The new wine books have been piling in all summer long. I’ve finally been able to get a handle on them, so here are my mini-reviews.
Hugh Johnson’s 2014 Pocket Wine Book, $18. Now in its 39th edition [!!!], this handy little guide–the “pocket” means it will fit into the back pocket of your blue jeans–has been educating wine lovers since 1977. I still have my original ’77 edition. It was a book I loved and treasured. The 2014 is easily twice its size, and probably won’t fit into anyone’s back pocket anymore. But it will be a good friend to a new generation of wine lovers.
The Book: Why the First Books of the Bible Were Written and Who They Were Written For, $17.95 soft cover. Michigander Allen Wright brings an academician’s eye to this easy-breezy account. I don’t think there’s much new here, but if you’re a history and/or religion buff, it makes for pleasant reading.
The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand, $15.95. Barefoot founders Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey reminisce about their little startup company that went on to become a powerhouse brand and was subsequently acquired by E&J Gallo. The book will appeal to brand-builders, marketers and P.R. types more than it will to the average wine buff.
Extreme Wine: Searching the World for the Best, the Worst, the Outrageously Cheap, the Insanely Overpriced, and the Undiscovered, $24.95. Economist Wine Veseth is well known in the wine blog world for his interesting, if sometimes quirky, analyses of wine and economics. This is his personal take, covering everything from celebrity wines and critter wines to Antinori.
Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft, $?. Clark Smith is a winemaker, writer and academic. His hard cover book is a good read, filled with technical minutiae on the buzziest topics, including micro-oxygenation, flavanols, soil profiles, reverse osmosis and a few well-timed digs at “bullshit” in marketing.
Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista, $34.95. Napa wine historian Charles L. Sullivan wrote this fascinating account of the rise of California’s oldest winery (now owned by Jean-Charles Boisset) and its flamboyant founder, the Hungarian “Count,” Agoston Haraszthy. The book is filled with fascinating tidbits spanning the period 1783 to today.
Wine Marketing Online: How to use the newest tools of marketing to boost profits and build brands, $29.95. New Zealander Bruce McGechan is a true believer in the power of the Internet and social media to move cases. He explains how, in this geeky tome, which can sometimes be a little obscure and hard to follow. But there’s plenty of useful stuff.
The World Atlas of Wine, $55. If there’s one wine book you buy this year, either for yourself or as a stocking-stuffer, make it this grand, hard-covered coffee table work of art. Penned by two of the world’s most famous wine writers, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, it’s worth the price for the maps alone. Johnson, of course, has been exploring this venue since 1971; I still have his 1977 World Atlas of Wine, a book I devoured and still turn to. Robinson joined up with him several years ago. For sheer beauty, precise writing and, again, those gorgeous maps, it’s a keeper, even if the capsule descriptions of wine regions can sometimes seem a little abbreviated.
But it wasn’t always. If you came of age before the era of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, you might be surprised to learn that, until comparatively recently, men were considered genetically and temperamentally unfit to cook.
That was certainly true when I was a little boy. Mom’s place was in the kitchen. Dad’s place was in front of the T.V., there to remain until Mom announced, “Dinner’s ready.” The only time dads were allowed to cook was in the backyard, over the barbecue.
I was reminded of all this when I bought a book in one of our great used bookstores in Oakland. “Cooks, Gluttons and Gourmets” was written by Betty Watson and published in 1962–well before the modern era of cooking began. Fifty one years ago, “cuisine” in America meant French food, snootily served in restaurants with heavy red leather banquettes. Italian meant lasagna, Chinese meant chop suey, Jewish meant corned beef, and that was that. It was the age of iceberg lettuce and frozen T.V. dinners. And nobody had ever heard of Julia Child.
In the 1960s that began to change, albeit quite slowly at first. “It was the popularity of outdoor barbecues that led most American husbands to take an interest in cookery,” Watson writes. “While the kitchen had come to be regarded as woman’s sphere from frontier days onward, cooking out of doors was different. It reminded grown men of Boy Scout days when they roasted hot dogs over campfires. [!!!] Building up a good fire in the charcoal grill was thoroughly masculine. So was the cooking of a steak.”
