subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

My favorite wine books, and why they’re so great


U.C. Davis asked me to list the wine books that had the most influence on me, and explain why. I had a lot of fun yesterday writing this, and I’m pleased to share it with others who love to read.

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen (1932)

They don’t write like this anymore. In fact, nobody’s written like this for close to a century. Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was, like so many others on this list, a Brit and Oxford man, with a solid education in the classics, and a penchant for journalism. A friend of George Saintsbury’s, Allen was a novelist first, but his love of wine led him to write “Romance.” The Times of London said of Allen that his readers will but learn that wine is a glorious thing for man and prohibition an evil thing. Mr. Allen writes like a poet. He dresses his bottles with flowery garlands.” Flowery garlands indeed! Of 1869 Latour, Allen writes: “Beautiful to the eye, this great wine breathed forth a perfume worthy of the gods…compounded of a multitude of subtle fragrances, the freshness of the sun-ripened grape, etherealized by the patient work of Nature into a quintessence of harmonious scents. The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’” Perhaps it’s a good thing such extravagant writing is gone, but reading Allen taught me that I could have fun with my words, swim in them, wander in them as in a flower garden, write dense, compound sentences with literary allusions, and yet remain clear and humane. Churchill wrote in a similar style (albeit not about wine), and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury (1933)

Some argue this is the greatest wine book ever written. I wouldn’t go that far, but it deserves a place in every wine-loving bibliophile’s library. Saintsbury (1845-1933) was another of those Oxford polymaths whose interests spanned everything from French literature to British recipes of the 17th century to, of course, wine. Reading “Cellar-book” brings the reader into the clubby, rarified drawing rooms of late 19th-century gourmets, with their eight-course meals (washed down with old Champagne, Yquem, Margaux and Port), and described in the flowery, Victorian writing style that, for better or worse, has all but disappeared from the English language.

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel (1934)

Following the Repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, there came a spate of wine education books for an American public almost wholly devoid of any knowledge of wine and its culture. This was one of the earliest, and best. Schoonmaker (1905-1976), a wine merchant, writer, and importer of European wines (into New York), was one of the first Americans to call for honesty in California wine labeling, using grape varietal names instead of purloined silliness like “Burgundy” or “Chablis.” (I think co-author Marvel was what we might call a ghost writer.) “The Complete Wine Book” is factual, comprehensive and knowledgeable; if a little dull in style, it nonetheless gave post-Prohibition Americans what they needed: a solid foundation.

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon (1942)

Mabon was food and wine editor for Harper’s Bazaar, which for decades defined elegance and style to Americans, mostly women. She came from a good family, niece of an American minister to Ireland, wife of the president of the New York Stock Exchange. I’ve always enjoyed compendiums of California wineries from long ago, and Mabon’s Chapter IV, “California Wineries,” is a wonderful romp through how-it-was: the names of Bisceglia Brothers, Solano Winery, Alta Winery and Mont La Salle Vineyards have not been uttered for a long time, but reading of their Haut Sauternes, California Burgundies and Sherry Sacks transports you back to a time when FDR was President, the Depression was raging, and Americans were just starting to enjoy drinking without fear of getting arrested. Her book, too, contains helpful hints on storage, refrigeration, label reading and food pairing that must have been greatly welcomed by housewives of the time.

Wines, Julian Street, 1948

Street, a New York City reporter who ventured into Broadway playwriting, might today be called a metrosexual. Debonair, looking a bit like the actor Leslie Howard, he was “long interested in the twin arts of wining and dining,” as the book’s dust jacket explains. True to his journalistic roots, he interviewed men and women from all over the world for “Wines,” to tell the story of wine, and to explain the intricacies of the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and Alsace, Germany, Italy, Sherry, Port, Marsala and Madeira, not to mention Palestine, Persia and Greece. The question with which he leads off his chapter on California wines is one that no one would ask these days: “Why can’t we make better?” You come across gems like Street’s reaction to a Martin Ray 1936 Pinot Noir, from the Santa Cruz Mountains: “It was a remarkable wine, the first American red wine I ever drank with entire pleasure.” For a wine-loving history buff, that’s as good as it gets.

