Book Review: Jurafsky on The Language of Food (with implications for wine)

Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Dan Jurafsky is a Stanford University computational linguist who is fascinated by the way we talk about food. He’s written this provocative book that tells a series of stories that mainly trace the way that the language of food changes over time and how this is related to global cultural and economic exchange.

Turkey, turkey, sushi and ketchup

One story, for example, explain how the turkey, which is native to Southern Mexico, came to be named for the country of Turkey in England and here in the U.S. while acquiring names associated with India in France and elsewhere.

Another chapter traces the origin of ketchup (or sometimes catsup) back to China and then around the world to the familiar red Heinz bottle buried in the back of your refrigerator.  Great stuff if you are interested in food, globalization, history or language.

Unsurprisingly, I was hoping to read about wine in this book and I did both directly (the origins of the social custom of the  “toast” in spiced toasted bread that was dipped in wine to improve its flavor) and indirectly (vinegar, wine’s close relative, as the unlikely global connection between sushi, the food of Japan, English fish and chips, and a host of other delicacies).

Menu Language and Economics

The most thought-provoking ideas about wine actually came from the chapter of the language of restaurant menus. Jurafsky and his colleagues were able to amass a considerable database of restaurant menus for digital analysis. The data is both broad (there are hundreds of thousands of menus on the web) and deep (the New York Public Library has a historical collection of 10,000 menus dating back to 1843). So it is possible to analyze both how the language of the menu has changed over time and how if has evolved differently for different types of restaurants.

The menus don’t just describe food, they also list prices, which makes them interesting to an economist. What types of words are most associated with higher and lower menu prices? The researchers adopted the necessary control procedures (so that they were comparing apples with apples) and here’s what they found.

Language varied by the type of restaurant. Inexpensive restaurants tended to talk about the choice they provide their customers, which I suppose makes sense. Diners understand that inexpensive cafes often offer long menus and so standardized products are the norm. Choices (eggs as you like them, for example, or a dozen different flavors of dipping sauces and salad dressings) are a way to diminish the industrial quality of the experience.

More expensive fine dining restaurants don’t stress choice and, in fact, sometimes deny choice by having chef-chosen set tasting menus (sometimes even “blind” set menus where the list of dishes is not revealed when the diner maker her order).  Instead of stressing choice, the menus focus on the particular characteristics of the food, the origins of ingredients, and the nature of the preparation. Language literally “counts” here. There is a positive correlation between average word length in the menu descriptions and the price of the item. Each one letter increase in the average word length is worth about 18 cents!

You Said a Mouthfull!

Longer words and more specific terms are associated with higher menu prices. This is correlation not causation, of course, so it isn’t necessarily true that you and I see longer words or detailed descriptions and pull out our credit cards, but it could be true that these characteristics help us justify a higher price because they seem to signal to us higher quality. If wine drinkers have trouble avoiding the assumption that higher price signals higher quality, it’s not impossible that high-end diners respond to sophisticated word play.

Interesting finding: there seems to be a “spicy” or “exotic” tax. Menu items that include these words typically carry a higher average price than similar products without this designation.

So chicken you order at Wendy’s is about choice (do you prefer grilled or fried?) and at a fine dining restaurant it is about specific qualities and longer words (spicy Palliard of vegetarian-fed Draper Valley Farm chicken with exotic accompaniments), what about casual dining restaurants that occupy a vast middle ground?

Casual dining restaurants like TGIFriday’s, Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday have a menu language all their own, stressing how the food tastes or is prepared, but in very broad general terms. Chicken is tender. Steak is juicy, Crab is … real (because you might think it could be fake crab). Interestingly, terms of this type are all associated with lower prices! It isn’t that you are thinking that tender chicken is worth less, it’s just that a higher quality place wouldn’t need to tell you that the steak is juicy or the crab is real, but a less expensive restaurant would.

Jurafsky calls these “filler words” and they are the types of things you say when you have to say something but there isn’t anything better or more specific to say. The more filler words on the menu, it seems, the less distinctive the actual food items and the lower the price. Interesting, isn’t it?

The Language of Wine

So what does this have to do with wine? Well, it seems to me that the same sort of research could be done on the language of wine, both how it has changed over the years and also the way that certain types of terms are associated with different categories of wine. I’m going to start paying more attention to wine advertising, wine label text and wine reviewer descriptions.