We’ve come a long way, babycakes! Building a good fire always makes me feel more masculine.
Yet Watson, in her research for the book, was “astonish[ed]…to learn…that cooking in ancient Greece was regarded as an art and cooks were men of stature.” For emphasis, she adds, “Men, yes–note that.” Citing Athenaeus, a second century Greek writer, she refers to his masterwork, Deipnosophistae, in which he “mentions by name twenty authors of cookery books and not one by a woman.”
(Incidentally, here’s one of Athenaneus’s recipes, for Gastris, a sweet nut cake:
Ingredients: 100g each of poppy seeds, ground walnuts, ground hazelnuts and ground almonds; 100g of dried and stoned dates and dried figs; 150g sesame seeds; 75g clear honey; 1/2 tsp ground black pepper; Olive Oil .
Chop the dates and figs then place in a pan with 30ml of the honey, 4 tbsp water and a little olive oil. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. Take off the heat and allow to cool, then turn into a mortar and pound in the ground poppy seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and black pepper until your have a smooth, thick, dough-like paste. Turn into a pan and cook until the dough is thick and of a consistency that can be rolled out. Roll out the fruit and nut paste and cut into squares. Heat the remaining honey in a pan, dip the fruit and nut paste in this then coat in the sesame seeds.)
Men were the chefs to royalty for most of history, and even royalty took a turn in the kitchen. Peter the Great “would often go into the kitchens to knead bread dough with his own hands or pour cheese into molds,” Watson writes. Thomas Jefferson was as interested in food and cooking as he was in wine. Watson tells us he introduced spaghetti into the Americas, was “the first to serve French fries with beefsteak” (and we can imagine that at one time French fries were considered special), “the first to use vanilla as a flavoring,” and “learned to make ice cream while in France, writing down the recipe in his own hand…He imported olive trees” and grew “many rare vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus.” Once in the White House, he “personally supervised the planning of state dinners.” Can you imagine a modern U.S. President being a foodie? He’d be mercilessly mocked, especially by Fox News.
When did men drop out of the kitchen? It seems to have been a by-product of the Industrial Age and of the rise of American capitalism. The man was expected to leave the home early in the morning, work all day, and come home, late and hungry. The little woman was expected to remain barefoot and in the kitchen, and have dinner ready for her man. (See almost any episode of “Mad Men” with Betty Draper in it.) This model remained the dominant one throughout the first half, even the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
By the 1980s, it definitely had changed. Why? Historians of American culture will have the last word on that. Certainly the re-entry of the man into the kitchen paralleled the rise of the boutique winery movement in California. I can’t prove it, but I suspect the two were related.
One of the most enduring memes in wine is that of terroir. (A meme, by the way, is a cultural idea that spreads virally from human to human. Memes have been compared to genes in that they may mutate in response to environmental pressures, a concept I’ll return to in a minute.)
We all know the origin of the concept of terroir: France. That it was borrowed by American wine growers and vintners, primarily here in California, is perfectly understandable, especially after the boutique winery boom pushed prices high enough that vintners had to come up with some rationale to convince consumers to dig deep. Their rationale: Mass-produced wines have no terroir. The word “terroir” went beyond its original French meaning of referring to a given set of growing conditions, to acquire qualitative and even esthetic dimensions. One might say that the terroir meme mutated.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as I was learning about wine and becoming a wine writer, the concept of terroir was all-pervasive at the higher levels of California. Napa Valley was said to make the best Cabernets because of its terroir. When Pinot Noir started to become popular, there were fierce intellectual discussions of the difference between the terroirs of, say, the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now called the Sta. Rita Hills) and the Russian River Valley. One might say that being able to describe his region’s unique terroir was as integral a part of the winemaker’s job as producing good wine. Certainly, it became a necessary part of the job description with the rise of the wine media.
Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others. The guilty fear of many writers, maybe all of us for all I know, is that nagging feeling that you know less about wine than people think you do. So when I wrote about terroir, I dutifully quoted winemakers, while myself seldom if ever proclaiming terroir distinctions in my own voice. There’s a big difference between quoting others and making your own declarations, and I have never been confident making the kind of ultra-fine statements that would be needed in distinguishing Rutherford from Oakville.
Or Sta. Rita Hills from Russian River Valley. Or Santa Lucia Highlands from Sonoma Coast. Or even Carneros from Russian River Valley. Which is a problem for a wine writer expected to know these things. I can describe the differences, intellectually, based on my knowledge of climate and soils, and from things I’ve been told by winemakers over the years. But I would hate to be put to the acid test of having to identify these wines in a blind tasting in a public format, for a simple reason I’ve been hesitant to express, before now: The truth is, Pinot Noirs from all California’s top regions taste more alike than not, and so do Cabernets from Napa’s appellations; and now we are seeing the emergence of Cabernets from other parts of the state (not just Sonoma County, but Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County) that one might easily confuse with the real thing from Napa Valley.
Wine writers aren’t supposed to admit such things, and few do, at least in public. Which is why I have been so enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. He does such a superb job of demolishing the terroir meme, not because he doesn’t believe in terroir–he does– but because external factors are minimizing its impact, to the point where traditional terroir concepts in Bordeaux–the mothership of terroir–have become so blurred as to be largely unintelligible. (My words, not his.)
Lewin, who’s an M.W., compiles a list of reasons why terroir distinctions in the Médoc have gotten so fuzzy. Vintners pick riper. Some varieties, like Malbec and Carmenere, are being eliminated, in favor of more Cabernet Sauvignon–which may be making all Bordeaux wines taste more alike than they used to. Cabernet is being planted in areas where it didn’t used to, even at the top chateaux. Wines from lesser parts of Bordeaux are fast becoming as good as classified growths. Most importantly, perhaps, global warming is doing away with climate patterns that dominated when the communal distinctions were first established–patterns that made for perceptual differences between cooler and warmer micro-terroirs. As he writes, “I suspect…that [terroir] differences were brought out in the past by marginal conditions”–conditions that less frequently apply in today’s Bordeaux, so that “it would be a fine taster who could always tell the difference between St. Julien and Pauillac.”
Such a statement would have been heresy in Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s or Alexis Lichine’s heyday. Today, as established a figure as Lewin (who may be the most prolific and best wine writer in the English language) can come out and say the unsayable, the truth about terroir that dare not speak its name. He blew my mind when he called terroir “a point of faith in Bordeaux.” Faith is something you believe in despite evidence to the contrary. But for how long, and at what price?
TOMORROW: Part 2.
I was pleased to read, in Benjamin Lewin’s magnificent new book, “Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon,” that “in Bordeaux [there is a] general lack of interest in exactly which clone is used.”
That is so different from California, where you’re always hearing about Clone 7, or 4, or 6, or 8, or 29, or 337, or whatever. And it’s not just Cabernet, it’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and just about every other important variety
I formed my initial impressions about clones in the early 1990s, when the new French Pinot Noir clones started coming into widespread use in California. I remember many a conversation with winemakers as they described the differences between the various clones and older selections. As a budding reporter, I listened carefully, trying to learn all I could. I wanted to know if, for example, 777 was better than 115 in Carneros–or if perhaps the situation were reversed in the Russian River Valley. Writers always want neat, tidy conclusions that we can pass along to our readers.
But it was all in vain: there was so much conflicting and competing information, so many different opinions were expressed, so many complicating factors such as rootstocks and different climate and soil conditions, so much absence of scientific certainty, that at some point in the 1990s I gave up trying to understand clones. I was in despair that I would ever be able to write about them without resorting to clichés, second-hand anecdotes or pretend-authority statements that I was just stealing from others [and that others would eventually steal from me]. That has never been my style.
