I love it when a wine book surprises me. Here are brief reviews of two recent books that surprise in different ways.
George Gale, Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine. University of California Press, 2011.
Phylloxera — the little bug that destroys vineyards — has turned the world of wine upside down more than once and its affects continue to reverberate today. As George Gale notes in his conclusion, it is a mistake to ever think of phylloxera in the past tense. It is a global problem that can only be controlled — not eliminated — if the world’s wine growers and vine scientists continue to share their insights and work together.
Dying on the Vine is a detailed history of phylloxera that naturally focuses mainly on the U.S. (the source of the scourge) and France, where its impact was first and perhaps hardest felt and where the debate about what should be done was therefore the most heated. Gale is a good story-teller and I enjoyed the fact that he made what might be dry science and history into an engaging human tale. I’m sure the guy in the airplane seat next to me wondered how I could be so entertained by an academic publication!
But it was easy. Gale’s good research yields page after page of “ah ha!” facts that connect dots that you might already know and give you new ones to ponder. To choose just one as a teaser, consider this. Why did it take so long for phylloxera to infect French vineyards, long after the first American grape vines were planted on European soil? The answer: shipping technology. The earlier grape vine imports spent so long in the ship’s hold that the plylloxera lice died off before they could do any harm. Faster ships meant that they were still alive when they arrived in France.
What is surprising about Dying on the Vine? Well, I didn’t expect it to focus so much on the intellectual origins of the debate about what phylloxera was and what to do about it. That’s because I didn’t realize that Gale is a Phillosphy professor who thinks quite a lot about science. Phylloxera set different systems of belief and scientific ways of knowing against one another and I think it is fair to say that the battle against the vine louse could not be engaged in full until the intellectual wars had been fought and won.
I think that for Gale the battle in the vineyard is almost more important for what it teaches us about the philosophy and sociology of science than the story that it has to tell about grapes and wine. A book that can be read and enjoyed at many levels: highly recommended.
Mike Desimone and Jeff Jennsen, Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide. Sterling Epicure, 2012.
Wines of the Southern Hemisphere turns the wine world upside-down in a different way, turning the wine glass upside down on the cover and inverting the world wine map just inside. I suppose that it is true that the wines of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil don’t get the attention that they deserve. Desimone and Jenssen set out to remedy the situation by giving them a big (580 pages) volume of their own.
Here’s how the book is organized. Each country gets a short but informative overview followed by sections on the major grape varieties, the main wine regions (with brief profiles of important wineries), a handful of recipes for local dishes and interviews with several key wine figures.
Is this a “complete guide” as the cover promises? Of course not, but you’ve got to forgive that. It’s impossible to be really complete about a subject of this size. My copy of Michael Cooper’s excellent 400-page Wine Atlas of New Zealand isn’t a complete guide to that country’s wine industry (although I suspect it comes pretty close) so how can the 600 or so pages in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere be compete? Well, it obviously it can’t be. A book like this needs to be a useful introduction to the world of Southern Hemisphere wine, not the final answer, and I think it is successful on this basis.
And this is what’s surprising. When I first picked up the book I thought that it was crazy to even try to cover so much territory — can you imagine a book called Complete Guide to Wines of the Northern Hemisphere? Ridiculous!
But then as I read through the book I came to realize that it isn’t a ridiculous idea at all. The southern half of the wine world is a lot smaller than the northern half. Turn your desk globe upside down (or check out the map I’ve inserted below) and you’ll see that there isn’t very much land mass in the critical “wine belt” of 30 degrees to 50 degrees of latitude. At least not much compared with the northern hemisphere.
And once you accept that it is impossible to be truly complete, then it is possible to enjoy the book because its entries are generally relevant and well chosen. The analysis of the grape varieties is useful (more useful than I expected), the introductions to the winegrowing regions are interesting. The profiles of individual wineries are too brief — what can you do? — and there are not enough of them — an unavoidable problem, especially for the Australia chapter.
My biggest surprise? The winemaker interviews. Although the set of questions that each of the figures was asked is much the same, the answers differ quite a lot and some of them are quite revealing. A nice surprise in a book that exceeds my expectations even if it doesn’t quite live up to its “complete guide” billing.