Book Review: Richard G. Peterson, An American Life in Wine

Richard G. Peterson, The Winemaker. Meadowlark Publishing, 2015.

I was going to title this review “A Life in American Wine,” but Richard Peterson’s autobiography is all-American through and through starting from humble Iowa origins on to university at Iowa State, a tour in the Marine Corps and then  a Masters in Food Science and PhD in Agricultural Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley (the Davis campus was not yet a reality). Quite a journey for a coal-miner’s son.

Wine was part of the story from the early days. The photo on the cover shows Peterson making his first batch of wine in Iowa. The grapes were Concord. The year was 1948. He was 17 years of age.

The Research Lab at Gallo

As he was finishing his Ph.D. in 1958 Peterson was approached to come work in a new research lab at E&J Gallo, which was at that time the third largest wine producer in the U.S. after Roma and Italian Swiss Colony. Gallo was riding high on the basis of the success of Thunderbird and they wanted scientific rigor as they worked on both developing new products and improving the quality of existing ones. In retrospect, this was probably one of the best places to be in American wine at the time as the Gallos were willing and able to put resources into wine research and development.

Reading Peterson’s account of his time at Gallo and the people and products he found there is pure pleasure. It is a very personal account, not an academic study, and it gives the best insight I know into what was happening deep inside the industry in the 1960s when the foundations for the rise of American wine were being laid.

Working with Tchelistcheff

Peterson moved his family to Napa Valley in 1968 and started a new job. Where do you suppose one goes from Gallo? It is easy to think about American wine as being sharply divided into industrial wine and craft wine, but I have always maintained that American wine is more complicated than that and Peterson’s next step proves it. After much thought and many interviews, Andre Tchelistcheff hired Richard Peterson to work with him and eventually to take his place at Beaulieu Vineyards, one of Napa’s crown jewels.

Peterson stayed at Beaulieu through the sale to Heublein, leaving in 1973 and moving to an ambitious new project called The Monterey Vineyard. He stayed on as this project evolved into Taylor California Cellars with Coca Cola and then under Seagrams ownership. He moved to another ambitious new winery project, which Sue and I have recently visited. Today it is called Antica Napa, an outpost of the Antinori family in Napa Valley, but it was originally called Atlas Peak, a partnership between Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne and Piero Antinori.  Peterson built the elaborate cave system that we visited on our trip among other achievements here.

Gallo, Tchelistcheff, Antinori — quite a resume, don’t  you think? Peterson’s book takes the curious reader through wine science, wine history and wine business. There are several key themes. One is the importance of quality, even for inexpensive wines. This could be called “the Curse of the Thompson Seedless Grape.” A second theme deals with Peterson’s experiences working with people who know the wine industry or are willing to learn (Gallo and Coca Cola get good grades here) versus those who don’t understand wine or prefer to be ignorant (Hublein and Seagrams among others).

Bronco and Peynaud

One of my favorite parts of this book is a story that Peterson tells about some consulting work he did for Fred Franzia. Fred wanted to make sure that the Bronco winery in Ceres was doing everything right, so he paid Peterson to come around regularly and be a snooping “Big Brother” — seeing all, hearing all, and calling Bronco out if there was an issue. Peterson had contracted with Bronco for wine stocks when he ran Taylor California Cellar and he had a high regard for the winery’s quality and consistency. The attention to detail he saw on his inspections explained it all.

I was also fascinated by the brief section on Peterson’s work with Emile Peynaud. They couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but they found a way to speak wine, which I guess is a universal language. So many interesting stories here. Peterson is a lucky guy — what an interesting life!

Richard Peterson is generous with his praise and sympathetic with those who made honest mistakes, but very sharp with people and companies who tried to take unfair advantage of situations. Not everyone will be pleased with how they are portrayed in this book. It is a very personal account of American wine, told by a real insider. It is very much worth a place on your wine bookshelf.

Book Review: Tom Acitelli on How American Wine Came of Age

Tom Acitelli, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Chicago Review Press, 2015.

At one point when I was working on my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated I realized that I needed to know more about how the craft beer industry developed here in the United States. So I talked with a lot of people and read a lot of articles and books on the subject.

One of my favorite references was a brisk and informative 2013 book by Tom Acitelli that he named The Audacity of Hops , an audacious play on the title of Barack Obama’s best-selling book,  The Audacity of Hope.  

Actitelli’s  beer book was useful and entertaining. It was packed full of information, but organized in an interesting way around personalities and key events. I have recommended it to several friends as a great introduction to the craft beer movement. Now Acitelli has written a wine book, too, and it fits the same profile: usefullly packed full of information and entertaining, too. I am pleased to recommend it to my friends.

An American Tale

Acitelli sets out to explain how the American wine market rose to become the largest in the world, starting more or less in the 1960s and moving on to the current vibrant wine scene.  Those 50 years are packed full of history, so it is necessary to pick and choose who and what to highlight and what factors to skip over.