By the turn of the new millennium I was doing research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and since so much of that had to do with Pinot Noir, I found myself reluctantly plunging back into the chaos of clone theory. I went through more rounds of interviewing, and by that time, access to the Internet additionally expanded the scope of information I had access to. Once again, I found myself in overwhelmed. So much data, so little time to digest it. So, when Tom Dehlinger said to me, “If you have a site that is producing great Pinot Noir, then almost any clone will be successful,” I almost sobbed with relief. At long last, with a single statement, someone smart and respectable had swept away the cobwebs, and given me permission to not be obsessed with clones, the way so many other writers were.
Why are the French so lackadaisical about Cabernet clones when the Californians seem so obsessed by them (or, in Lewin’s words, “Bordeaux’s indifference to clones [versus] Napa’s focus on them”)? Lewin, who’s an M.W., doesn’t explore this fruitful territory, but I will. California viticulture and enology always has been very academically and scientifically oriented, at least, since the modern boutique winery era began. The state has schools like U.C. Davis and Fresno State that long have been heavily involved in the industry, and have had a lock on providing winemaker talent. I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent situation in Bordeaux.
Universities stay in business, of course, only as long as they’re perceived to be adding to the body of knowledge of the academic subjects they specialize in. In Davis’s case, this means making constant, ongoing progress in all their V&E fields, whether it’s plant pathology, soil science, fermentation science or biochemistry. Graduates of these departments arrive at their first jobs heavily educated.
There’s always been some debate in California about whether winemaking is an art or a science. To some extent, this is a silly distraction–it’s both–but the perception is out there that too much technique can cripple the vintner’s creative, artisanal side. For example, when I first met Josh Jensen, at Calera, he told me that when he was advertising for an assistant winemaker, his single qualification was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” I suspect Josh was being wry, but I took his point.
Winemakers in California tend to get very wonky because of the belief that only rigorous scientific research can result in the greatest wines. That is a reasonable point of view, but it also should be pointed out that some pretty great wines were made in Europe for centuries before there were winemaking schools or even a basic understanding of fermentation. If your quest is for ever-greater wines, then when do you stop questing? When do you know that you have a great formula (vineyard, winemaker, grapes, winemaking facility) and so there’s no longer a need to keep on tinkering? When, in other words, do you leave well enough alone? Or is that a dangerous thought–that, somehow, if you stop questing, you’ll lose status and be eclipsed by the competition?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the interest in clones in California, versus the apparent lack of interest in them in Bordeaux (assuming Lewin is correct), is interesting. I wonder if it’s just a phase, part of California’s coming of age. What do you think?
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?
I revert quite often to the theme of wine’s “authenticity” in this blog, not because the concept is all that meaningful to me—it isn’t, in the sense I’ll get to shortly—but because it’s become the go-to meme with which others place wine into value tiers, usually to the disparagement of California.
We’ll call them the Authenticists, that nouvelle school of wine critics who claim that, in order for wine to meet their criteria of “authenticity,” it must be
- made in a foreign country, usually Europe
- with decidedly little technology or intervention
- in a place with a medieval heritage
- produced from a family whose winemaking traditions extend far back into history
- and who live modestly, even quaintly
- and it doesn’t hurt for them to have charming characters: a curmedgeonly Patriarch, a wise old Matriarch, a revolutionary son
- the wine itself must be modest in alcohol
- from an individual, usually old vineyard
- and satisfy the Authenticist’s version of “connectedness” to the land
The latest author to celebrate these values is Terry Theise, whose 2010 book, Reading Between the Wines, is out in paperback from University of California Press.
The book, rightfully, has been touted for the beauty of its writing, something Theise, who imports wines from Europe into this country, wanted to accomplish; his preface lauds the “lapidary style” of writing, which is “polished and cut to the point of transparency…that allows the object to shine through.”