Some off the cuff observations are inevitable. If box wines are the vinous equivalent of fast food, then it makes sense that they would talk about convenience the same way that inexpensive restaurants talk about choice. No sense dwelling on low cost since that’s obvious. It’s the way that the product can be made to accommodate your desires that matters.

Very detailed descriptions reign at the top of the wine food chain just as they do for restaurant food — and this is perhaps because indicators of place and craftsmanship are now almost universally seen as indicators of quality and authenticity. It’s not just food or wine, it is pretty much everything that consumers look for.

Maybe this is why so many AVAs have been created in the U.S. — having an AVA associated with your wine is important to its credibility even if the consumer doesn’t really know what or where it is (and even if it doesn’t really mean very much in terms of quality or style of wine). Sue and I enjoyed a nice Vioginier recently that got my attention because it came from the Clarksburg AVA. Clarksburg? You don’t see that every day. Interesting! Gotta try it (and it was indeed interesting).

I’ve inserted an image of the back label of that Viognier above so that you can read the text. Pretty upscale messaging, don’t you think? Even the average word length is impressive.

What about the wine equivalent of casual dining — branded wines selling in the $8-$12 range?  A quick look at some labels suggests that the descriptors are just as vague (“juicy,” “delicious”) as on the casual dining menus and they probably fill the same function — fillers to provide a little (very little in some cases) textual weight when more specific terms don’t apply. Sometimes, I have noted, the labels can have very little to do with wine at all — simple but perhaps effective filler.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that wine is bottled poetry, but I think there is even more to it than that! The language of food and the language of wine seem to have something in common. Food for thought for wine marketers and consumers both!

Family Wineries: Fabulous Rise & Dreadful Fall of Taylor Wine Company

Thomas Pellechia, Over a Barrel: The Rise and Fall of New York’s Taylor Wine Company. State University of New York Press (excelsior editions imprint), 2015

Some say that Hammondsport, New York was the real life inspiration for the town of Bedford Falls, the setting of Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life. The film chronicles the story of how families struggle to survive in a harsh world of impersonal economic forces and very personal hopes and fears. It’s one of the saddest films ever made and one of the most hopeful, too, since love and hope triumph over greed and despair in the end.

Hammondsport’s real story, as chronicled in Thomas Pellechia’s new book, is as fantastic as Capra’s film, yet it is well-researched fact not dramatic fiction. Hammondsport was the center of the Finger Lakes wine industry starting in 1860 and the Taylor family’s wine company grew to be both its largest business and, in due course, one of the largest wine companies in the United States.

Rise and Fall

Pellechia, a writer and journalist who lives in Hammondsport, plots the Taylor family firm’s dramatic rise to national prominence and then its precipitous fall. The book is well documented, as befits the product of a university press, but also very personal. As a resident of Hammondsport, Pellechia must see the consequences of Taylor’s rise and fall all around him every day. And the many in-depth interviews that form the core of the book give us a glimpse into the personal stories the parallel the corporate history.

Wine drinkers in the 1970s could not avoid mention of Taylors and its brands. Wine drinkers today might never notice its remaining products. How did this happen?

The big story is a familiar one. A successful family business expands and for a variety of reasons becomes a publicly traded corporation. The founding family eventually cedes control (does this sound a bit like the Robert Mondavi winery story so far?) and a string of corporate mergers and acquisitions follow. The most valuable business assets of the original company (which included Taylor’s effective distribution network, according to Pellechia) are exploited while the natural foundation of the business (vineyards and wine) deteriorate from lack of investment.

Beyond the Big Story

I find the big story as Pellechia tells it very compelling, but I have to admit that the sub-plots attracted my attention, too, if only because the cast of characters is so interesting. The first big corporation acquire Taylor’s, for example, was the Coca Cola Company, which made the New York company the cornerstone of its Interim Wine Group strategy, which expanded starting from Taylor’s New York base.

Wine didn’t prove to be the synergistic business that Coke thought it would be and they spun off the operation. The Wine Group how thrives as a privately-held company, maker of high volume Franzia wines and a host of others brands including the very hot Cupcake line. It is the second largest wine producer in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly, with U.S. sales of 57.5 million cases.

The Seagram Company was the next to take up Taylor’s business, but the Bronfman family soon shifted their focus from drinks to entertainment. Taylor’s was shuffled to Vintners International and then, in much weakened condition, to the Canandaigua Wine Company, which you will be more familiar with by its current name, Constellation Brands. Constellation is the #3 wine producer in the U.S. today , but at its peak a few years ago it was the largest wine company in the world.

