Book Review: Best White Wine on Earth

Stuart Pigott, Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014.

I was surprised when I saw that Stuart Pigott had titled his new book on Riesling “Best White Wine on Earth.” Best white wine? If you know Pigott or have followed his work you have to guess that the original title was “Best Wine on Earth.” Someone must have talked him into the more limited claim — or maybe I’m wrong and there’s a red wine that he thinks is better than Riesling.

But I don’t really believe this. I run into Pigott every few years when he comes to Seattle to serve as master of ceremonies at the Riesling Rendezvous meetings that Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen organize and his passion for this wine is beyond question. He writes about Riesling a lot on the web and in books, but it has been a while since he’s published a book in English (he lives in Germany these days). You can see that he wanted to make up for lost time here.

Rodney Dangerfield of Wine

The book is just crammed with information, opinions and interesting ideas that will reward the diligent front-to-back reader and also the enthusiast who likes to dip in here and there. The book’s organized in three main parts. The first two chapters tell you just about everything you might want to know about Riesling the grape and the wine, including a rather thorough break-down of where the aromas, textures and flavors come from and why.

Along the way you will take the Stuart Pigott Acid Test, learn the truth about sulfur, cork and screw-caps and encounter documentary evidence that good Rieslings once commanded higher prices than first-growth Bordeaux wines. I’m sorry for Riesling’s diminished status (think of it as the Rodney Dangerfield of wine), but I have no complaints about price — Riesling is one of the great bargains of the wine world today and I take advantage of that fact whenever I can.

Tour of Planet Riesling

The book’s core is a tour of Planet Riesling, which you would expect to begin and end in Germany, but it doesn’t. One of Pigott’s themes is that Riesling really is a global phenomenon, with fine wines of different styles being made in many parts of the globe. So we begin in the American northeast — New York, Ontario and Michigan. There are stunning wines being produced here and I appreciate Pigott drawing attention to them. Next stop is the west coast — Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and California.  The section on the “Great Riesling Desert” is especially clever — who would think that great Riesling would come from the arid vineyards of Eastern Washington? But they do and Pigott explains how and why.

The tour continues in Australia and New Zealand then on to Austria and finally Germany. Well, actually Germany is not the very last stop because it is followed by a chapter on “Riesling’s Lone Rangers” that goes east (Eastern Europe) and south (Chile, Argentina and South Africa).

It is hard to complain about coverage in a book that spans so much territory, but I wish there had been room for more detail about Chile and South Africa here. I’ve had some stunning wines from both places, especially the South African Rieslings from Elgin (shout-outs to Paul Cluver, Spioenkop, and other Elgin Valley wine farms).

The Top 100 List

Wine enthusiasts love lists and Pigott feeds this thirst in the very last chapter that presents the author’s global Top 100 Rieslings divided into groups of 20 by style with a final listing of the best extreme “Riesling Blade Runners.” But before he lists his Top 100 Pigott gives us a shopping list. What are the best Rieslings that you can buy for less than $15 or £10?

You will probably not be surprised to know that six of the ten value wines are from Washington State (three from Riesling specialist Pacific Rim, two from Chateau Ste Michelle plus Charles Smith’s “Kung Fu Girl”),  two are from Germany (the Leitz “Eins-Zwei-Dry” and “Dr. L” from the Loosen Brothers) and one each from New York (Red Newt Circle) and Ontario (Cave Spring Niagara).  Germany may be Riesling’s motherland, but it is clear that America is its successfully adopted home, especially when it comes to the quality/price ratio.

The Power of Positive Globalization

There’s a lot of particular things to like about this book, but as someone who has written extensively about globalization (see my 2005 book Globaloney for example), one of the things that I like best is Pigott’s general attitude toward the global spread of Riesling culture. Rather than doing as some would and finding fault with this or that he embraces the opportunities the global mix creates. He does this specifically in a section titled “What is Positive Globalization and How Can You Do It Too?” but really it’s infused throughout the enterprise.