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries (1960s-1980s)

Waugh, who died in 2001 at the age of 97, was a British wine merchant who rose to the top of his profession. He was a prolific writer and speaker, and served on the Board of Chateau Latour. One little-known aspect of his career was his early championing of the budding California wine scene of the early 1960s, and the way he acted as a transmitter of California wines and ideas to his Old World colleagues in London; his Zinfandel Club, which he founded in that city, introduced the British wine world to the boutique California wines of the era. He wrote a series of Wine Diaries between the 1960s and 1980s. I discovered them one by one in used bookstores and have treasured each. I had the privilege of accompanying Harry on a wine tour of Washington State, when he was already close to 90 and the Washington Wine Commission asked me to look after him. The impact of his Diaries on me was in their writing style: Harry wrote very simply, with no elaborate flourishes and none at all of those florid, over-the-top preciosities that have infected modern wine writing. In his humbleness and aw-shucks manner, he has provided a model of scholarly propriety for generations who admired him.

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell (1969)

Another of those highly-educated Londoners of the mid-20th century, Penning-Rowsell (1913-2002) was friends with everyone who mattered in the British wine trade. His masterly account of Bordeaux isn’t for everyone. The history is detailed and lovingly told, with accounts of how many French francs individual chateaux sold for in real estate transactions, how many francs the resulting wines went for (going back centuries), rainfall totals in the Gironde, the rise of the once all-important negociant houses, and, of course, the vintages, starting in 1795 and ending in 1978.

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg (1971)

Just as the 1930s brought a spurt of wine books for Americans desperate for wine knowledge after the 13-year long disaster of Prohibition, so the 1970s witnessed a new phase of that education, this time for the burgeoning Baby Boom generation. Blumberg and Hannum were both young law students at the University of California when they were bitten by the wine bug; together, like many students before and after, they toured Europe. They began their book by asking the pertinent question, “Why another wine book?”, and answered it this way: “While there have been many excellent treatises in recent years on viticulture and enology, there has been nothing dedicated to a consumer-oriented description and analysis of California wines.” What they produced was somewhat anodyne, but their descriptions of wineries are another valuable source of historical research. They divided that into two parts: larger, better-known wineries (Christian Brothers, Louis M. Martini, Souverain) and “A sampling of smaller wineries.” This is, for me, where the meat is: at the dawn of the boutique era, wineries like Davis Bynum, Freemark Abbey and David Bruce were up and running.

The Wines of America, Leon Adams (1973)

No history of American wines, especially one written in 1973, could remain current for very long. Adams’ book was outdated, it’s fair to say, the moment it was released; California wine history was on overdrive, and nobody could have kept up. Still, for the modern historian, it’s an important resource. How many times over the decades did I turn to the Index to discover, say, the origins of Fountain Grove Vineyard, or some detail of the old La Questa, or who was using new French oak in the 1940s?

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman (1975)

The book came and went with hardly any notice from anyone. Gorman was not a wine professional, nor did he have any connection to the industry. As he himself wrote, “My book…is the record of a personal voyage of discovery into the premium wines of California.” I’ve always liked personal books: my first one for the University of California, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, was a deeply personal book. Gorman wrote about California Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and other varieties at a time—1975—of great ferment in the industry (no pun intended). The boutique movement had started, yet this was still a period when Napa growers planted every variety cheek-by-jowl with every other variety, and Americans were still drinking so-called “Chablis” and “Burgundy” from jugs. It’s a fascinating take on the time, and Gorman’s vertical tasting notes make for interesting reading even today.

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen (1975)

Not the greatest wine book ever, but it served its purpose for budding amateurs like me. A solid overview of the grapes and wines of the world, with vintage charts and recommendations. We need a good compendium like this every few years.