Taylor Today

The New York Taylor brand still exists in the Constellation portfolio as a popular line of fortified wines (Taylor Desserts). Looking at that bottle of Taylor Port, it is hard to imagine the rise and fall that it represents for a family, a company and a regional industry and even harder to imagine all the lessons (about wine, family, corporations, economic forces and so on) that it represents.

That’s why it is important to have books like Over a Barrel to make sure that the stories are re-told and the lessons not entirely forgotten. This book connected a lot of dots for me and I recommend it. Come back next weeks for more thoughts about family businesses and their importance in the wine industry.

Exchange Rate Lessons from Australia’s Wine Boom and Bust

Kym Anderson (with the assistance of Nanda Aryal), Growth and Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry: A Statistical Compendium 1843-2013). University of Adelaide Press, 2015. (Available as a free pdf download — follow the link above.)

ozKym Anderson’s new book on the five major boom-bust cycles of the Australian wine industry is a landmark wine economics study. Like all of Anderson’s work, it is data-driven and provides both the casual reader and focused student with a wealth of information.  A detailed Executive Summary is followed by 73 pages of analysis (and ten more of references), 86 revealing charts and more than 450 pages of tables.

Answers and Questions

I’m not sure I have ever seen such a detailed account of what happened to a wine industry, when, where and how. The data span the decades, regions, grape varieties, international regimes and economic cycles.  Such a wealth of information is valuable both for its ability to answer questions and for the way that it provokes them.

I won’t attempt to summarize Anderson’s big volume here (Andrew Jefford did a great job of this in his Decanter column) but I thought I might illustrate the sort of focused analysis that the book makes not just possible but convenient.  We are always looking for lessons from history and I think Australia’s wine business cycles are useful in this regard, especially the fifth cycle, which began in 1986 and continues today.

Exchange Rate Effects?

Anderson describes the recent collapse of the Australian wine industry as the result of a “perfect storm of shocks” including drought and rising irrigation water prices, the global financial crisis, the rise of the Australian dollar (driven by mineral exports to China), increased competition from other wine-exporting countries, and China’s austerity policies (which have reduced demand for luxury wine products). He could have added vineyard  heat spikes, wildfires and the gradual but significant effects of global climate change to the list of challenges. Perfect storm, indeed!aud

Since we are currently experiencing a period of major exchange rate realignment, with the U.S. dollar on the rise and the Euro seemingly in free fall, I thought it would be useful to tease out the many ways that the Aussie dollar impacted its wine industry in recent years.  According to news reports currency instability was the hot topic at the ProWein wine fair this year, so analysis of the possible effects is timely. Here are some brief points taken from the Executive Summary.

  • The 1986 boom began, Anderson tells us, as a response to the historically low value of the Australian dollar (hereafter abbreviated AUD), which encouraged exports by reducing their price to foreign buyers. The AUD’s low value was due to falling prices for mineral exports.
  • Wine exports boomed, rising to 2.3% of all Australian exports by 2004.
  • Wine prices increased, stimulating vine plantings, higher production and more exports but higher prices also  limited domestic wine market growth making Australian producers more dependent on export markets.
  • Rising exports increased the incentive for investment in developing overseas markets for Australian wine, both through generic marketing and private brand promotion. Meanwhile, other countries also began to expand wine exports, too, contesting key market spaces.
  • The AUD began to rise in 2001 (driven by Chinese mineral demand). Competition in export markets made it difficult to pass through rising foreign exchange costs to export customers, so much of the burden was passed back in the form of lower AUD export receipts and, in due course, lower wine grape prices.
  • Meanwhile, the strength of the AUD made imports cheaper, including wine imports, which increased dramatically. Especially affected were Sauvignon Blanc imports from New Zealand and Champagne imports from France.
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc became the best-selling white wine in Australia. Not the best-selling imported white wine. The best selling-white wine, period!
  • Wine grape prices collapsed and the value of vineyard land fell, in some cases to the same low value as unimproved farm land. This is the bust that the Australian industry is still recovering from.

Lessons for the U.S. Today?

The exchange rate isn’t the whole story of Australia’s fifth wine cycle by any means, but you can see that it had important effects. The long term instability in the exchange rate translated into booms and busts in wine exports, imports, wine prices, grape prices, land prices and so on.