Do you have to love Riesling as much as Stuart Pigott to enjoy this book? Of course not! But his enthusiasm is contagious and its hard to read this without feeling that familiar urge to run to the wine shop and come home with a few bottles to explore. Riesling of course — after all, it’s the greatest white wine on earth.

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Surefire holiday gift idea: this book plus one of the wines mentioned in it.

This book makes me thirsty  for more than wine. I’ve heard through the grape-vine that John Winthrop Haeger is working on a book about dry Riesling around the world. Can’t wait to read it when it’s finished.

Book Review: Drinkers Guide to Healthy Living

Irving Fisher, one of the greatest American economists of the 20th century, was interested in both the world of money and interest and the world of health. After facing and overcoming some personal health challenges, he devoted great energy to understanding how the body functions and how best to regulate its activities to be healthy, happy and productive.

Fisher even wrote (with Eugene L. Fisk) a best-selling book — How to Live: Rules for Healthful Living Based on Modern Science – to share his insights with others. The Foreword was written by William Howard Taft. That’s a pretty strong recommendation.

Gerald D. Facciani is one of the most prominent American actuaries of his time and he seems to be interested in both the world of risk and expected value and the world of health. After facing and overcoming some personal health challenges he has devoted great energy to understanding how the body functions and how best to regulate its activities to be healthy, happy and productive.

Facciani has even written a new book – The Drinkers Guide to Healthy Living – to share his insights with others. The Foreword is written by Robert M. Parker, Jr. That’s a pretty strong recommendation here in the world of wine.

Facciani’s book, like Fisher’s, provides both a great deal of useful objective information and aims to persuade the reader to adopt a particular strategy for a  healthier lifestyle based upon the evidence provided. Both are deeply rooted in personal experience (Facciani even provides his own medical test results just in case you have any doubts about the efficacy of his program).

The big difference, as you have already guessed, is that Facciani’s quest is to to live long and well and to enjoy wine in the process. Fisher, on the other hand and like many others in the Prohibitionist era (How to Live was published in 1915), put wine in a category with other unhealthy products. “The best rule for those who wish to attain the highest physical and mental efficiency,” he writes, “is total abstinence from all substances which contain poisons, including spirits, wine, beer, tobacco, many much-advertised patent drinks served at soda-water fountains, most patent medicines, and even coffee and tea.”

Facciani’s book presents a survey of the scientific research linking alcohol consumption with both health and lack of it. Since new studies seem to appear every week, this list of studies was obviously dated as soon as the book went to press, but reading through the quick summaries of scientific results is still very useful for the layman. I may not now know all there is to know about alcohol and health, but after reading this I have a better view of the landscape and appreciation of the complex issues. A good foundation for further research for the serious reader.

Much of the book is devoted to the conventional topics of diet and nutrition, exercise and wellness. Facciani sincerely wants his readers to live a good and healthy life and argues his points passionately, especially in the case of a program developed by Dr. Steven Gundry. Fisher’s scope was equally encompassing although his advice somewhat different. A century after Fisher’s book, I guess we still need help learning how to live.

I was surprised by Fisher’s book when I first encountered it years ago and although I certainly haven’t followed all of his advice over the years I must admit that some parts of it stuck. I suppose it is that economist’s way of thinking that we have in common. I have a feeling that Facciani’s book will have something of the same good effect on my life.

Concerned about wine and  your health? Maybe this is the book for you.

Booze Science, German Geography & Essential South America: New Books for Wine Geeks

One of the most appealing things about the study of wine is that the subject is shaped like a “T,” broad at the top, with lots of aspects and elements that are fun to study  even at a superficial level, but with great depth, too, for anyone with a truly geeky disposition. There’s no end to what you can learn if you decide to drill down. Do you see the “T” shape?

Three recent books exploit these properties in different ways and will reward both browsers and drill-down geeks in equal measure.