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques (1975)

Henriques was, oddly enough, an Episcopal priest, who lived and pastored in the Sierra Foothills. He said he wrote his little encyclopedia out of “a fond regard” for his subject. He also claimed to have “the most extensive notes on current wines…of anybody in the world,” which may have been a slight exaggeration; did he know what Michael Broadbent was up to? The New American Library, an imprint of Signet, published this in soft cover for a mass market; it was not the most promising format. But it’s a good and at times fascinating volume. Where the Reverend Henriques got the wherewithal to taste Lafite from 1806 on, or Petrus back to 1946, or seemingly every wine Robert Mondavi ever produced, is unknown; perhaps he “borrowed” his reviews from others, although that’s a terrible thing to imply about a man of God. Nonetheless, no detail was too small for Henriques’s scholarly eye. Especially noteworthy are the retail prices Henriques cites for every wine: you might want to invent a time machine when you learn that Heitz 1968 Martha’s Vineyard sold for $11.

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson (orig. 1971, second edition, 1977)

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson (1993) [inscribed]

I bracket these two Atlases together, although Johnson’s preceded Thompson’s by nearly two decades. What they have in common, besides their Mitchell Beazley connection, are elegant structure and, especially, the maps, a Beazley specialty. Anyone who loves wine will have studied with the greatest interest and delight the detailed, color-coded maps of towns, vineyards and geographic and geological features, which make “wine country” come alive. Both books were instrumental in my education, particularly in understanding appellations and the lay of the land.

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson (1977)

I loved this book from the moment I bought it. Benson offered what was, for the time, the most penetrating glimpse into 27 men (and one woman!) who dominated the California wine scene in the mid-1970s. At a time when other writers were focusing on grape varieties, vineyards and wineries, Benson was interested in the person. He roamed the state with a tape recorder, did his interviews, published the transcripts, and voila. I used the same technique for my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. It was my homage to Benson; both books, I think, remain of interest to historians and amateur wine buffs.

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman (1979)

Every student of wine eventually learns about the Hungarian “Count,” who more or less birthed the California wine industry in the middle of the 19th century, after he was sent by the State Legislature to Europe and brought back with him more than 100,000 vine cuttings of at least 350 grape varieties, many of which he planted on its 118-acre Sonoma Valley estate. The book is in two parts: a useful, rather workhorse biography of Haraszthy (1812-1869), and his 1862 report to the California Legislature on “Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine-making.” Haraszthy dedicated his tome to “the agricultural public…hoping that… it may prove a valuable and an enduring source of wealth to the American horticulturalist and farmer.” It does that indeed, and is delightful to read, especially when you consider that English was Haraszthy’s second language.

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent (1980)

In all likelihood, no one in history (except for Rev. Henriques?) has ever tasted the world’s great wines as thoroughly as Broadbent, nor is anyone ever likely to in the future. And he kept every note, assembling them into this hard-covered classic. 1799 Lafite? 1947 Cheval Blanc? 1959 Romanée-Conti?  1653 Rüdesheimer, from the Rhinegau? 1851 Stibbert’s Port (“the most magnificent old Port I have ever drunk”)? Mr. Broadbent has notes on them all, plus thousands of others. You and I will never have these opportunities, but fortunately, because of Broadbent’s diligence, we can at least have some idea what these wines tasted like.

New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, Alexis Lichine (1981)

I absolutely devoured this book when it came out. It may in fact have been the single most influential wine book for me early on, its arrival coinciding with my nascent interest in wine. Lichine, who owned Chateau Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux, was a Bordeaux man, but his interests in wine were global. His knowledge of areas beyond France and Germany was perhaps a little second-hand. But for Bordeaux, Burgundy and German wines, the New Encyclopedia was the alpha and omega of the times.

