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.

Book Review: Exploring Wine Regions: Bordeaux

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 11-22-2020

I wish I were exploring wine regions right now. But, with an out of control pandemic, especially here in the States, I’m not going anywhere. Luckily, I’ve enjoyed some new wine books to satiate my desire to travel again.

One of my last big wine trips was to Bordeaux. It was actually my first time visiting, and I was finally able to explore the beautiful city and a bunch of different appellations. It was a much overdue time spent immersing myself in the wine, food and culture, and I met a lot of interesting people and visited some beautiful chateaux. Everyone knows Bordeaux, but a new book “Exploring Wine Regions: Bordeaux” offers anyone a chance to plan their own Bordeaux getaway in post-pandemic times.

Michael Higgins’ new book, which came out last month, seems like it has plenty of helpful information for Bordeaux novices and experts alike. An author, publisher and photojournalist, he also took the photographs for this book. And — wow — his talent shows. The book is packed with photographs, quite tastefully shot and arranged, with excellent clarity and depth. From classic vineyard views, to winemaking in action, food porn and architecture, Higgins’ hundreds of photos are a real star of the show.

This is not a Bordeaux wine history book. There are no detailed maps of appellations or soils, and there are plenty of books for that. Rather, this is a hefty number full of detailed information on specific chateaux and places to visit in Bordeaux, broken down region by region. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 11-01-2020

In these times of pandemic and uncertainty, I’ve found some respite in reading travel books. Being stuck at home for months on end, I have spent a lot of time letting my mind wander as I plan and lust for travel in for post-pandemic times.

As a lover of South Africa and its wines, I was excited to read through Jim Clarke’s new book “The Wines of South Africa.” It has now been six years since my first and only trip to South Africa, where I spent three weeks checking out my three favorite things: waves, wine and wildlife. While reading Jim’s helpful book, I found myself revisiting so many amazing memories, and wishing to make more during future South Africa trips.

Jim Clarke is a writer, educator and all-around South African wine guru. He first traveled to South Africa in 2006, one what would be one of many trips as he delved into the people and places in this dynamic wine scene. Since 2013, he has worked as U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa, the trade group that organizes and supports exports of South African wine. I’ve met Jim at trade events over the years — he always in his dapper fedora hat, me always in my less dapper newsie cap — and he is such a knowledgeable, personable, genuine guy, a great person to write this important book. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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.

Book Review: Volcanoes and Wine: From Pompeii to Napa, by Charles Frankel

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 02-25-2020

“Why is there such a magic alliance between volcanoes and wine?” Geologist Charles Frankel goes looking for answers in Volcanoes and Wine, blending history, geology, and viniculture in an illuminating tour of some of the most curious winegrowing locales on earth.

Across eight chapters, Frankel covers several volcanoes of consequence to wine. Each chapter follows a similar construction, beginning with a general history and then moving on to volcanic history and the specifics of how the grapes are grown and the wine is made. Frankel also provides breakdowns of key varieties, cultivars, and producers, as well as detailed travel advice for ambitious readers who wish to visit. 

With the exceptions of Napa, Oregon, and Hawaii, the book is entirely European, with Italy—home to Mounts Etna and Vesuvius and the volcanic Aeolian Islands—getting the most love. Whether this is a product of Frankel merely writing about what he knows and where he’s traveled, or of Europe really possessing the only volcanoes of note to winegrowing, I would have liked to see a more global view.

I was most captivated by Spain’s Canary Islands, located off the coast of northwestern Africa. There, on the island of Tenerife, you’ll find 12,280 foot Mount Teide (last eruption: 1909) and the highest vineyards in Europe at 5,800 feet. On the island of Lanzarote, vines are grown in bowl-shaped dugouts with stones lining the rim. This technique, developed in the eighteenth century by enterprising villagers looking for fertile soil beneath post-eruption ash, affords the vines protection from the wind and traps what little rain falls on the island each year.

I continue to be fascinated by the feats of those who stubbornly insist on making wine wherever they want.

