Saving our Skins: French Vineyard Dreams (and Reality)

Caro Feely, Saving our Skins: Building a Vineyard Dream in France. Summersdale Publishers, 2014.

Caro Feely, Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France. Summersdale Publishers, 2012.

Caro Feely is an economist and a dreamer and so there was bound to be a bit of cognitive dissonance when she and her husband Sean and their two daughters pulled up stakes in Dublin and moved to Saussignac to grow grapes, make wine and live the dream instead of just dreaming it.

The Vines Aren’t the Only Ones that are Stressed!

Cognitive dissonance? Yes, that’s the stress that you feel when you try to believe two contradictory things at the same time and there cannot be two thoughts that are much more in contradiction than the idea of taking over a dilapidated house and run down vineyard and cellar and making great wine and the notion that you will be able to pay the bills and support a family in the process.

The easiest way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a big one, they say, and the Feely fortune was not all that big to begin with. Stress? Yes, lots of stress.  And two fine books, too.

I’m not quite sure if Feely’s 2012 book Grape Expectations was written as a creative outlet, a cheap form of therapy or to generate an additional revenue stream, but it is a delightful book that I recommend to all my friends. Feely tells her family’s story and the book could be placed on a shelf along with Under the Tuscan Sun or A Year in Provence because of its ability to give all of us a peek at expat daily life in a suitably romantic setting,

More Than Just a Good Story

But while there’s enough romance in Feely’s book to make it attractive to someone looking for an escape, it is the reality of her situation that appeals most to me. Besides telling a good story about her family’s experiences she also teaches us a great deal about the arts and craft of winegrowing and the economics of the wine business, with its peculiar challenges and opportunities.

I enjoyed Grape Expectations enormously, so I couldn’t wait for the sequel, Saving our Skins, which is released this month.  The Feely saga continues in the new book, but with a twist. Having survived their first vintages with their marriage, home and business intact, Caro and Sean take the possibly fatal step of pushing things to a new extreme.  They decide to go biodynamic. Yikes!

Biodynamics brings with it a new set of cognitive dissonant stresses and strains, which is tough on the Feelys who must struggle through them but good news for us, because we get to pleasantly continue our wine-growing and wine business educations.

Both books are highly recommended. Great summer (or anytime) reading.

>>><<<

This video leans toward the romantic side more than the books do, but it does let you view the Feely’s property. Sean is the fellow with long hair, Caro has short hair and glasses. Look closely for their daughters. Click here to read about their winery and wines.

Wine and Identity: Branding, Heritage and Terroir — a review

Matt Harvey, Leanne White and Warwick Frost (editors), Wine and Identity: Branding, heritage, terroir. Routledge, 2014.

The premise of this interesting collection of academic papers is that the global wine market is highly competitive and rapidly changing and, in this dynamic environment, identity has become an increasingly important factor in the way that wine is thought about, experienced and especially how it is marketed.

Harvey, White and Frost, Australian professors of law, marketing and tourism respectively, analyze wine and identity in terms of heritage, branding and terroir — three flexible but useful “created” concepts.

You might think that heritage and terroir are historical and natural phenomena whereas brands are manufactured by marketers, but when you think about it heritage and terroir are subject to the same story-telling factors as commercial brands and are perhaps more powerful because unlike a created brand they bring with them a sense of authenticity.

Like many others, I see story-telling and identity as key to wine in the 21st century, so I was excited to receive this volume and I find it well-written, interesting and wholly worthwhile. I think anyone who wants to understand wine a bit better will find something useful here.

Each of the 18 chapters presents a relatively brief introduction to an interesting topic — enough to whet the appetite for more research and raise some thoughtful questions. Chapters that I found interesting include a comparison of wine heritage in California and Victoria (Australia), two regions with a great deal in common besides their wine, a comparison of wine in the “emerging” markets of Malaysia and the United States that made me rethink what I thought I knew about the U.S., and heritage and tourism in the Barossa Valley examined through case studies of Penfolds and Jacobs Creek, two wineries now owned by multinational firms.

