Jancis Robinson, “the most respected wine critic in the world” according to the cover of her new book, goes the route of brevity in this, our Twitter-addled world. “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” was just published by Abrams, a small house publisher specializing in art, photography and fashion. The book itself is small and thin, deliberately designed for easy-breezy reading.
For the beginner crowd—and, Lord knows, we love you, you are the future—“24” is a pretty good read. More experienced winos won’t find anything new in it, but let’s give Jancis credit for reinventing her brand for one, or even two, new generations who may not know of her renown but are about to discover it.
It’s a good, useful book, but I do have some gripes, and that is Jancis’s tendency, like that of so many world-famous wine writers, to stick with the same old famous names, a safely conservative but unsurprising and all-too-predictable practice that is a constant challenge for wine writers to avoid, if for no other reason than to show that they’re not stuck in some dusty old niche. Jancis has a category called “bottles to knock socks off,” presumably showoff wines. These are for your “label drinkers.” They are the classic illustration of the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” People who clamor for these wines have just enough knowledge to pass themselves off as experts, but beyond that, there’s not much going on. Every once in a while they memorize another famous name, because some critic they love said so, and so it goes onto the “socks-knocking” list.
Here are Jancis’s “bottles to knock socks off” from California. These are the only nine California wineries she includes: Arnot Roberts, Au Bon Climat, Corison, DuMol, Frog’s Leap, Littorai, Rhys, Ridge and Spotteswoode. An eclectic list to be sure; one might add others to it. Jancis has also two lists whose relationship offers perhaps a glimpse into her attitude towards Napa Valley: the first, “Twenty heart-stopping (and bank-breaking) wines,” includes nothing from California. The second, “Some overpriced wines,” includes “California’s cult Cabernets.”
“The 24-Hour Wine Expert” is ultimately a useful little book, a sort of stocking-stuffer for a holiday gift for that budding wine aficionado who’s probably younger and just starting out to explore the world’s most fascinating beverage. Experts will glance at it if for no other reason than to check out what Jancis, “the most respected wine critic in the world,” is up to.
In our ongoing attempt to understand terroir, or cru–the sum total of influences upon the character and quality of a wine—we now come across the statement by Eric Lebel. He is (or was, when Champagne, Uncorked was published, earlier this year), the Chef de Cave, or cellarmaster, at Krug Champagne.
The book’s author, Alan Tardi, interviewed him extensively; Tardi wanted to know in particular what makes for the highest quality in a Champagne. Lebel told him this: “For Krug, it all begins here, in the vineyards…by carefully selecting the specific parcels we want, those that produce high quality, yes, of course, but also high personality. The character of the grapes from the individual parcels, and the characters of the individuals that grow them, are preserved by this approach, and all of them will eventually turn up to play their part in the wine.”
“The characters of the individuals that grow them…in the wine.” Wow. Really? Krug buys many of its grapes from local growers, some of whom are portrayed in Tardi’s book: Gerard Moreau, taciturn, “solid, like the earth.” Robert Blanc, “gregarious, extraverted, the complete opposite of Gerard Moreau,” and others. Each sells fruit to Lebel, “and this is a big part of where complexity comes from,” Lebel tells Tardi; “this mix of personalities contributes as much to the [Krug] Grande Cuvée as the meteorological events of the season or the terroir where the grapes are grown.”
When I read these words I had to put down the book, rub my eyes and think. Grower personality as important as weather and soil? Sacre bleu! It’s not just that each grower takes a different approach to his viticulture; in fact, it’s not even clear that they do. By and large, growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne is all about beating the climate and coming up with a good, clean crop. But here is Lebel stating, as fact, that somehow, beyond all measurable weather and soil conditions or physical practices in the vineyard, the personality or soul of the grower finds its way into the final wine.
This is an exceptionally curious and provocative thing to say. How does the “personality” of a grapegrower enter into the wine? Can it really be as important as chalk? We are talking about sheer mystery…the inexplicable. It would be easy to dismiss this as humbug, except that Lebel has a great deal of credibility. One has to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea if Moreau’s earthiness or Blanc’s gregariousness actually play a role in what I experience when I drink Krug Grande Cuvée (which I wish I could more often). But I really, really like the thought that, somehow, these gentlemen’s spirits are in the wine. That is about the most romantic thing I’ve heard in a long time–and what is great wine, if not romantic?
Have a lovely weekend, and if you can, drink Champagne!
Every wine writer eventually has to make the Big Decision: How deep into the tall weeds of technicalities do you want to go?
I’m talking about everything from solar radiation and new vineyard roping systems to row spacing, different types of trellising, spraying, leaf pulling, clones, rootstocks, the chemical properties of grapes and wines, the details of carbonic maceration, cold soaking, skin contact, yeasts—and I’m just getting started! After all, this is why students spend years at V&E school.
Some writers are naturally attuned to these things and actually get a pretty good handle on them, but most don’t. I’m in the latter camp. I know a lot about wine tasting, history and California, but I’ve largely avoided tackling that university-level stuff any more than I had to—as I suspect most writers have. You can get by quite well with a minimum of knowledge in this business, although it does help to have some technical books on your shelves to look stuff up if you really need to know.
