novels, as they’re called, are extremely well written (the dialogue in particular) and keep the reader engaged on fast-paced misadventures full of intrigue, absurdity, and, of course, wine.

Brut Force picks up with Felix, as always, caught between. As a second-year Minstrel of Wine, he must choose which “house” to join, a dilemma right out of Harry Potter. The obvious choice for a toper like Felix is House Hedonist, where the beautiful minstrels drink, play, and revel in unspeakable pleasures. He certainly wouldn’t choose a more staid house like House Terroirist, House Mercantilist, or House Archivist. But things (and Felix’s agency in the matter) get complicated when he finds himself in the middle of a plot to rig a prestigious Pinot Noir tasting.

There are twists and turns, scenes of imaginative flair I’ve come to expect from Stafford-Bow, and of course the ever-necessary femme fatale.

In Firing Blancs, the third and latest book in the series, Felix heads to South Africa, where he’s been askedor rather compelled, after the death of his boss, who choked to death on a bottle of wine Felix servedto save his company from a PR nightmare. There’s strong evidence that one of the company’s main suppliers, who brings in a very nice profit margin, is using slave labor. All Felix has to do is get them to change their act, and quick!

Felix—seemingly always at no fault of his own—stumbles and bumbles his way through hairy entanglements involving a shady brothel owner, the leader of a radical anti-white faction, and a charity called Tears of Pity. To boot, in order to wrangle himself out of the mess, Felix has to orchestrate and elaborate scheme to defraud the governing body that grants “Fairly Trod” status (basically, a “Certified Organic” stamp). It’s an African flair to the brilliant little world Stafford-Bow has constructed.

Ultimately, here’s the best way I can describe Felix Hart: He’s a man whose joie de vie gets him backed into a corner, where at the last moment, just before receiving his comeuppance, he pulls a “Hey, look over there!” and slips out the side door.

My Recommendation
I’d go so far as to call the Felix Hart novels a laugh riot (a phrase I’ve actually never used). If you’re into page turners full of British wit and general outrageousness, start with Corkscrew and work your way through. The first two books are definitely my favorite, as Firing Blancs lacks a robust lineup of unique characters that I’d come to expect from the novels.

Experiencing ZD Wines, Take Three

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 11-02-2020

Working from home during COVID-19 has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s great to be home with my family. On the other, I can never get away from that list of home improvement projects. From my desk at the dining room table, the chipped trim paint on the doorway taunts me. The missing French door reminds me it’s still half-stripped in the garage, waiting to be stained and finished.

The only escape is to leave town. Which we did recently, to the beaches of Delaware, where we relaxed and enjoyed these great bottles from ZD Wines, including the addition of a new varietal to their lineup, Sauvignon Blanc.

2019 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley (SRP $27)

This wine is perfect for a hot day at the beach. (Our day was cool and windy). Not wanting to get hassled by any beach patrollers, I poured half the bottle into a clear glass flip-top container. And there it sat, discreetly in the sand next to me as I reclined and read. As you’d expect, it’s nice and tart. It has tropical notes and reminds me of canned pineapple, minus the tinny, can taste. I also get white peach on the nose.

This is a very nice, lower-priced bottle from a quality producer. A great beach wine.

2018 50th Anniversary Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros (SRP $75)

I freakin’ love pork belly. We’ve been getting our meat from a local farm this summer and I asked them to put some pork belly in our monthly share, and they obliged. I made it crispy and golden, with saltiness and some great unctuousness to pair with this ZD Chardonnay, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite Chardonnays.  

It’s golden in the glass, with Honeycrisp apple and crushed pineapple on the nose. I taste some beautiful butter (despite the fact it doesn’t go through ML) and lychee at the end. The mouthfeel is creamy, with a tingle of acidity, with no alcohol bite. Simply put, this wine is rich yet zesty. It beautifully straddles the line between acid and creaminess. I still can’t believe there’s no ML, but I’m guessing the extended yeast contact during cold-barrel fermentation gives it its creamy almost butteriness.

2018 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir, Carneros (SRP $84)

The first thing I notice with this Pinot is the color. It’s deep and dark with a red rim, and reminds me of cherry coke. You can’t see through this one, and it certainly doesn’t look thin. The nose is like a handful of cranberries, with some “green” hints that anyone who’s enjoyed Long Island reds will recognize. Although not quite the bell pepper aromas you get out near the Hamptons.

When I take a hearty mouthful, there’s great side-of-the-tongue-coating acidity, and the wine lingers well enough to get a proper taste. There’s vanilla. And then something that my wife said reminded her of wines with notable ML. I love the use of oak in this wine. It’s there, but not overdone. Just great, juicy acidity. A darn good vanilla berry combo.