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot (1982)

Something of an oddity. DeGroot (1910-1983) was a British, Oxford-educated gourmet and wine critic, who became a U.S. citizen in 1945. He called his book “the first classification of the best vineyards and wineries” of California, the Pacific Northwest and New York State. It was an idea no one was particularly asking for, and his classification (and those of others) went nowhere. Still, it provides an interesting, eccentric take on the wine scene at the birth of the boutiques.

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein (1982)

Bernstein (not that one) was a freelance, suburban New York City writer with a passion for wine, who wrote about it in a satiric way that did not mask his thorough understanding of the issues. From chapters on “letting the wine breathe” and “etiquette” to “which wine-which food?” and “understanding oak,” Bernstein skewers the pretensions of wine snobs, while educating readers to the most acute subtleties. I recently reread the book and it remains as fresh and funny as it was 40 years ago.

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine (1984)

This was the It book of the year, the Bible. I well remember the buildup to its release, and how I rushed to buy it (for $55, a lot of money at the time!). Everything you ever wanted to know about the Golden State’s wines, written by some of the most authoritative personalities of the era (Gerald Asher, Bob Thompson, Paul Draper, Maynard Amerine, Alice Waters, Timothy Mondavi and many others). Sumptuously packaged, it was the reference point for a generation of wine aficionados.

On Wine, Gerald Asher (1986)

These are reprints of Asher’s famous essays for Gourmet magazine, written in the 1970s and 1980s. The British-born Asher, whom I knew when he lived in San Francisco, was one of those internationalists, as comfortable writing about the wines of Piedmont and Chablis as those of his adopted state, California. His chapter on California Cabernet Sauvignon laid down the marker for acute, lively and creative wine writing and analysis.

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud (introduction by Michael Broadbent. English translation, 1987)

Professor Peynaud (1912-2004) was a leading light of Bordeaux enology. Trained as a scientist, he brought an academic approach to the making and appreciation of fine wine. “The Taste of Wine” is a deep dive into viticulture, enology, wine chemistry and vocabulary, as well as professional tasting techniques. It could have been tedious, but Peynaud keeps it accessible and interesting. His concept of “cru,” as opposed to “terroir,” is marvelous, and informed my own understanding of the influence of place, practice and person on wine.

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson (1989). Another must-have, another Beazley book, and another Johnson masterpiece. No one has ever told the story of wine, from its mythic beginnings in the Transcaucasus to the Paris Tasting, as compellingly, or with more beautiful graphics.

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube (1989)

Nineteen-eighty-nine was the year Wine Spectator first let me write for them. I got to know Jim Laube, their California reviewer, fairly well, and treasured this book for a while. It was, for its time, the most complete and authoritative volume on Cabernet, with Napa Valley, of course, dominating. Jim, like De Groot seven years previously, attempted to classify the wines, in this case into 5 Growths, an effort doomed to fail, as was De Groot’s. But his descriptions of the wines, historical details on the wineries and vertical tasting notes were greatly welcome back in the day.

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay (2010)

Parr, the famous sommelier, partnered with Mackay, the San Francisco writer, to produce this insidery account, a sort of “day in the life” of a wine pro. It’s heavy on name-dropping, and while the somm trade has perhaps lost some of its glamor in recent years, Mackay’s breezy style makes it a good read.

In Search of Pinot Noir (2011) and Claret and Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon (2013). Both by Benjamin Lewin, MW.

These are pretty much the last wine books I bought. I mention them together because they’re both great books, and for the same reasons. Lewin, a much-respected wine writer, is high-class. To me, he comes from the Hugh Johnson-Gerald Asher school of writing, which is scholarly, precise, knowledgeable and elegant. In both books, he demonstrates his mastery of the subject matter, and brings new twists in his interpretations, giving fresh insights into areas like cult Cabs and “The Holy Grail,” the Grands Crus of Burgundy. Explaining terroir, in all its complexities, is a Lewin specialty. His tasting notes are a delight, on a par—mirabile dictu!—with Broadbent’s.