Still, stubbornness can be either admirable or foolish, and I’ve often wondered why people choose to live in places prone to natural disasters. (But I guess I’m talking more about hurricanes and tornadoes, which are annual threats, unlike volcanoes.)

There’s clearly something worthwhile (and worth the risk) about living in the shadows of volcanoes, because throughout history people have returned time and time again to the slopes of these irascible mountains, hellbent on bottling the incredible flavor latent in their soils. Take the Olivieros of the Fuocomuorto estate near Mount Vesuvius, for example. Their vines were planted in 1780 atop a lava flow from 1631, abandoned in 1906 after post-eruption mud flows, and then resurrected in 2006.

Look also at the way men and women have fought back against Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano. In 1669, a priest named Diego Pappalardo led fifty men armed with pick axes and iron bars in an attempt to divert an advancing lava flow. They would have succeeded had it not been for an angry mob from a neighboring village, which would have come into the path of the diverted lava flow, who ran them off with clubs and pitchforks. 1983 saw a failed attempt by local officials and volcanologists to use dynamite to reroute a lava flow. And in 1993 authorities successfully tamed a slow-moving lava flow with a combination of rocks (formed into a dam 66 feet high), dynamite, and 8,000 pound concrete blocks dropped by helicopter. 

Volcanoes and Wine will certainly stir your imagination. It’ll also fan your wanderlust. Both because it showcases exotic places flowing with wine and because the only way to have a taste is to travel. You won’t find these wines in Costco. 

My recommendation
Frankel’s book is well-researched, with the right blend of history, science, and wine. He did lose me a couple times, wandering off to other topics like coffee growing in Hawaii, but all in all, it’s a fun flyover of volcanic wine, with some really cool history and stories thrown in. Wine-drinking history buffs, this is your book.

Book Review: Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing, edited by Jay McInerney

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 04-23-2019

Book CoverI read so many books about wine, but few I’d call “literary.” With Wine Reads, Jay McInerney has skillfully brought together selections from some of the finest pieces of wine writing, both fiction and nonfiction, many of which I’ve never even heard of.

After reading cover to cover, I certainly agree that each of the selected works possesses something—“superior or lasting artistic merit,” according to Google—that elevates it into the realm of the literary.

As you’d expect, McInerney includes classics like Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route and George Taber’s Judgment of Paris. It’s great to revisit these foundational pieces of wine literature, but what I most enjoyed were the lesser-knowns, like Roald Dahl’s fun short story “Taste” and especially a 2015 essay that appeared in The Yale Review called “My Father and The Wine,” by scholar and writer Irina Dumitrescu.

Dumitrescu relates her memories of growing up in a Romanian immigrant family, making wine and so much else from scratch. Interspersed are honest moments capturing her family dynamic, and glimpses of what I want my relationship with my own children to be one day. I like this bit the best: “They will want to suck at the siphon hose and taste whatever you taste. They will laugh and smack their lips and assure you that the wine is very good. When you leave the cellar they will insist on carrying the bottle to the dinner table.”

I adored journalist A.J. Liebling’s “Just Enough Money,” where he argues that poverty lends itself to a special appreciation of food, and thus great food writing. The wealthy, on the other hand, tend to indulge and oversaturate because money allows. It’s “the crippling handicap of affluence.” There’s also a five-page piece from author, poet, and bon vivant Jim Harrison called “Wine.” It’s utterly bizarre, but I devoured it.

On the fiction side of things, there’s of course a chapter from Rex Pickett’s Sideways, as well as something from Michael Dibdin’s A Long Finish, a novel in the Aurelio Zen crime series.

Wine Reads contains twenty-seven selections in all, running the gamut of topics: the Mondavi spat, Nazi-occupied Champagne, and vine sabotage at La Romanée-Conti, to name a few more. It’s a book you can read piecemeal or cover-to-cover; although I prefer the latter, because it allows you to see what great diversity of thought and talent there is in the world of wine writing.

My Recommendation
I’ve ditched my Wine Spectator subscription. This is the kind of wine writing I want to read, the kind with literary flair. Wine Reads is for those of us who tend to find themselves with a glass in one hand and Henry James in the other.