The main thread will be familiar to many wine readers, drawing a line from Andre Tchelistcheff to Robert Mondavi and Mike Grgich, Jim Barnett, Warren Winiariski, and on to Randall Grahm and other familiar names. Defining moments are located in this narrative, including especially the founding of the Robert Mondavi Winery and the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting.

These stories are familiar and important, but what I found interesting was Acitelli’s ability to uncork unexpected facts and insights. It is clear that his writing ability is matched by his research skills. 

American Wine Culture

Although American Wine is the title of this book, it could have been named American Wine Culture because the story of how American attitudes toward wine changed is given at least equal treatment to the development of the wine industry itself. Thus, for example, the book begins not in a vineyard in Napa nor a cellar in Sonoma but in a restaurant in France where we meet Julia Child, the American who would  become television’s The French Chef.

Julia Child? Julia was not a particularly important shaper of American wine, but she was important in the transformation of American attitudes and behaviors about food and life, which has implications for wine. American wine would not be what it is today without the great cultural shift that Child helped lead.

In my 2011 book Wine Wars I wrote that Robert Mondavi tried to do for American wine what Julia Child tried to do for American cuisine. Taken together over a long period of time and in company of many others, it was a powerful movement. The intellectual and cultural transformation of America was a necessary pre-requisite for the growth of American wine.

American Wine Beyond the Headlines

Acitelli writes that, “A few events, the coverage they engendered, and a surprisingly few individuals changed all that [U.S. wine culture].” This focus on a small number defining moments like Sideways and the Judgement of Paris, media reactions, and famous names like Parker and Mondavi helps the author tell the story, and he tells it very well and in good depth, but it is a narrower story than the one I understand.  I would nudge the breadth versus depth trade-off needle just a little bit the other way.

I’d happily trade yet another Robert Parker story, for example, for a fuller account of Oregon’s stunning emergence and how that altered both American wine itself and the idea of what wine could be in America. Oregon pioneer David Lett, alas, gets but a single mention here as one of a group of Davis boys who went north.

There are so many great tales in the rise of American wine that I wish even more of them appeared here. But it is impossible to tell every story or fully satisfy every reader and that doesn’t diminish my respect for this book , which I happily recommend to novice and expert alike  Great story-teller (Acitelli) meets great story (wine in America) — it’s a perfect pairing. Cheers!


If American Wine is the story of the last 50 years of wine in the United States as told from the outside in (stressing media, culture, international influences and reception), what would an inside-out story look like? Come back next week to find out.

Jerry Lockspeiser Reviews Money, Taste & Wine for Harpers Wine & Spirit

Thanks to Jerry Lockspeiser  for his review of Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated  at the Harpers Wine & Spirit website.  It’s a warm and generous review and I think Jerry has caught the spirit of what I was trying to accomplish in the book. Many thanks.

Please click on the link to read the entire review. You can find links to all the review here. Here’s a quick “blurb” excerpt to whet your appetite.

“Mike Veseth appears to be on a mission . . . in discussing aspects of the wine world in a language ordinary mortals can understand. . . . He is so adept at making complex issues fun and accessible. This book should appeal to wine consumers and professionals intrigued to understand more about the issues behind the product itself.”

Wine Sustainability & Sensory Analysis Congresses at SIMEI 2015

milan1I am pleased to report that I will be speaking at two international wine congresses in Milan, Italy next month.

I’ll be speaking at  the International Congress on Sustainability “SUSTAINABILITY AS A TRIBUTE TO WINE QUALITY” on 3rd November 2015  and “DISCOVER THE SENSORY FACTORS” on 4th November 2015 during the 26th edition of SIMEI – International Enological and Bottling Equipment Exhibition in Milan, Italy. This event is sponsored by the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.

The congresses feature innovative and interactive programs and an impressive group of speakers and participants. I am very pleased to take part! Here is a description taken from the conference website.

“For the 2015 edition of SIMEI – International Enological and Bottling Equipment Exhibition – the WORLD LEADER in wine technology and the only international biennial exhibition which presents at the same time machinery, equipment and products for production, bottling and packaging  of all drinks, Unione Italiana Vini has confirmed its commitment in the organization of global hot topics congresses.”

milan2“The Congress will develop two different but strictly connected topics and will involve the most authoritative international experts of the scientific community. Prominent personalities have already been invited to participate in two complementary Steering Committees, chaired by two recognized international icons, the likes of Ettore Capri (Opera Research Centre- Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore) and Anita Oberholster (Enology Department of Viticulture and Enology- UC Davis).
“Stakeholders from the wine chain will fully be involved: farmers, service providers, operators of sustainability programs, retailers and the trade in general, consumers will be called to participate in an event that will exploit modern techniques of interactive participation.”
“That is the natural sequel of the International Congress that was held during Simei 2013 (SUSTAINABLE VITICULTURE AND WINE PRODUCTION: STEPS AHEAD TOWARD A GLOBAL AND LOCAL cross-fertilization).”
Here are two videos that explain the international congresses and another that shows what SIMEI is all about.

