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2 Book Reviews

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Every five or ten years a book like this must come out in order to fill a gap publishers feel is important. After all, new generations of wine lovers arise who want something just like this. It’s handsomely prepared, beautifully photographed, with awesome maps of the kind Bob Thompson and Hugh Johnson pioneered. These are coffee table books that look and feel and actually are expensive.

The book is “American Wine,” authored by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy (University of Caifornia Press, $50). I wish I could report that it is better than it is. I suspect Murphy did the heavy lifting, with MW Robinson lending her more glamorous, but perhaps rather over-exposed, name.

There is very little news here. We get the basics of various regions—Lake County, Chalk Hill—but almost nothing beyond the basics. There are no new interpretations, no innovative takes on the conventional wisdom, just repetitions of what we’ve long known. One searches in vain to be surprised, or stunned, or even to disagree; but the book has a blandness that makes it conventionally vanilla. The authors seem content to trot out the same old names, and I have to wonder (I’m just raising the question, not making any allegations) how the wineries whose labels are displayed in sidebars were chosen. Product placement ads?

For newcomers, “American Wines” is an acceptable place to start. It’ll get you into second gear.  But if you’re looking for groundbreaking information, something to take your knowledge to the next level, give it a pass.

* * *

I first knew Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen as The Wine Guys when they began writing for Wine Enthusiast. They now are the World Wine Guys, thanks, I suppose, to their evolving interests, as expressed by their fine new book, “Wines of the Southern Hemisphere” (Sterling Epicure, $25). It’s hardcover, and quite lengthy—580 pages, compared to 278 for the Murphy-Robinson collaboration.

Michel Rolland wrote the Foreward (good catch, guys!), and has it right when he calls the book “a wonderful idea [because] Nobody has ever done this before.” I’ll take him at his word: I certainly know of no other book on South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Anytime a duo of authors can come up with something new in the somewhat predictable field of wine books, they deserve kudos.

The book certainly feels well researched. In structure, it’s conventional: each country begins with a little intro, then a section on major grape varieties, a breakdown of official regions, and then a long paragraph or two on individual wineries. There also are amusing and informational Q&As with winemakers, as well as the occasional recipe. The maps could be better; I wish they were as sumptuous as the ones in “American Wines.” But then, the book would cost twice as much.

If you, like me, are under-educated about these countries, “Wines of the Southern Hemisphere” is the perfect place to learn the ABCs.

* * *

The sad fact about wine books these days is that, more and more, would-be authors have limited choices. So many have been written, with such little originality. Production values aren’t so important: creativity is, not to mention great writing. Are there any new books that you think deserve attention?

  1. I just finished “A Vineyard in Napa” (UC Press) by Doug Shafer. A good read about the Shafer’s history in the Napa Valley and the Stags Leap District AVA. Only disappointing thing about it is its 256 pages. I realize Doug didn’t want to elaborate on too many technical subjects for the sake of it not appealing to the general population, but I could’ve kept on reading. Worth picking up. Retail Hardback: $30
    Cheers.

  2. Steve, did you even look in the non-California sections of the book? “American Wine” isn’t supposed offer any groundbreaking new information about California. What it does and why it is innovative is that it offers about half of its text to wine regions not in California. It may come as a surprise to you, but over half of the 8,000+ wineries in the U.S. are not in California. Can you tell me what other book that covers the entire modern American wine industry devotes as much coverage to wines from Colorado, Idaho, or Arizona? Have you ever had a wine from Iowa, North Carolina or Michigan? The breadth of “American Wine” is what makes it a good book. That is the new interpretation of the new world of wine we live in. People are starting to realize that there is wine made where they live that is worthy of drinking. People want to learn about wine from states that don’t border the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps you are stuck in your California Republic to realize this.

    *This is not a knock on California.* California is still the standard bearer for American wine…

  3. Beyond the noise exits quiet, contemplative, gentle “ONE VINTAGE: A Year in the Vineyard.”

  4. Linda Murphy says:

    Steve,

    You missed the point of “American Wine,” which Kyle so capability explained. It’s a celebration of the progress the US has made as a winemaking country, and an explanation of how it got to where it is today — and where it might be going. Rieslings from Michigan; red Bordeaux blends from New Jersey; Chardonnay from Colorado; Tempranillo and Vermentino from Texas; utterly delicious hybrids such as Brianna and Marquette from Minnesota and the Midwest — can be truly innovative and exciting. Perhaps you didn’t read that part of the book?

    That’s OK. Any criticism of a book is OK. What is not is your “question” about how labels in the book were chosen. “Product placement ads?” you write. No such tactic was ever considered, let alone employed. We requested labels we wanted, and producers sent them. Simple as that.

  5. Thanks for your different take on the book, Kyle. Now I AM interested in
    reading it. It’s a shame that LeeAdams is not around anymore to update his
    “Wines of America” tome….that was always such a good read. Not particularly so much on Calif,
    but the other many winegrowing regions.
    Tom

  6. I’m a big fan of Dr. Lewin’s books,
    His next book out in May is:

    Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon.

    This should have lots of Napa information.

  7. With WE and WS and their depth of coverage and taking, say, only the top ten wine bloggers and their near-daily information and updates on virtually every aspect of wine, one wonders why anyone would even attempt to write a book on any niche of wine, let alone also be creative, entertaining and possibly even witty.

    Having belched that out, I must say that I still enjoy going back to my old books and selectively re-reading memorable sections. Those old books were well written and often with insightful, personal observations that were quite evocative.

  8. For me most of the wine books published in the US and talking about wines made in the US are interesting and important. In europe we often get only the bad american mass-production “wines” from Gallo etc.. Not really a pleasure. Withe the books I can learn about the special american styles and try to meet us-winemakers at the fairs at Dusseldorf and London.

  9. First of all great comments from all. Steve, you can’t compare the Gents book on all of the wineries south of the equator to Murphy’s on American wines. I call foul, and both of these books are quite good. I actually have purchased both upon release & read them. You did miss the point given comments so far from Kyle, the 2 Toms and even the co-author. on the wines of America. I for one am certain to have tasted most of the great USA wines -NY,GA,VA,TX,MI,MO,etc.etc. and it is long overdue that a book like this was written. And don’t get me started about product placement labels sir.I recommend everyone buy them both. Cheers and lets place nice.

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