Book Review: Chateau Musar: The Story of a Wine Icon, edited by Susan Keevil

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 08-19-2020

I find it curious that the regions that gave birth to wine are today so lacking in world renown for their wine. Lebanon and its Chateau Musar seem to be the exception. The Académie du Vin has just put out a beautiful volume, Chateau Musar: The Story of a Wine Icon, about the history of winery and its owners, the Hochar family (pronounced ho-shar, as I learned). Front and center, of course, is Serge Hochar, the dynamic family figurehead who has inspired so many with his charm and chameleon, terroir-driven wines.

Chateau Musar was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar Sr., who fell in love with wine while studying medicine in Paris, eventually diverting from that career to one as a winemaker in Lebanon. Children soon followed, among them brothers Serge and Ronald, who would inherit the family business. Serge would study winemaking at the University of Bordeaux and take over winemaking duties from his father in 1959. Ronald—the practical counterweight to Serge’s ceaseless charisma—took ownership of all things financial.

But how does any winery survive in a land that refuses to be at peace? “People fought their wars on our land” is Serge’s assessment of it all: the wars and constant tensions to which the Hochars have sadly become accustomed. All they’ve ever wanted is to make wine worthy of the country they love, despite (and maybe even a bit for) its irascibility. And they have done just that, failing to produce wine just once (1976) in the Chateau’s ninety-year history.

As the book details, the Hochars and their team often risked their lives to make wine: pickers picking grapes beneath artillery and gunfire from dug-in militias; Serge, on several occasions, somehow avoiding execution checkpoints (where “the wrong last name or accent” could mean death) on the road from the Musar vineyards in the Beka’a Valley to the winery in Ghazir; and the time Serge arrived at the winery just moments before two rockets hit the road on which he had just been driving.

Through the decades, through so much very real danger, it’s Chateau Musar’s longevity that’s most astonishing.

When times were tough in Lebanon, as they often were, Serge and Ronald were wise enough to look for markets elsewhere. (And wise enough to move their families out of the country!) London is where the momentum really picked up, with the Hochars insisting on hosting promotional tastings themselves, knowing that they alone (especially Serge) could captivate wine buyers with the story of their wine. That today Chateau Musar is sold in 70 countries worldwide is a testament to their hard work, and frankly to the winery’s incredible story.

Family, Lebanon, and wine—that’s what the Hochars are about. With Serge gone (tragically, he drowned in the Mexico sea on New Years Eve 2014), the mantle has been taken up by Serge’s sons, Gaston and Marc, and Ronald’s son, Ralph. Family businesses don’t always survive generational hand offs, but Chateau Musar is looking to do so once again, and looks to be in good hands with these passionate, driven three. 

I actually learned as much about Lebanon in this book as I did the Hochar family. That’s only appropriate. Chateau Musar simply cannot be separated from its cultural and geopolitical context. My curiosity, too, has been piqued, as I’ll now be on the hunt for a bottle of Musar white—a wine Serge insisted be served after his reds—a blend of Obaideh and Merwah, two varietals I’ve never tried.

Next time I drink a Musar, I’ll think of the land it came from and the people who dared make it.

My Recommendation
This is a perfect wine lover’s coffee table book. The volume is nicely bound and full of beautiful photographs. I read it cover to cover and loved it; but practically speaking, I think it will to folks mostly as a pretty book to sit on the table for guests to thumb through.

Experiencing Anaba Wines, Take Two

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-11-2020

Judging from my repeats of certain wineries, you can see I don’t have nearly the network or name recognition of Isaac Baker. But I do enjoy flexing my wine reviewing muscles on occasion, when new books and films are in short supply, and producers are kind enough to reach out with samples.

In the Groundhog Day days of COVID-19 home life, I’ve also been thinking about the experience of the everyday. Instagram isn’t reality, and I’m usually experiencing these wines in the course of everyday life. Picture me handing a glass of these wines to my wife as she’s coming downstairs from putting our seven-month-old to bed and asking her, “What d’you think of this?” On the other hand, taking a page from Henry James, an author I’ve read quite a bit, I do believe there is something to be found worth writing about in the common, the mundane, the routine. 

Anaba sent me their Spring releases recently, and here’s how I experienced them.