Now in Paperback: Extreme Wine

The paperback edition of my 2013 book Extreme Wine has been released, taking its place with the hardback, e-book and audio-book versions. Now there is really no excuse for not having a copy of Extreme Wine with you wherever you are!

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do it all the time, which is why wine producers give so much attention to their label designs. Extreme Wine‘s paperback design is even more attractive than the hardback — there is something about the way the colors come through on the paperback that makes the package “pop.”

Lighter, less expensive and even more beautiful — Extreme Wine paperback has it all. Talk about shameless self-promotion!

A Backseat Reader’s Guide to the Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, The Oxford Companion to Wine 4/e.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

I started teaching a university course called The Idea of Wine at about the time that the third edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine appeared and it was such a fantastic reference that I had my students purchase it and read various entries for each class session along with other books and articles.

The Curse of the Backseat Reader

One day about a month into the class I asked the students to give me feedback about the various readings. When it came to the Oxford Companion there was nearly unanimous praise. Concise, detailed, informed, well-written — they liked everything about it except its heavy weight, which burdened their backpacks.

One student disagreed.  What don’t you like about the book, I asked? All the other students seem to enjoy it? “Well, they didn’t have to listen to my father reading article after article to me from the backseat of the car all the way back from San Francisco!” 

Yes, I suppose that could get tedious. The Oxford Companion does invite a certain kind of use that I now call Backseat Reading. Start anywhere in the book and whatever article you have chosen will suggest two or three others to jump to. The number grows and grows and pretty soon an hour has slipped away most agreeably.

Backseat reading. Pure pleasure for the reader with a book like this, but hard on the daughter up front in the driver seat who has to endure endless interruptions. “Hey, listen to this!” “Hey, did you know this?” And on and on and (I am sure it seemed) on some more.

There are at least two ways to read the Oxford Companion — look up an entry, read and digest it. Or let yourself surf the book as you would surf the net. Either way it is a great addition to your bookshelf.

New and Improved!

So what’s new about the fourth edition? Well, the format is the same, with alphabetically listed cross-referenced articles that range in length from a couple of paragraphs to several pages. There are maps, too, although you won’t mistake this for a wine atlas. The utility my students found is here as well as is the pure pleasure of the backseat reader. It is still heavy (unless you buy the digital edition, of course) — the Oxford editors limited Jancis and Julia to a 4 percent increase in total word count.

By the numbers, here are now 4104 entries written by 187 authors. The count of new entries is 300 starting with “access system, wine” (Coravin and other wine dispensing systems) and Accolade Wines (formerly part of Constellation) to WSET, Zametovka, and Zelen (the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and two grape varieties from Slovenia respectively).

Beyond the numbers, entries have been thoroughly rewritten and updated as necessary to take into account the hundreds of ways the world wine map has changed. New research, new trends, new players, new rules, new priorities. No wonder we needed a new edition. I found the articles very fresh, which is not always the case with revisions. The authors and editors have done  a distinct service to the wine world with this edition.

A great resource, great source of pleasure for wine lover and in every respect even better than before. Cheers to Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. What an incredible achievement!  Highly recommended — just don’t let your dad get in the backseat with it!

“Wine By Numbers” and the Wine Market Data Trilemma

Readers send me email every week looking for wine economics data because they frequently get frustrated trying to find current information about wine consumption, production, prices and trade. Lots of data are collected, but it isn’t always easy to sort through and it is often available only at a cost (frequently a very high cost).

Sometimes it seems like there is a wine economics data trilemma (I talk about trilemmas in my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated).  Researchers want the three Cs: data that is current, complete and cheap (free is even better), but it is hard to get all three.

Current and complete will cost you. Current and cheap is sometimes available, but it might not be complete. Complete and cheap, yes, but maybe a bit dated. You can probably think of examples of all three “trilemma” trade-offs.

There may not be a solution to this trilemma, but I am always looking for resources that can help fill in the gaps and I think I have found one in “Wine by Numbers,” which is provided by Il Corriere Vinicola and the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.  The website explains its purpose this way

The first web magazine dedicated to the international wine trade. Data and figures of the main exporter and importer countries at a glance: Italy, France, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Brazil.

The data are exposed in tables and figures with details on packaged wines, bulk and sparkling, showed in volume, value and average price.

Free monthly and annual pdf publications are provided by “Wine by Numbers” and, while they don’t eliminate the trilemma issue, they are great resources for anyone wishing to know more about world wine markets.


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