Great Wine Books: “The Romance of Wine”


I blogged the other day about “California’s Great Cabernets,” Jim Laube’s book that had an influence on me. Another book with a far more lasting impact is “The Romance of Wine,” which H. Warner Allen published in 1932.

Herbert Warner Allen (1881-1968) was an English dandy and polymath, the son of a Royal Navy Captain and grandson of an Oxford don; Allen himself attended Oxford, where he specialized in modern languages. His passions (there were many) included journalism, Greek and Roman literature, detective books (which he also wrote) and, of course, wine. Of his multiple wine books, “The Romance of Wine” is considered his masterpiece. I put it beside George Saintsbury’s “Notes on a Cellar-Book” (1920) as one of the important wine books in the English language of the early 20th century, and it’s noteworthy that Allen and Saintsbury were friends.

H. Warner Allen, a good-looking man

Allen wrote in a style which has completely disappeared from our language: Victorian, floral, perfervid, allegorical and verbose. His greatest fondness was for pre-phylloxera Bordeaux, the older the better. Of an 1869 Latour he drank when it was 50-something years old, he wrote, “The palate recognized a heroic wine, such a drink as might refresh the warring archangels, and the perfection of its beauty called up the noble phrase ‘terrible as an army with banners.’ The full organ swell of a triumphal march might express its appeal in terms of music.”

You don’t get that kind of literary overdrive anymore!

Allen’s penchant for the Classics resulted in frequent insertions of Greek and Roman quotes (without translation), as well as poetic references. Concerning the joys of old Port, he wrote, “There are many wine-lovers who prefer the vigour and splendour of a younger wine to the more subdued and complex charms which make its old age as radiant and peaceful as that of old Cephalos in the Republic”; readers not familiar with Plato will not know that the Master asked Cephalos, already at that time a very old, wealthy man, for his definition of “justice,” which he offered as “giving what is owed.” But even if most of the Classic references go over one’s head, the language is haunting and lovely; we may not be familiar with old Cephalos, but knowing that he is “radiant and peaceful” in his dotage tells us something vital about what Saintsbury called “centennial Port.”

What can the contemporary wine writer learn from H. Warner Allen? That writing can be a vast labyrinth of meaning and beauty. It’s one thing to write, as Anthony Galloni recently did, “The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Leopoldina Vineyard is powerful and heady, with all of the intensity that is typical of this site on the eastern hills of Oakville. Dark, savory and powerful, the 2017 has so much to offer. The balance of intense dark fruit and muscular tannins makes for an absolutely compelling Cabernet.” Workaday enough; I might have written it myself for Wine Enthusiast. Contrast it with Allen, once again writing of that 1869 Latour:

“The tapestry-like purples…contained that sheen of molten gold which only comes after many years of secret ripening in the still darkness of the cellar. The French call it ‘pelure d’oignon’…which recalls the homely simile in the Nineteenth Odyssey when Odysseus’s purple tunic that glistened like the sun is compared to the sheen upon the skin of a dried onion.”

Or this, concerning an 1871 Margaux: “Its magic bouquet envelopes the senses in a cloud of airy fragrance, raspberry-scented like the breezes from the Islands of the Blest, a dream of grace and delicacy, the twinkling feet of dancing nymphs, suddenly set free in our tedious world.”

Well, you won’t read that sort of thing in Wine Enthusiast, or Wine Spectator, of the Wine Advocate, or anyplace else anymore. H. Warner Allen’s Victorian, donnish world was already over when he wrote “The Romance of Wine,” although he perhaps did not know it. History was rushing on; ordinary people no longer studied the Classics, and modern publishers demanded simpler, more easily-digestible fare for their impatient readers. But for me, “The Romance of Wine” had an indelible impact, reminding me that wine writing once was the garden in which esthetes cavorted with delight in the English language.

