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.

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!

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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.

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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!

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Table of Contents – 2005 Edition

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