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.

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!

Book Review: The Perfect Wine? Multi-sensory Lessons from Planet Food

Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, The Perfect Meal: The multisensory science of food and dining. (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

One of the many benefits of speaking at Wine Vision 2014 in London last year was being able to participate in a multi-sensory wine tasting demonstration presented by Oxford professors Barry Smith and Charles Spence. As the Harpers report of the event explained, “it is not enough to get the liquid right” because how we experience a wine depends on many factors that can have both positive and negative effects.

Nose Clips and Jelly Beans

I have talked about this as “wine in context” and I wrote about it on The Wine Economist and then again in the first chapter of my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. Professors Smith and Spence are way ahead of my experiments and they were able to make many useful points in just a few minutes.

One quick experiment invited us to match wine with music, a task that Sue and I repeated in greater detail a few weeks ago at a lecture by Callifornia winemaker  Clark Smith. He actually had us hold a particular Chardonnay in our mouths for a few seconds and, by switching musical selection, changed the sensation from sweet to bitter. Unbelievable!winevision

One of my favorite moments at the Wine Vision seminar (captured in this photo collage) came when we were asked to put special clips on our noses so that the sense of smell was suppressed. Then we popped jelly beans into our mouths and … there was no flavor. None!  Now take the clip off, Prof. Spence directed, and a world of intense flavors erupted.   I knew that aroma was important to taste, but I have never seen it demonstrated so effectively. (And it was hilarious to see all of us standing around with nose clips popping jelly beans!)

The overall message was that wine is about more than what’s in the glass and that this is important both to consumers who want to enjoy wine and to the Wine Vision audience, made up of people who want to make and sell wine. And, as the jelly bean case showed, it isn’t just wine that depends on the multi-sensory context, it is everything and there may be much to learn from analysis of other products that can be applied to wine.

What Can  Planet Wine Learn from Planet Food?

Given all this, you can understand why I was interested in reading Prof. Spence’s The Perfect Meal, which usefully synthesizes the vast literature on multi-sensory analysis over on Planet Food.  Topics include

  • menus and service,
  • the art and science of food description,
  • the impact of plating, plateware and cutlery,
  • the  multi-sensory perception of flavor,
  • the role of surprise,
  • dining in the dark,
  • atmosphere,
  • technology and finally
  • the future of the perfect meal.

The idea is clearly that a dining experience can be improved through careful attention to each aspect of the experience. This is obviously also true for wine and in fact I think you can probably think of a wine analog for each of the dining factors I listed in the previous paragraph (glassware = plateware, for example).

I learned a great deal about dining and sensory analysis from The Perfect Meal, but of course my real purpose was to open up my thinking about wine — to think outside the wine bottle, if you know what I mean. Wine appears just once in the book — on page 56 in a discussion about the enormous variation in restaurant wine prices (same wine, much different price at the restaurant down the street), but ideas popped into my head in just about every chapter.

The Organic Wine Paradox

Here’s one example just to whet your appetite. Here on Planet Wine we suffer from what I call the Organic Wine paradox. Consumers seem to be increasingly interested in all things organic and your typical upscale supermarket features more and more organic products. But wine seems to be  lagging behind. Winegrowers are increasingly interested in going organic, but they are pushing on a string. Why don’t consumers pull organic wine along to a greater extent?

The Perfect Meal‘s authors report that attitudes towards organic foods are quite context sensitive and it is not always easy to predict whether an organic indicator will be a plus or a minus. They  report (pages 87-88) that when American consumers were surveyed about organic fruits and vegetables a frequent (28%) attitude (especially among those who indicated a low concern for the environment) was that the organic products would be healthier but have poorer taste. So organic can be a turn off, at least some of the time. Other studies found that consumers could find no taste difference between the organic and conventional fruits and veggies in blind tastings, so where did that attitude come from? Go figure.

Another study looked at cookies. The test subjects were presented with the same cookies, sometimes labelled organic and sometimes not. They apparently enjoyed the organic cookies s lot and bestowed on them  a kind of  “halo effect” because they associated them with lower calories even when there was no objective difference in calories, taste, etc. It’s all in our heads, I guess, and that’s important to remember.

There is much more to be said about the research into perceptions of organic foods, but let’s stop here and think about what we’ve learned. The success of  organic foods generally masks some real complicated consumer behavior. When the food is inherently healthy (fresh fruit) some consumers will see organic as a potential negative, but when the product is unhealthy to begin with (cookies) organic can be seen as a plus. So where does wine fit into this? In different ways for different consumers, I’ll bet, and the impact of an “organic” designation probably depends on other context factors, such as whether the wine is sold in Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or some other “green and organic” retailer. Organic wines face a very complicated consumer environment!

This is not the only example I could cite and probably not the best once, but it gives a sense of what The Perfect Meal offers to those of us on Planet Wine. An interesting read if you want to think outside the bottle!