I also enjoyed chapters on identity as expressed through winery architecture and an unexpected analysis of online “terroir.” There was something to like in every chapter, although as with every collected papers volume some parts will be more interesting to any given reader than others and the heritage-branding-terroir theme sometimes gets lost.

The authors of the chapters are appropriately multinational — Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada, Brazil, Georgia, Slovenia, the UK and South Africa are represented. Well worth reading. Part of the Routledge series on gastronomy, food and drink.

>>><<<

Note: Since I am an economist, I have to mention cost. Academic books like this are expensive for personal purchases. You might see if your local library has a copy or can borrow one for you.

 

Enthralled by Wine Wars! Jerry Lockspeiser’s Review

I was surprised to discover a nice review of my books Wine Wars and Extreme Wine penned by Jerry Lockspeiser when I checked the Harpers.co.uk website this morning.

The column is titled “Jerry Lockeiser is enthralled by the wine business insights of Mike Veseth.” Wow!

Thanks to Jerry for his kind words and gentle critique. Click on the link above to read the review.

 

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer: Exploring the Native Wine Grapes of Italy

Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. University of California Press, 2014.

I really didn’t think there was much left to be said about wine grape varieties after Jancis Robinson and her team published Wine Grapes, their magisterial analysis of 1365 different grape varieties. (There’s a nifty Kindle version of this 2012 volume available now for you e-Book fans.)

Been There, Done That?

So I was skeptical when this big book arrived in the mail — it looked like a lot of pages and text given that the subject is just one country, even one as viticulturally complicated as Italy. Was there really enough new and interesting to justify adding a volume like this to my already-groaning wine bookshelf.

Well, I am pleased to say that I was wrong to be such a skeptic and that I find Ian D’Agata’s just released book to be detailed, interesting and original and I recommend to anyone interested in Italian wines or the topic of native wine grapes generally. It is a seriously fascinating read.

The book begins with two chapters that set the stage then drills down through the layers  starting with major grape groups and families (familiar names to most of us), moving on to major native and traditional grape varieties (less familiar names here), “little known” (not lesser or minor) grape varieties, and then by a brief chapter on “crossings.”

Italy Beyond the Usual Suspects

Suspicious of how much there might be to learn, I started with three grape varieties that I know pretty well and have written about, Pignoletto from Emilia-Romanga, Lacrima from Marche and Piedmont’s Ruché. Reading through the entries was a humbling experience because there was so much more to know about these grapes and the wines produced from them than I ever imagined.

The grape variety entries are detailed and very personal, which makes them a pleasure to read, with notes about specific producers and occasional specific wine recommendation. The notes on the major grape varieties such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are particularly detailed and informative, as you would expect, but what about the less-known grapes?

Well, there are dozens of them analyzed here, so I decided to try to narrow the focus be reading only the entries for grapes from Emilia-Romagna —  I am somewhat less ignorant of this region than other parts of Italy because I lived for a time in Bologna when I taught at the Johns Hopkins center there.

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer

The list of little known grapes from this area was still very long and in some cases just a few rows of vines remained.  D’Agata treats each carefully and occasionally pleads for someone to step in and save a promising grape variety from extinction. Obviously one purpose of the book is to raise awareness of these grapes and the wines made from them and to support those who seek to preserve them.

My favorite “lesser known” grape variety? It has to be Mostosa, so named it is said because of the large quantities of must (mosto) that it produces and the large quantities of wine that result. A productive grape, you might say, and perhaps for that reason is sometimes associated with a wine known as Pagadebit (debt-payer).  Fine wine or Chateau Cash Flow? I’ve gotta get back to Bologna to find out.

D’Agata’s book caught me by surprise and has earned a place on this skeptic’s wine book wall. I can’t wait to take it with me to Italy and let it guide me to some fascinating new experiences.