Classifying Cabernet? I don’t think so


The University of California at Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology asked me to donate my wine books and paraphernalia to them for permanent display, which I’m honored to do. As part of it, they want me to identify the books that were most important to me.

One of them was certainly California’s Great Cabernets, the 1989 tome by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube, my former colleague. It was, and remains, “a landmark book,” as Marvin Shanken described it in his Foreward. I devoured every word, as I suspect a lot of other Baby Boomer wine fans did, back in the day when California wine, and Cab in particular, was dramatically increasing in importance.

There is, however, one aspect of California’s Great Cabernets that has not aged well. Jim decided to classify the Cabs into five categories: First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. He justified this for two reasons: “I hope to put the top California Cabernets…in historical perspective.” And “I have tried to sort out for consumers the quality of the wines and how they rank.” Jim himself conceded that such an effort is controversial and is “resisted” by “most California vintners.” While modeling his 5-tier system after the 1855 Classification of the Medoc, Jim admitted that the Bordeaux classification is “outdated,” and he predicted, accurately, that no classification “will ever be undertaken by the California wine industry.” Still, despite these provisos, he went ahead and classified anyway.

Jim wasn’t the only writer of the era to attempt a classification. Seven years previously, Roy Andries De Groot wrote The Wines of California, which he subtitled “The first classification of the best vineyards and wineries.” Roy opted for a four-tiered system, using not numbers but adjectives: “FINE, NOBLE, SUPERB and GREAT.”

I loved both books, but even at the time, I had an uneasy feeling. The Bordeaux 1855 Classification had centuries of data upon which to depend, and was moreover fixed by law. California Cabernet, in the 1980s, had barely a few decades of serious production, and was in a state of constant evolution; my old friend Rob Thompson said keeping track of California wineries was like trying to count “rabbits in a hutch.” Many of today’s superstars (Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Bryant Family, Colgin and so on) didn’t even exist at the time, while others that Laube and De Groot praised have faded away completely, or been downgraded by new owners.

Still, as historical curiosities, both books have their place. Speaking of Cabernet Sauvignon, I opened this bottle recently, and here’s my review:

Stags’ Leap 2013 “The Leap” Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap).  Tasting this wine reminded me of those 19th century clarets I’ve read about that remained stubbornly tannic for decades. It was wicked of me to pop the cork when the wine is only eight years old; I should have known better. That’s awfully young for a Cabernet, particularly from Stags Leap, where the tannins tend to be hard in youth. But open it I did, and what I found was a flood of fruit. Massive, gigantic in black currants, blackberry jam, mu shu plum sauce and raspberries, with subtle nuances of espresso, dark chocolate and spices. Dry and smooth, just a splendid wine, but I’m kicking myself for committing vinous infanticide. It’s nowhere near ready. Will the fruit outlive the tannins by, say, 2030? Will it be alive in 2040? Who knows? I won’t be here. Score: 93.

Say goodbye to the Golden Age of Wine Writing


Robert Gorman, in his 1975 book California Premium Wines, identified “three Englishmen—Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Kathleen Bourke”—as the first “to write on California wine with any depth and sense of perspective.” This was not so much a slam on our native writers of the 1960s and 1970s, who could not have had the perspective of their much more experienced literary cousins across the pond; but it was a lament that came home to roost not ten years later, by which time American (which is to say, Californian) wine writing had descended into gobbledegook.

I was, on re-reading Gorman the other day (I’ve owned the book for decades), unfamiliar with Kathleen Bourke. It took a Google adventure to understand why: she’d been editor of the British publication Wine Magazine, the progenitor of Decanter, in the 1950s, and had given Michael Broadbent an early start in his wine-writing career. Of course, the magazine was unavailable in the States in those pre-Internet days, and so Kathleen Bourke was terra incognita for me.