Anaba 2019 Rose of Grenache, Sonoma County (SRP $30)

Way past boredom, I’ve started unboxing old things from the attic and selling what I can on eBay, mostly trading cards from childhood. I’ve also been cooking up a storm, and pairing the few wines I’ve received in recent months. We drank this rose slightly chilled with soy marmalade salmon and curry roasted butternut squash and golden beets.

The first thing you’ll notice is this wine is far more orange than pink. It has a fresh, chalky nose, like wet stone after a summer shower. For some reason it brings me back to the North Fork of Long Island in summer, looking out over the water toward Connecticut. It hits me with bright acidity and the muddled chalkiness of freeze dried strawberries. My wife thought it was a bit too “alcoholy” at first, but after letting it breathe she said it got better. After an hour, in fact, it began to hit our noses with ripe peach and those candy peach rings! 

Nothing to complain about with this wine. It has more body than I’ve typically encountered in rose, so it probably pairs well with heavier summer fare.

Anaba 2017 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast (SRP $48)

I’d planned a special meal of seared scallops for our wedding anniversary, and picked this bottle to go with it. I poured it into two Riedels about thirty minutes beforehand. I used a portion of the bottle to deglaze the pan and make a reduction sauce, which tasted so wonderful mixed up in the roasted beets, carrots, onions, and blistered tomatoes on our plates.

Our glasses blossomed with tart strawberry, blackberry, handfuls of dirt, and star anise. This is an incredibly fragrant wine, and I was quite enthused about gulping it down.

The taste and mouthfeel were a letdown for me. The wine seemed to wash over my tongue and quickly disappear, without much in the way of discernible flavor. I expected more acidity too. I found it a bit thin, flat maybe, and lacking in that “calling me back for more” quality.

My wife, on the other hand, loved this wine. So there you go, the subjectivity of wine drinking at its finest.

Anaba 2017 Chardonnay, Carneros J McK Estate Vineyard (SRP $46)

Another night, another amazing meal prepared. This time with some local pork, and I again used the wine to make a pan sauce. This 2017 Chardonnay is golden/straw colored and full of wonderful lychee aromas, reminiscent of these Asian gummy candies I once had at Epcot. There’s also golden, super-ripe pineapple (indicating to me more sugar than tartness) and those Juicy Pear flavored Jelly Belly jelly beans.

Halfway through my meal prep, skillet in one hand and wine glass in the other, a thirty-foot limb fell off the tree in my front yard. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of running my chainsaw after a couple glasses of wine, but fortunately I was saved by the police and emergency crew who showed up to clear the street. The tree would wait until the next day.

Returning to my wine an hour later, I enjoyed its slightly creamy mouthfeel, but would have liked a touch more acidity and staying power. Still, it had just enough of both to beckon me for another sip on this 92-degree day.

Experiencing Anaba Wines

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-01-2020

The dog days of COVID-19 shelter-in-place, what better time to catch up on a pile of samples? And what better time to reflect on the purpose of this exercise we call wine reviewing. I mean, why do it at all?

I tend to agree with the author of a recent Wine Searcher post that “wine reviewing is actually more about entertainment than utility.” It’s about storytelling. Stories are what captivate us and stir our imaginations (and our buying bones, for that matter). It’s also about brevity, since attention spans are dwindling.

With that in mind, here’s what I thought of the Fall 2019 releases from Sonoma’s Anaba Wines.

Anaba 2018 Turbine White, Sonoma Valley (SRP $32)

It’s a gray day and the news is grayer. My college buddies are blowing up my phone about a happy hour on an app called Houseparty. So I grab the Anaba Turbine White—a curious blend of 30% Viognier, 28% Grenache Blanc, 26%, and 16% Picpoul—and log on. It’s like we’re right back in State College, playing dumb drinking games out of boredom, like guess how many dead stinkbugs are in that lamp over there. Over or under twenty? Loser chugs a beer.

The wine itself takes me back even further, to middle school and the jellied, crystallized-sugar-covered grapefruit candy I used to sneak from the candy bins at the mall. There’s a hint of creaminess, although no ML on this one. I get apple juice too—another throwback to childhood. Juicy is the best descriptor for this white. 

Unlike my friends, I decide to halt at a half bottle. The next day, after spending the night in the fridge under Vacu Vin, the wine smells of slate floor and fresh white flowers, and tastes like fresh mint.

Anaba 2016 Syrah, Moon Mountain District, Bismark Vineyard (SRP $48)

After spending three months in the NICU with our baby boy this winter, quarantine at home, just the three of us, hasn’t been the worst thing in the world. My wife likes to say she “has her boys” and that’s all she needs. I feel the same way—plus I’m just excited she’s drinking wine with me again!