>>><<<

If you find this interesting you might want to check out De Long’s Wine Map of Italy – beautiful and informative.

Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!

P1080448

Jamie Goode’s New Book: Second Thoughts on Wine Science

Jamie Goode, The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass 2/e. University of California Press, 2014.

Jamie Goode’s 2005 book on The Science of Wine is one of my favorites — I’ve read it from cover to cover twice and I dip back in all the time to research specific topics. It seems like there is always more to learn and I enjoy Goode’s teaching style.

I was excited to receive a copy of the new edition and to see what’s new in this important field and how much of a revision the new book represents.

Vineyard to Cellar to Your Glass

The basic organization of the earlier edition is preserved. We begin “In the Vineyard,” move on “In the Winery” and finish with “Our Interaction with Wine” (these are the titles of the main sections of the book — I have copied the Tables of Contents of both volumes below for your reference.

g2

Table of Contents — 2014 edition

 

Once you drill down, however, the extent of the revisions become clear. New chapters replace some of the old ones (the chapter on GM vines is gone, with a new one on Phylloxera and ungrafted vines in its place) and there is much new wine in the old chapter bottles as Goode identifies new issues, reports new research, and brings in new perspectives.

Goode was still working his “day job” as a science editor when the original book appeared. Since then he has embraced wine writing as a full-time occupation and this book reflects his more intense focus as well as the many wine industry people he has met in his global travels. His interviews with them contribute to the analysis throughout.

Substitutes or Complements?

One thing that hasn’t changed from the first edition (a legacy of Goode’s editor days) is his clear and interesting writing style, even when things get quite technical, as they sometimes must in a book like this. One of Goode’s go-to methods is to identify an issue and then pick it apart by asking questions and answering them. Simple, but effective. You always know what he is talking about and why. Clear, direct — a good model for writing on any topic.

I read the second edition over the course of a couple of long air flights and like the first edition it held my interest all the way. But I think  it will be especially valuable as a reference book that you pull off the shelf as you try to answer troublesome questions or get up to speed on research quickly.

Both books are valuable, but does the second edition replace the first or complement it? I’m not sure. I was going to give my first edition away, but now I’m thinking about keeping it, since some issues in the old volume are not discussed in as much depth in the new. And I think it will be useful on some issues to compare and contrast the two volumes to analyze how Goode’s thinking (and the research that backs it up) changed over time. Highly recommended!

g1-002

Table of Contents – 2005 Edition

Has Tom Stevenson Written the World’s Most Useful Wine Buying Guide?

Tom Stevenson, Buy the Right Wine Every Time: The no-fuss no-vintage wine guide. Sterling Epicure, 2014.

Has Tom Stevenson written the world’s most useful wine buying guide? Well it depends upon which part of the wine world you are talking about. If you are trying to figure out which of the famous Classification of 1855 first-growth Bordeaux wines to lay down to drink in 2034 or to buy en primeur for future auction sale, then no. This is not the book for you. It will do  you absolutely no good. Save your money!

If, on the other hand, you live in the world of the beginning or early-intermediate wine consumer, then this just might be the best book I have seen for you. And it comes from an unlikely author, because I associate Tom Stevenson more with the rarefied atmosphere of the one percent than the gritty world of the 99 percent (he’s an expert on fine Champagne, for example, and writes for The World of Fine Wine) .

White Zinfandel? Really? (Well, Why Not?)

Reading the preface, Stevenson seems to be as surprised as the rest of us. “When I started this project,” he writes, “I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that I would end up recommending the likes of White Zinfandel or Blossom Hill, let alone White Zinfandel from Blossom Hill.”

The trick, which is difficult to pull off, is to simplify without dumbing-down. Stevenson’s method is to begin by breaking down the world of wine according to certain styles and grape varieties. So far so conventional. Then, within each category, he recommends a short list of wines that meet his three criteria. First, he likes them. You might disagree with his taste because de gustibus is after all non disputandum,  but telling people to try wines that you like makes more sense that pointing them towards stuff that you think they should like.