Not so Harry Waugh and Hugh Johnson. Waugh wrote his inimitable wine diaries throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in his spare, leanly elegant and self-deprecating prose introduced a generation of Americans to French wine and a generation of Britishers to California wine. Hugh Johnson, of course, rose to stardom through his many books and articles, particularly his magnificent Vintage: The Story of Wine (1989); my dog-eared copy testifies to my eager devouring of every literate, lovingly crafted word, inspired no doubt by Macaulay.

In America, though, the ground broken by Bourke, Johnson and Waugh lay largely fallow, as our wine writers chose a path of greater expediency and commercialism. There was an explosion of wine books in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but few made for good reading. They might have gotten their facts straight, but 35,000 words of facts makes for dull reading. There were exceptions: Bob Thompson’s 1993 Wine Atlas of California owed everything to Hugh Johnson in terms of style and even the book’s design (no wonder: they both shared the same publisher). Matt Kramer made quite a few ripples with his books (which were much admired in Europe) but, again, while accuracy might have been his forte, readability was not.

The main reason American wine writing fell into such doldrums was because of the wine magazines. They were frankly advertising vehicles. Writers, who were paid poorly, accepted their bleak compensation with grimness, and enjoyed the non-monetary aspects of the lifestyle their jobs provided. The less said about the quality of the average wine magazine article of the 1990s, the better—and I include myself in this indictment. Prose became captive to word count (itself enslaved to advertising), as well as to the whimsy of publishers who did not want unkind things said about potential clients; and there was, also, a pedantic “magazine style” that crushed creativity. Then, too, the advent of periodicals like People magazine (along with music videos on MTV) meant that the typical American had the attention span of a hamster. Wine magazines, no less than those in other areas of the culture, gave readers brevity, with its accompanying clichés and irritating reductionism.

I at least tried to overcome all this with the publication of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River (University of California Press, 2005). It was not a commercial success, but it was an artistic one and I enjoy reading it today. Despite the magazines, there might have been, in the 2000s, a burgeoning interest among writers to aspire to Johnson-hood and Waugh-hood, but if there was, the infant was strangled in its cradle by the rise of the wine blogs. No longer was there even the appearance of writerly quality. Any yahoo could blog, for free, with the resulting democratization of vulgarity—not in the sense of obscenity, but in its Latin root-origin of unrefined crudeness. In my blog, I tried to write wittily, and think I succeeded, but I, too, succumbed all too often to the snarkiness to which bloggers remain subject.

Is there a body of American wine writing today we can admire? I have enjoyed the books of Jordan Mackay and of Benjamin Lewin, MW (another Johnson-phile), but while his dust jackets say “he divides his time between the eastern United States and the wine regions of Europe,” he is essentially British, which explains his unique literacy. There may be others of whom I am unaware. But then, I don’t pretend to keep up with wine books anymore. The Golden Age of wine writing, it seems to me, is past.

Politics, or the inner life?


Possibly because I’m a Gemini (not that I’m a big believer in astrology), I’ve always had a strongly dualistic mind. Half of me inclines toward metaphysical, mystical explanations of the world, but then the other half is strictly rational, which makes me a firm believer in science as well as in politics.

This schism is reflected in my daily interests. As readers of this blog know, my political instincts are strong and unwavering. I believe that politics is the best way for humankind to learn to live with each other and work out our differences, while avoiding bloodshed, especially in a multi-everything country like ours. I admire the rationality of politics: the objectivity of voting, of facts, of winning and losing, and of the laws which politics seeks to preserve and perfect. My aversion to Trumpism is based on my profound belief that it represents everything amoral, hostile and dangerous to the kind of country I want to live in. Trumpism, which is the current expression of the Republican Party, is an enemy worth fighting.

At the same time, I’ve always had a renunciate side of me—a kind of Hindu hermitism that seeks realization, not in the grimy, grinding politics of this world, but in the inner mind. This is why I took LSD in the 1960s and sought God; this is why I dropped out of society (in Timothy Leary’s phrase) to join a spiritual commune in the 1970s. This is why in the 1990s I devoted considerable time to the study of Kabbala with a Chasidic Jewish teacher. And this is why the most recent books I’ve read have been Carlos Castaneda’s “A Separate Reality” and Paramahansa Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.”