Book Review: Lucky Country: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand, by Darren Delmore

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 04-01-2019

Lucky Country CoverLucky Country is the second installment in Darren Delmore’s nonfiction series Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand. (I reviewed the first, Slave to the Vine, back in 2017.) Like its predecessor, Lucky Country is an unvarnished look at cellarhand life during harvest, replete with ubiquitous and unabashed hedonism. Yet somehow, once again, Delmore plays it off without being overly gratuitous, and does great work in illustrating a parallel between the messiness of winemaking and that of human relationship itself.

Lucky Country picks up in February 2010 with Darren on his way to Australia on a harvest contract with Two Hands, escaping both a sexual fling that’s starting to smell of commitment and the sour way his work at Hirsch Vineyards had ended. His journey nearly ends before it starts, at the hands of a prying Australian customs agent. But somehow Darren is able to talk his way out of trouble, despite not having a proper work visa and looking like an unshaven vagrant who’s just Cookie-Monstered several handfuls of pot cookies on the flight over—which, in reality, he had.

The action proceeds linearly from there. Darren arrives at Two Hands, ready to work. He learns the nuances of the cellar there and meets a string of interesting characters. My favorite is Darren’s roommate Timmy, who I came to loathe for his mooching and stingy ways. Desperate to save money, Timmy resorts to eating cereal for every meal (literally), yet has no problem taking more than his portion of the bottles opened by others to share.

After four-or-so months, and the mishaps and drama that inevitably follow from overconsumption, drug use, and close proximity to so many interesting and complex individuals—and for that matter, from juggling flings with several alluring women—work comes to an end and Darren heads back to California for a short break before the harvest season there.

Like the first book in the series, Lucky Country did an admirable job of transporting me into this snippet of time in the life of someone very different from myself. And yet, we find common ground in our passion for wine.

On a personal note, my wife and I happened to be passing through Paso Robles on vacation last week, and thanks to a bit of serendipity we were able to meet up with Darren. He graciously offered to let us taste through four barrels of his wine, his second commercial vintage, each about 100 cases. He rents space at ONX Wines in Tin City and makes Pinot Noir and cold-climate Syrah under an eponymous label, Delmore. I found both approachable, balanced, and conspicuously unique. I’ve never had a Syrah that smelled so much like a handful of fresh soil, nor a Pinot that fills a glass with so many blueberry-purple hues. He has a mailing list and there’s more info on his website.

My Recommendation
Lucky Country is entertaining, funny, and real. What more can you ask of a book? It’s a quick read at only 166 pages and I’d say pick it up for any weekend perambulations in wine country. I look forward to the next installment in Darren’s wine-soaked adventures!

Book Review: Red Wine: The Comprehensive Guide to the 50 Essential Varieties and Styles, by Kevin Zraly, Mike DeSimone, and Jeff Jenssen

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-17-2018

Red WineMy request for a copy of Kevin Zraly’s forthcoming biography was apparently premature, so the publisher sent me Red Wine instead. I hadn’t heard of it, but after poring through it in five- and ten-page sittings, I see why every wine bibber needs to.

Red Wine covers the basics of the 50 red wines you’re most likely to encounter. Full of beautiful photography and with just the right amount of detail, it might be the most practical coffee table book a wine lover can own.

Arranged alphabetically, each grape gets a two-page spread, with the exception of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and other biggies, which get more. To start, the grape name is listed and spelled phonetically—a tremendous blessing for those of us who can’t quite get the pronunciation right for grapes like Montepulciano (it’s MOHN-teh-pool-CHAH-no) and Sangiovese (SAHN-jo-VAY-say).

Next is a tasting profile highlighting the grape’s most common aromas and flavors, followed by a list of ideal food pairings. You’ll want these handy for your next dinner party. Or maybe you flat out want some specific wine recommendations. Zraly and team have you covered with suggestions for “Bargain,” “Value,” “Special Occasion,” and “Splurge” bottles.