The second criterion is that the wine must be pretty widely available and not the invisible or imaginary wines that some critics like to praise. Then, finally, the wines must be consistent from year to year so that vintage isn’t the critical factor. Yes, I know this rules out most Red Burgundy wines, but so be it in Stevenson’s book (to be fair, he does actually list a couple of Red Burgundy wines, however.) Beginners have enough trouble finding wines they enjoy without the added complication of vintages, he suggests. Save this for the more advanced wine drinkers. A limiting constraint, but not an unreasonable idea given the target audience.

And so you begin by looking for a style you like or would like to try, Then you find lists of wines in “recommended,” “highly recommended” and “to die for” categories, with rough price ranges supplied. Head to the supermarket or wine shop with this list and you will probably find something to try — or at least that’s the idea.

Onward and Upward

What if you like the wine once you get home? Well, here is where Stevenson earns his pay. The main part of the book is a collection of profiles of the specific wines he recommends along with “next step” recommendations for each one. Did you enjoy that Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel? What to try something more intense and of better quality? Look for a bottle of Ravenswood Lodi Old Vines Zin! Want something better but a bit less intense? Go for a single vineyard Zinfandel from Ridge. Want to try something completely different in this vein? Look for red wines from Croatia or Primativo from Puglia.

You can argue with the criteria, you can argue with the ratings and you can argue with the specific recommendations — as economists like to say, it is disgusting not to dispute — but I think it is hard to argue with this as a way for people to move forward in their appreciation of wine. Imagine a wine tasting club that took this book as their guide for weekly tasting. I think they could rather effectively advance their appreciation of wine within a year without breaking the collective budget — and this strategy could be successful even in parts of America that because of regulatory constraints are poorly served by the wine retail trade.

There are lots of surprises here until you stop and think and then they make sense. There are a disproportionate number of Washington State wines recommended, for example, which makes sense since they are very both good (Stevenson must like them) and widely distributed. Lots of wines by “big vat” producers like Gallo, too. The Cabernet Sauvignon list includes Alamos, Louis Martini, Gallo Family Vineyards, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf brands, all of which come from the Gallo portfolio.  And a great many wines from Australia, just to remind you that while these wines may have fallen from fashion a bit but they continue to be both good to drink and good values.

Dead Ends, First Steps, More Surprises

I was also surprised to find Stevenson did not list any top-rated “to die for” wines in some categories and then  left out the merely “recommended” category in others. The reason? Well I suppose that the real “too die for” Sauvignon Blancs are either too hard to find or too subject to vintage variation. On the other hand, there are so many great and reliable Riesling wines in the market (starting with the “to die for” selections: Pewsey Vale The Contours and Jacob’s Creek Steingarten) that there is no reason to dip down below the “Highly Recommended” part of the list (indeed, the inexpensive Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling listed here is a mighty nice glass of wine!).

So what about that unexpected recommendation of the Blossom Hill White Zinfandel? It’s a perfectly decent wine, Stevenson writes, technically well made and consistent — no reason why someone shouldn’t drink it if they like that style. But then they should take a few steps up or over and see what they think. Maybe try a Kir made with Moscato DdAsti with a bit of Cassis for color if you want something more intense. Or perhaps try a dry Rosé from the Rhone or a Rosado from Navarro if you’d like a bit more elegance. Something different? How about Riesling?

Seen in this way, the White Zin isn’t so much a dead end destination as the first step on a journey. And Stevenson gives you the  outline of  a map to guide you. Who knows where it could lead?

I was surprised by this book — very pleasantly surprised as you can probably tell — and I am happy to recommend it. It would make a great gift for that younger or newer wine drinker in your family or group. And you might enjoy reading it yourself before gifting it on.

Has Tom Stevenson written the best wine guide ever? Can’t say — it’s too much a matter of taste and circumstance. But it is a very useful addition to the wine guide bookshelf.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,801 other followers