We’ve discovered that Disney+ is pretty sweet. Throwbacks like Johnny Tsunami and Brink! light up our screen these days. On a recent night we watched Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves (whatever happened to Rick Moranis?) and popped this Anaba 2016 Syrah. As we learned in the NICU, screens aren’t good for children under two, so our three-month-old sat contently with his back to the TV, watching us and speaking Dutch. I’m pretty sure it was Dutch—a future polyglot.

My first impression on popping is oh, that’s inky and delicious. For someone who struggles to break into the secondary and tertiary layers of aroma, I find this one quite accommodating. There’s blackberry, prune fruit leather, a hint of sour cream, leather wallet, and soil. It leaves a strip of tannin right down the center of my tongue, but doesn’t linger. A truly multi-faceted wine with more to appreciate in your nostrils than on your palate.

Anaba 2016 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Westlands (SRP $60)

Malaise is setting in. With many more weeks (at least) of shelter-in-place looming large, I’m starting to miss the old, normal routine. Although I am thankful I have space to move around and can’t imagine being stuck in a small New York City apartment, or one of those cage homes in China (have you read about these?!).

Tonight, my friend delivered something he and his wife call “taco bake” as part of a meal train that was set up for my wife and me. He also dropped off some tomato plants, which were much appreciated. A casserole dish filled with gooey cheddar and ground beef isn’t the most delicate pairing for a Pinot Noir, but heck, we’re living in a new normal, right?

The Anaba 2016 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast is strawberry colored. It’s fresh and tart—even bordering on too tart—like a strawberry rhubarb pie. Basically, think strawberries, and if you like them, you’ll like this bottle. I catch some aromas of lavender tea, which I initially thought were moth balls, which I love because it reminds me of my grandmother’s linen closet. It’s easy drinking, not overly complex, and maybe a bit young still.

It goes okay with taco bake, too.

Book Review: Wine Girl by Victoria James

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 03-18-2020

With Wine Girl, Victoria James has taken a blacklight to the bedsheet of somm life. A gritty, gripping autobiography of an incredibly resilient and gifted woman forging her own path very much despite circumstance, it’s arrived at exactly the right cultural moment. James pulls no punches, laying bare the traumas of her life, including episodes of sexual assault, and succeeds in delivering a book terrifying (in its truth) and inspiring all at once.

James, whose claim to fame is being America’s youngest sommelier, takes us through her story from childhood to her late twenties (she’s 29 now, if my math is correct). Her home life was turbulent: her father manipulating and controlling everyone and her mother too depressed to be a mother. At a point, James was forced to step up and play parent to her two siblings, whom it’s evident she treasures. But eventually, she needed an escape and, at 13, she took a job as a waiter.

The most chilling, hard-to-read moment comes when James shares how she was raped, at 15, by a customer who frequented the diner where she worked. There’s no shying away from anything in Wine Girl

While she didn’t find a safe haven in the restaurant industry, James did find purpose, a sense of belonging, and some coworker-mentors to learn from along the way.

She eventually developed an interest in wine, particularly its ability to carry a sense of place, and began taking Wine School classes. Ironically, the skills she developed during the traumas of her childhood turned out to be the exact skills she needed to become an excellent sommelier: a strong work ethic, a preternatural capacity for retaining information, a desire to make people happy, and an ability to thrive and self-motivate with little encouragement from others. At 21, James earned her Certified Sommelier pin from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Just like so many books that deglamorize the winemaker’s life, Wine Girl exposes the realities of being a sommelier. What I didn’t expect, and what will take most readers aback, is the level of abuse James has endured in her young career. And she talks about it so nonchalantly, as if numb after years of just gutting things out. Some of the stories struck me as particularly egregious, even criminal. Like the time she was tricked into drinking roofied wine by a table of rowdy cowboys, or when a notable master somm (she doesn’t say who) slaps her backside at an event. Wine Girl sometimes feels like an endless sequence of men acting like children and abusing their positions of power. The lion’s share of the blame, in my view, falls on the managers and coworkers who turned a blind eye to James’s plight.

Wine Girl is a reminder that there’s brokenness everywhere—making James’s perseverance stand out as that much more incredible. She never let bitterness consume her. She was cracked by the cruelty and selfishness of so many, but never shattered. And in the end, she finds forgiveness and hope for redemption.

My recommendation
I doubt many men would make a book called Wine Girl their first choice. That’s a shame, because men, especially men in the food and wine industries, need to hear James’s story. On top of the eye-opening, “wow, I never knew” aspect, it’s just a good, attention-keeping read—for women too, of course.