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Adam Rogers, Proof: The Science of Booze. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Adam Rogers is articles editor at Wired magazine and he combines his interest in science and his passion for spirits in Proof, which is organized around the T-formation. The chapters take us through the process of alcohol creation and consumption in order: Yeast, Sugar, Fermentation, Distillation, Aging, Smell and Taste, Body and Brain, Hangover. In each case, Rogers drills down into the science and history, but in a lively way, focusing on people as much as process. Inevitably the reader learns a lot about things that might not have seemed that interesting – he really draws you into the story.

I was disappointed that wine didn’t get a bigger role, but after  all it is not the only fermented beverage and Rogers admits that he is really a “brown spirits” guy. Still, there is enough here to make wine lovers happy.

Unexpectedly, wine economics makes an appearance in the form of the Princeton gang behind the Liquid Assets analysis of wines and wine ratings,which eventually evolved into the American Association of Wine Economists. “The entire endeavor has turned into a streamlined locomotive of skepticism about the vast, lucrative world of wine tasting and reviews. It’s not a train you want to get in the way of,” Rogers writes.

He may be right about the locomotive effect, but I’d like to think this group has more on its agenda than beating up wine critics. Interesting that this piece of wine geek trivia makes the book, but I suppose that concerns about critics and their influence are not limited to wine. Proof is a fun book and a good addition to your reading list.

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Dieter Braatz, Ulrich Sautter and Ingo Swoboda (translated by Kevin D. Goldberg), Wine Atlas of Germany. University of California, 2014.

I just love wine atlases and this is the first wine atlas of Germany that I have seen. I takes that T-shape idea to the logical extreme, moving from Germany’s long wine history and a discussion of the most important grape varieties down through the regions Ahr to Württemberg and then finally down to the level of the individual vineyard. This vineyard specific approach will remind many readers of an analysis of Burgundy.

Some of the beautiful maps are amazingly detailed – very impressive! The authors take up the challenge of identifying the best vineyards in each region, classifying them as exceptional, superior and merely good (plus the hundreds not classified). Then each of the noted vineyards is analyzed in suitable technical detail: area, steepness, soil, most important grape varieties, most important producers and the style of wine produced. The detail continues in the index, which provides specific information for each vineyard and village and contact details for each major wine producer.

Casual readers will enjoy the maps, the photos by Hendrik Holler  and overviews while the serious student will find her reward in the details. Because I have some general knowledge about the Nahe region I focused on that section and learned a great deal. Highly recommended.

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Evan Goldstein, Wines of South America: The Essential Guide. University of California Press, 2014.

Evan Goldstein’s new book on South American wine has a whole different shape from the others in this review. His topic is so broad — everything you might want to know about wine in the continent of South America — that depth is necessarily limited.

That makes this book different, but not necessarily less valuable, since most of us have as much to learn about South America as we do about booze science and German geography.  Pulling together this amount of information is quite an accomplishment and if it is a bit thin in places, well that’s what the web is for. At least you will know the questions you want to ask!

Let me give you a sense of this book’s broad scope. First there’s the geographical sweep — big chapters on Argentina and Chile, smaller ones on Brazil and Uruguay and then a quick survey of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. You might not have known that they produce wine in all these places, but they do and their industries are quite interesting (we’ve sampled some Peruvian Cab and it was very respectable indeed in a Bordeaux kind of way).

Then of course you have the regions within each country (and the top producers), the grape varieties and thumbnail profiles of dozens and dozens of producers.  That’s a lot to deal with, but wait because there is even more in the form of brief chapters on touring South American wine country, dining South American style, pages of lists of recommended wines of various types and prices, and a guide to understanding South African wine labels.

Here’s how I found the book. When I was in unfamiliar territory I discovered new and interesting facts around every corner. When I was in a region I already know quite well, I could sense limited depth.  That is actually not a bad balance, earning this volume a place on the wine geek bookshelf — unless you are that rare wine geek who already knows South America very very well.

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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