I do have a couple books, but recently a publishing company sent me a book I wished I’d always had: The Business of Winemaking, by Jeffrey L. Lamy (Board and Bench Publishing, San Francisco). Lamy, who just died, was an Oregonian with deep roots in the wine business; his hard-cover book is really an indispensable guide to wine writers. Want more information on the distribution system, phylloxera, different kinds of tanks? Look it up in the index. This may not be a book to read yourself to sleep at night, but it is the best source of technical information I’ve seen.
And, on a different topic, I was doing some Spring cleaning and there in my bookshelf I found the June, 1993 issue of Decanter with the cover story, “What Will You Be Drinking in the Year 2000?” Being a Baby Boomer who was told (by the experts) that by the year 2000 we’d all be using our personal jet-packs to travel, I have an irresistible urge to see how wrong prognostications can be. So what did Decanter say?
Well, they had a bunch of different people make predictions. Here are some of the ones that weren’t quite accurate. I won’t name names, but they are (or were, in 1993) some of the biggest names in the business). One pundit said that Eastern Europe would offer the best value for the money. Didn’t happen, at least not here in the States (although, who knows, maybe it will someday). The same pundit predicted that Bordeaux and Burgundy would be “finished” and would be “buried.” That didn’t happen either. Two very famous personalities said that Cabernet Sauvignon’s position would be challenged by Syrah and Merlot. Wow. Talk about wrong.
A number of the pundits predicted that China would “develop dramatically” by 2000. I don’t claim to have much knowledge of Chinese wine, but I don’t think that in 2000 there was much going on there, quality-wise. Maybe there is today.
One interesting question was whether Champagne would continue to be the world’s best sparkling wine. Some (Hugh Johnson) said yes. But some people predicted that other regions (Australia, California, South Africa, Chile, Moldova) would rival Champagne. I, personally, think Champagne still beats California, but the best of California (hello Schramsberg) is pretty darned good.
Anyhow, it just shows to go that even the smartest people don’t have crystal balls.
I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.
I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.
The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.
Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.
Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.
So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.
The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.
I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”
As the author of two tomes on California wine, I know full well how short the lifespan is of a book. They come and go with the regularity of coastal fog, drifting in and out of existence. Some, because of the peculiarities of the media ritual of book reviewing, are more persistent than others. For example, anything Eric Asimov reviews and raves about can be counted to have a longer shelf life—say, a couple of months—than others. But 98 percent of wine books are destined, in my humble but experienced opinion, to evaporate quickly, finding their way into the remainders bin at the local bookstore within one month—if, that is, the local bookstore hasn’t yet gone out of business.
Why most wine books have such a short shelf life is not hard to discern: it’s because they’re ephemeral. They’re reflective of moments in time, or perhaps moments in the zeitgeist is more appropriate. But in grasping the immediate here-and-now they fail to grapple with larger, long-term issues, the ones that really matter to both history and to the people who must live through the unfolding process of history, which happens to be us all.
Actually, I’m luckier than many wine book writers, in that my two—A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, continue to sell well, despite being ten and six years old, respectively. I’m nowhere in Jancis Robinson’s league, though, much less Karen MacNeil’s, whose “The Wine Bible” will survive the next nuclear holocaust and asteroid-Earth collision, combined. But my books sell tolerably well, which satisfies me.
It’s hard to write a book because it takes a ton of organization and research. But it can be done by anyone with enough time and skills of literacy. (Actually, a great many wine books, especially those little pocket guidebooks, aren’t written by the famous authors on the cover. They hire anonymous writers and pay them, say, 20 cents a word, or $2 a review, although the reader would have no way of knowing that.)
It is, though, even harder to write a good wine book, not only because it’s always harder to do something well than mediocrely, but because in order to write something penetrating and long-lasting you really must have your eye and mind firmly set on the long span of history, which means you must understand history and, most importantly, be objective enough to let history do its own thing, rather than seek to impose your own will and conditions upon it. Some books claim to have identified historical trends, but as the immortal baseball manager and existentialist philosopher, Casey Stengel, warned, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” The psychologist and Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman expanded on this: “Most successful pundits are selected for being opinionated, because it’s interesting, and the penalties for incorrect predictions are negligible. You can make predictions, and a year later people won’t remember them.”
We see this latter insight keenly illustrated when it comes to vintage prognostications. More wine writers have gotten them wrong, over the years, than they’ve gotten anything else wrong, or right for that matter; but no one has ever called a wine writer to account for a bogus vintage declaration, and probably no one ever will, for the simple reason that people have better and more useful things to do with their lives than busting an incorrect vintage assessment, twenty years after it was issued.
Here are some of the wine books that I’ve read over the past few years that I love and that are classics. Get them if you can:
- What Price Bordeaux? Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
- In Search of Pinor Noir: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
- Postmodern Winemaking: Clark Smith
- Claret & Cabs: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
- Secrets of the Sommeliers: Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay
I wish I’d written them all, but I couldn’t have, any more than Benjamin or Jordan or Raj could have written “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” A good wine book reflects the writer’s personality, judgment and insight. Remove any of those factors, and the book is not so good. By the way, I don’t know Benjamin Lewin, M.W., and I profit in no way by recommending his books so strongly. He’s just a damn great writer.