As an admirer of good writing myself, I support this aim. That a wine writer should take the time to actually focus on impeccable writing is, mirabile dictu, a stirring antidote to this age of 140-character Tweets and wine “writing” that is characterless to the point of morbidity. Theise writes the way I like to read: with muscularity and attitude, precision and color, passion and intelligence. He must have left his editors at UC Press (who were the same as mine) with precious little to do because he gave them perfect copy.
But I want to look past the evident elegance of Theise’s writing to examine what it is he is saying, which seems to me dipped from the old, tiresome well of Authenticism. The indirect slam on California comes through in statements like “I don’t like Hummer wines,” in wholesale indictments such as “You’re picking overripe grapes because you’re scared they won’t be ‘physiologically’ ripe. Your wine has far too much potential alcohol, so you add water to the grape must [and] add…Mega Purple,” to anecdotes about the “connectedness” of Mosel winegrowers to their land and tradition in a way that implies that California winegrowing families possess no such connections, to assertions that the village of Zeltingen is “somewhere,” populated by “people who embody it,” as opposed to—what?—Los Olivos? Boonville? Forestville? which presumably are “nowhere,” and whose populace is disembodied?
Theise visits the grave of an old Mosel friend. “I love that he lies in the slate, the soil where his Riesling grew.” People like his friend “were the people of this place in the world. It’s no accident that there are almost no international consultants, the ‘flying winemakers’ from here. The Mosel gives its vintners all the stimulus they need.”
We are to conclude inferentially that California vintners have no connection to their land (tell that to the Seghesios, whose ancestors rest in Alexander Valley soil). That they are arrivistes without roots, lacking concern for their neighbors, uninterested in anything save hype and profit, who hire outsiders to tell them what to do and have no sensibility of their own. Theise tells a story of Mosel families who got up early one Christmas morning to help a neighbor pick Eiswein. “Afterward they gathered…for soup and Christmas cookies. And when they left they were all singing out Merry Christmas…”. “I ask you!” he cries in wonder at such communal love; “…being a Mosel vintner signifies membership in a human culture much deeper than mere occupation.”
There it is again, the insinuation that California (and the entire New World?) runs on “mere occupation” while the ancient, ennobled peasant-vintners of the Mosel have a spiritual connection to their land and culture that lifts their wines into some rarified category of Authenticism. Do California winemakers not help their neighbors, when help is needed? Certainly they do. They may even sing Christmas carols at that time of year. I could cite tales…And I would bet that the amount of money raised for charities, especially for field workers, in Napa Valley dwarfs anything in the Mosel.
Theise is right to poke fun at “flying winemakers” and a mythical “Hubris Hill” $125 cult wine (no doubt a Napa Cabernet) produced by a hired-gun winemaker employed by a billionaire lifestyle-seeking ex-engineer or Wall Street mogul. Such people do litter California wine country, and Lord knows I poke fun at them all the time because they’re so easy to satirize.
But to throw the baby out with the bathwater—to imply that the state is inauthentic based on a handful of extremes—is unfair and ahistorical. I’ve struggled to understand California bashing for a long time, whether it’s our wines or our weather or our lifestyle (“San Francisco Democrats,” “brie-and-Chablis drinkers,” “fruits and nuts,” etc. etc. ad nauseum). I suspect it’s part envy, but I also try to see things from the perspective of the Authenticists. Look, last week I drank and loved an entire bottle of Melsheimer 2010 Reiler Mullay-Hofberg “Schaf” Riesling, from the Mosel. Low alcohol (7.5%), from a family who’s farmed their slope for five generations, over 200 years—a gorgeous, admirable wine, just the kind of “connected” vintners Theise loves.
But when I look at their picture on this website, I can easily see a bunch of Mondavis or Seghesios or Pedroncellis or Davies or Bundschus or Benzigers, or any of scores of California families whose love of their land and connection to their culture are no less profound than that of anyone in the Mosel. And I think: good writing or bad writing, Theise still is indulging in California bashing. It’s silly, it’s a trope too easily depended upon by writers, and it’s time to get over it.