Fortune Excerpt: How Champagne Changed the Global Economy

My new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated is finally out and did not waste any time in publishing an excerpt.

The Fortune editors couldn’t resist Chapter 10, which is called “Anything But Champagne” and published an excerpt under the heading “How Champagne changed the global economy.” I will paste the first couple of paragraphs of the excerpt below. Click on this link to zoom off the to  for the whole excerpt.

Anything But Champagne? What does that mean? Well, money, taste and Champagne have many sides, which I discuss in the chapter, but I end up concluding that Champagne has actually has had tremendous but under-appreciated impact on the global system. Could Anything But Champagne have changed the world so dramatically? I don’t think so! A toast to Champagne (and to Fortune and my new book, too).

(Editor’s note:  Amazon has now released the Kindle edition of Money, Taste, and Wine and implemented the “Look Inside” feature that lets you read the first pages of the book without buying.) Here’s how the Fortune excerpt begins …

In this excerpt from his book, Money, Taste & Wine—It’s Complicated!, Mike Veseth shows how vigilant vintners created the law of the land for regional food and wine.

Money, taste, and wine come together in an explosive combination when we consider Champagne. There are many reasons to love Champagne, and some to dislike it, and it is natural that different people will come down on different sides. But for me, the biggest factor is one that I haven’t yet mentioned but that I can no longer avoid. How you feel about Champagne may depend a bit about how you feel about the world—or at least the wine world. …  Click here see the entire Fortune article.

I’ve created a page to house links to reviews of the excerpts from Money, Taste, and Wine as they appear. Click on the link to see what people are saying!

Thanks to the editors for making this excerpt possible. Cheers!

It’s Here at Last! Money, Taste & Wine: It’s Complicated!

Today is a big day here at The Wine Economist. August 4 is the official release date for my new book,  Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated!  

It’s Complicated!

I really enjoyed writing Money, Taste, and Wine and look forward to reader reactions to it. The early reviews have been very positive and the book even spent some time as #1 among pre-release books in its Amazon category.

Money, Taste and Wine started out as an attempt to write something that would help wine buyers make sense of the complicated wine wall that we all confront when we go to make a purchase. So many brands, so many regions, so many grape varieties. Yikes! No wonder people try to simplify and the common denominator they sometimes focus on is price. This leads to “The Wine Buyer’s Biggest Mistake,” which is the first chapter of the book.

The Wine Buyer’s Biggest Mistake

What’s the biggest mistake? Confusing price and quality, of course. We all know it is wrong. We’ve all fallen for the “higher price = higher quality” trap at one point or another. Having pointed out the big mistake, I offer a solution in a chapter called “Wine Drinker: Know Thyself.”

Once I got rolling I realized that there were dozens of different ways that money, taste and wine get mixed up — sometimes the result is divine and sometimes not so much. Before I knew it, I had a book! I will paste the table of contents below so that you can see what topics are covered.

You will find Money, Taste, and Wine at all the usual online and brick-and-mortar locations. Click on the Amazon, IndieBound, Powell’s or Barnes & Noble button to order your copy today (talk about Shameless Self-Promotion!).

It is a Mistake to Write a Book About Complicated Wine?

Is it a mistake to write a book about wine’s complicated nature in a world where many people are looking for “Wine for Dummies” simplicity? I hope not! Certainly this blog, The Wine Economist, seems to attract readers searching for a more complex understanding. Looking forward to hearing what you think of the latest effort. Cheers!

Money, Taste & Wine: It’s Complicated!

Table of Contents

Part I: Buyer Beware!

1. The Wine Buyer’s Biggest Mistake

2. Anatomy of a Complicated Relationship

3. Wine Drinker, Know Thyself

Part II: Get a Clue! Searching for Buried Treasures

4. Dump Bucket Wines

5. Treasure Island Wines

6. Bulk Up: Big Bag, Big Box Wines

7. Sometimes the Best Wine is a Beer (or a Cider!)

Part III: A Rosé is a Rosé? Money, Taste & Identity

8. More than Just a Label: Wine’s Identity Crisis?

9. Wine Snobs, Cheese Bores and the Globalization Paradox

10. Anything But Champagne

Part IV: What Money Can (and Can’t) Buy

11. Restaurant Wars

 12. Follow the Money

13. Invisible Cities, Imaginary Wines

 14. Groot Expectations


Selected References


Book Review: Oz Clarke’s History of Wine in 100 Bottles

Oz Clarke, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond. Sterling Epicure, 2015.

It was a brilliant idea. Select 100 items from the massive collection of The British Museum and then present them, one at a time and in chronological order, to create “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”

Simply Irresistible

It was an instant hit with history-hungry Britain. Never have the artifacts of the British  Museum’s collection been so closely studied and appreciated by millions! And of course the use of physical objects of various sorts was perfect because, as we all know, we are living in a material world and so telling the story of civilization through material goods is simply irresistible. You can see a list of the objects here and briefly view each one in the 5 minute video below.