Rounding out each chapter are a few paragraphs of abbreviated history, a bit on what’s noteworthy about the grape, and finally, where in the world it’s currently being grown in significant amounts.

What I love about Red Wine is it’s so darn handy. I can see myself using it in a variety of situations: pre-dinner-out research, deciding which wine region to visit next, or even in my own home wine making. A few weeks ago actually, when deciding whether or not to induce malolactic fermentation in batches of Lodi Petite Sirah and Carignane I was fermenting in the basement, I first turned to Red Wine to get a sense of each variety’s typical level of acidity. (We’ll see how that turns out though!)

Red Wine covers key wine styles and regions too. Read these sections and you’ll never again refer to Rioja or Chianti as a grape, and you’ll better understand what constitutes a Super Tuscan (spoiler: it’s kind of a catch-all).

My Recommendation
Some books I read and pass along. Red Wine is one I’ll keep around. It’ll probably find a home on the kitchen shelf next to my cookbooks and drink tomes. Much like Zraly’s Windows on the World, this is a book every serious wine drinker should have on hand, for reference, for inspiration, and for pure visual enjoyment.

Book Review: Corkscrew, by Peter Stafford-Bow

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 11-26-2018

51tP9E8lxeL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Corkscrew is a rollicking page-turner about a quick-witted womanizer named Felix Hart, whose bawdy, booze-filled escapades propel him up the ranks of the UK wine industry. The dialogue is tight and idiomatic, the characters have flesh, and the situations Felix finds himself in are unique to say the least.

There’s a chase scene with a pack of vicious fornicating ostriches; a hairy hermaphroditic powdered drug alchemist whom Felix sets aflame; a group of sadistic master sommeliers who never use spit buckets; and a death by cesspool.

Yea, Peter Stafford-Bow has quite an imagination.

The story begins with Felix in an interrogation room. He’s done something pretty bad; we don’t know what. As his interrogators press him, Felix gives them (and us) the whole story.

Getting his start in a local wine store, Felix’s career takes off when he bludgeons to death a notorious burglar who’s been terrorizing local shops. He takes a gig as a wine buyer and jets off to Bulgaria, Italy, and South Africa, where he negotiates deals, drinks a lot, and charms an endless stream of women.

I did find it a little too convenient that every wine merchant Felix encounters happens to be a good-looking girl who instantly wants to take him to bed, or exchange sex for wine perks. It does, however, give Stafford-Bow endless opportunity to deploy his considerable talent for euphemism.

In South Africa, Felix meets one of the story’s most interesting characters, Wikus van Blerk, an eccentric but much-sought-after winemaker. Wikus is an opinionated sage who has an entrenched point of view on everything, like the superiority of screw caps over cork or the blasphemy of wine filtration. “A winemaker who filters his wine is like a burglar stealing the family silver.”

Wikus’s “gun-toting African” partner Njongo delivers what is for me the most poignant moment in the novel, for its nod to geographic particularity and the shifting essence of wine. The three of them are out on safari, roasting freshly killed game and drinking bottles of Wikus’s wine. “I taste the stars,” says Njongo of a dark Shiraz, “unhidden by cloud. The African earth, caressing the vine. The promise of distant rain. The breath of the leopard.”

“That’s an African tasting note,” says Wikus, “And that’s why Njongo will inherit my estate when I’m gone!”

On more than one occasion, Corkscrew reminded me of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. It think because both novels blend absurdity and poignancy—or maybe simply because Felix, like Henderson, visits Africa.

I don’t want to give away too many of the novel’s best moments, but I will say that Corkscrew isn’t merely a series of random, disconnected happenings. Events build upon each other, as Felix gets himself into some real binds with the law and organized crime—the central dilemma concerns a large, conspicuously-low-priced shipment of Asti Spumante—and the draw for the reader is seeing how he wiggles out.

My Recommendation
Corkscrew is a bit too crude at times for my liking. That said, there were moments when I actually laughed out loud. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for an easy read full of lasciviousness and wine (a la Sideways, I’d say), particularly those inclined toward “cheeky” British humor.