Although the background and setting of the two books couldn’t be more different, both tread the same metaphysical ground. Castaneda’s book deals with the Yaqui Indian culture of Mexico in the 1960s, while Yogananda’s details his upbringing in India in the early 20th century. And yet both men were nearly identical in this respect: they sought God (by whatever name), and they realized that non-participation in (or non-pollution by) the greater materialist society was essential to further their search. Castaneda headed for the Central Mexican mountain wilderness to find his guides, while Yogananda went to the Himalayas in search of his guru.

It’s weird having these two opposed points of view vying with one another in my head! Politics plunges me into the world of strife, turmoil and struggle. Mysticism removes me from that world (or tries to), letting me explore the wide open expanses of heart and mind. But are these two concepts really inimical, or do they somehow complement one another?

Politics is indeed difficult. When you win (Obama in 2008 and 2012, the midterm elections in 2018, Biden in 2020), you’re ecstatic. When you lose (the midterm elections in 2010, Trump in 2016, Merrick Garland in 2017), you’re plunged into anger and despair. Well do I know of the philosophical tradition that says winning and losing are all the same: both manifestations of Maya, of illusion—worldly grasping which the true seeker must renounce upon recognizing their illusory nature.

Well and good, but there’s an element of the ostrich sticking its head into the sand about renunciation. The poor ostrich may believe that because it cannot see the tiger rushing towards it, the tiger is not really there. But the tiger really is there, toothed and clawed. I know many people here in Oakland—a city of a fantastic diversity of religious and spiritual approaches—who loathe politics, who are serious about meditating and following their divinities (whomever they happen to be), and who think that by taking political sides (Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Green, whatever), one merely aids and abets the confusion and rancor of this world. They’re right, to a degree; but America has profound problems (poverty, social inequality, racism, sexism, global warming, homophobia, religious extremism, and all the rest of the gloomy Almanack de Gotha), and crawling off to some cave somewhere and sitting in full lotus hardly can be the cure for these problems. Or so it seems to me.

Politics is war, to be sure, a nasty business, and politicians aren’t necessarily the kind, loving persons they want us to think they are. But we’re going to be led by political leaders whether we like it or not, whether we vote or not: someone is going to be Mayor, or City Councilman, or Congressman or Senator or President, and that “someone” is going to have control over our lives and over the lives of our loved ones. Don’t we have a personal responsibility to make sure that the decision-makers are making the right decisions? My beloved friend Philip, who adorned my body with his tattoo art, absolutely scorns political involvement, including voting, as evil: he would rather go to Tibet, or Burning Man, or to a drumming ritual in the Redwoods. But as I always tell him, nearly every aspect of his life–indeed, his life itself–is determined by laws and rules made by politicians and bureaucrats: his tattoo license, the roads upon which he drives, the safety of his car, the cleanliness of the air he and his son breathe, the ability of his gay friends to marry, his freedom from having alien religions imposed upon him or of having his own (slightly Wiccan) religion discriminated against, the purity of the food he eats, the existence of a police force to protect his storefront during riots—all of these things are political in nature. Philip acknowledges these truths, but he nonetheless sticks to his loathing of politics. We agree to disagree.

For myself, I will never stop seeking the “inner truth,” but I do so not as an alternative to political involvement, but as a balance to it. The inner life, for me, is like a refreshing bath in a cool pool of crystalline water, after the heated bloodletting of political battle. The words of Carlos Castaneda (and his spiritual teacher, Don Juan) and the words of Yogananda reveal to me vistas of peace and spiritual potential that are as important as the air I breathe and the food I eat to live. I want, need and believe both in politics as a worthy struggle for man, and in mystical contemplation as the proper field of inquiry for the human mind.

« Previous Entries

Recent Comments

Recent Posts