In another brilliant move, the organizers did not present the series on the television or the internet as you might expect but via one-hundred short  15-minute BBC Radio 4 broadcasts starting on January 18, 2010 and ending on October 22 of that year. Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, wrote and narrated all the episodes.

The combination of rich language plus fertile imagination inspired listeners to seek out information about the objects  through all available means including visits to the British Museum (which must have been one of the goals of the enterprise). Watch the video and click on the website link — maybe the hundred objects will fascinate you as they have so many others.


100 Bottles of Wine on the Wall

Oz Clarke takes something of the same approach to the history of wine in his new book and the result is very appealing indeed. Clarke’s challenge is to tell the story of wine in 100 short, punchy, chronologically-ordered episodes. Some of the chapters are about actual bottles as promised by the book’s title (1964, for example, is a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy), but most are the stories of people, events or forces that shaped significantly the world of wine.

Thus 1855 is the Bordeaux Classification of that year and 1863 is Phylloxera. 1965 marks the invention of bag-in-box containers and 1976 the famous Judgement of Paris.  The story begins with the invention (or was it a discovery?) of wine in about 6000 BC and concludes with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine fraud conviction in 2014.

I think there is something here for all wine-lovers to enjoy and appreciate, although I understand that some will criticize the entries for being too brief  (more of the 2-page landscape given to each entry goes to images than to text) and others will find fault with the particular entries chosen and not.  Regarding the depth of analysis, I think you have to accept this for what it is and, like the BBC/British Museum project, see this as an invitation to further study rather than a much too brief final chapter.

Regarding the topics the Clarke included versus those left out, I think it is inevitable that people disagree about what’s most important — and maybe there’s fun in arguing about it a bit. I was pleased that many of the people, events and forces that I have written about here on The Wine Economist and in my books were important enough to be included in Clarke’s book.  I’ll gladly defer to him where we might disagree because after all it is his book not mine, but I was happy that we agree in so many areas.

For example my chapter on “Extreme Wine People” in Extreme Wine highlights a number of individuals who transformed the idea of wine in one way or another. Almost all of them make Clarke’s list including Robert Mondavi (1966), Angelo Gaja (1968). David Lett (1975) and Nicholas Catena (1994). I highlighted Montana’s Brancott Estate in Wine Wars because that’s where the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Marlborough, New Zealand. Sure enough, that’s Clarke’s entry for 1983,  And world’s highest vineyards (in the Salta region of Argentina) appeared in the first chapter of Extreme Wine and as the entry for 2006 here.

Here’s a selection of other chapter entries to whet your appetite and give you a sense of the variety of topics presented: Pompeii (79 AD), Tokaji (1571), Constantia (1685), Dom Perignon (1690s). Chianti (1716), Louis Pasteur (1860), Vega Sicilia (1915), Mateus (1942), Emile Peynaud (1949), Robert Parker (1978), Canadian Ice Wine (1991) and China (2011).

The History of Wine n 100 Bottles is fun and informative — a great gift for your wine enthusiast friends and a colorful addition to any wine bookshelf.

By the way, if you are interested in projects like these, you might also want to read Tom Standage’s 2006 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses. The glasses, in chronological order, are filled with beer (in Mesopotamia and Egypt), wine (in Greece and Rome), spirits (in the Colonial Period), coffee (in the Age of Reason), tea (the British Empire) and Coca-Cola (in the American Century). There’s a seventh glass that represents the future. What does it hold? Water, of course.

My Hidden Agenda

I was keen to get a copy of Oz Clarke’s book when it was published because I’ve started work on a project that has something of the same flavor. Although  Money, Taste and Wine: It’s Complicated won’t be released until August, I’ve been at work for some time now on the next book in the series, which I’m calling Around the World in 80 Wines. Don’t you think that’s a great title? My challenge is to write a great book to go with it!

I wanted to see what Oz Clarke would do with his hundred wines and, while I can’t fault his use of the BBC/British Museum model, that’s not the way that I’m headed. Clarke and the BBC make a journey through time and I’m traveling through space — around the world, with 20 stops (chapters) and 80 wines. Some chapters search out and find a single most significant wine story wine while others reveal a treasure trove of different wines — or search and search and come up empty. How annoying!

But journey’s don’t reveal their significance all at once or in carefully measured doses. They ebb and flow like life itself and that’s what I’m going to try to capture. I’m sure that some will second-guess my choices and want more depth here and less there but, as with the BBC/British Museum’s series and Oz Clarke’s new book, I think you’ll find the result worth the effort. — fun, interesting. Maybe even irresistible!


Sorry, I couldn’t resist.


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