Anyone who thinks the current rise of the U.S. dollar won’t impact the U.S. wine industry or have global repercussions should take a look at Anderson’s study of Australia. The U.S.story will be different, and the impacts less just because our domestic market is so much larger, but there will be significant impacts.

This is just one of the analytical threads in Kym Anderson’s important new book. I invite you to dig and see what questions his work raises and what lessons you can learn.

Important New Book: Growth & Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry

The University of Adelaide Press has just released an important new book, Growth and Cycles in Australia’s Wine Industry: A Statistical Compendium 1843-2013 by Kym Anderson (with the assistance of Nanda Aryal). The pdf version of the 610 page book is available as a free download.

I’ll post a full review of this book on The Wine Economist in the near future, but the subject is so important and the analysis so timely that I wanted to get the word out as soon as possible. Hence this brief announcement.

Sustainable growth is the goal for most wine regions, but boom-bust cycles seem inevitable. Anderson analyzes Australia’s attempt to chart a course around the five major cycles of its wine economics history, ending of course with the current cycle that started in 1986 and is still unfolding.

The goal here is, first, to better understand the Australian experience through a clear and detailed examination of the evidence. Then it is possible to ask what lessons history offers for Australian wine and for the global wine industry more generally? The text, charts and tables provide much food for thought. Click on that link and get to work!


Kangaroos in the vineyard? I don’t know if they are a common sight but we saw a pair much like these when we visited Hahndorf Hill Winery in the Adelaide Hills in 2013.


A Bottle of White? 30th Anniversary of Kevin Zraly’s Wine Course

Kevin Zraly, Windows on the World Complete Wine Course 30th Anniversary Edition. Sterling Epicure, 2014

Pearls (traditional) or diamonds (modern practice) are the symbols associated with a 30th anniversary according to Hallmark and it would be easy to make a case for either as a suitable metaphor when it comes to the 30th anniversary of Kevin Zraly’s  wine guide.

The U.S. wine revolution is only about 50 years old. People like Kevin Zraly and books like this one took a budding wine culture and helped nurse it into full bloom.  The publication of this 30th anniversary edition of Zraly’s book is cause for celebration and, like a wedding anniversary,both  looking back and pondering the future.

The Commanding Heights

So it is both appropriate and  interesting that Zraly writes here about his personal journey through wine and about the famous Windows on the World restaurant (and wine school).  The restaurant and school were perched high atop the World Trade Center in New York City and from those commanding heights Zraly directed an ambitious wine education initiatuve until that fateful day — September 11, 2001 — when the building (but not the program) came crashing down.

Sue and I had the pleasure to dine at Windows on the World just once — in the company of her parents, Mike and Gert. I can remember everything about the view (the Statue of Liberty seemed like a toy down in harbor below us) and the company, but alas nothing in particular about the food. I’m pretty sure that the wine we drank was a relatively modest cru Beaujolais — a choice that Zraly (who probably put the wine on the list) would approve according to his restaurant wine advice here.

A Bottle of White? A Bottle of Red? 

Zraly has been an enormously successful wine educator. His approach as outlined in the book works so well because  he basically asks the student/reader to engage with wine as one would in a restaurant — doesn’t that make sense? Where many wine guides jump into geography, geology, variety and so forth in encyclopedic detail, Zraly more or less begins with the question, “A bottle of white? A bottle of red?” as you would in a restaurant.

So this is wine list 101 — simple, clear and useful — that empowers the reader through its easy approach but also provides enough depth and detail to draw her in. White wines come first as they often  do on the wine menu, with chapters on France, the U.S. and Germany. Then red wines: Burgundy and the Rhone, Bordeaux and California. Spain and Italy share a chapter as do Champagne, Sherry and Port. If Zraly was based in San Francisco instead of New York the Old World – New World order might be different, but I’m sure the basic approach would stay the same.

Finally we have the rest of Zraly’s world with a chapter than roams Austria, Hungary, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. Obviously breadth takes precedence over depth here and in the book generally, but its a big wine world and Zraly has fewer than 400 pages to work with. This will frustrate the seasoned enthusiast looking for esoteric information, but if it does then maybe this book isn’t for you. And in any case, I found something to learn in each chapter when I drilled down. A final chapter looks at food and wine pairings and provides lists of best wines and best values under $30.

I applaud Zraly’s decision to look beyond the usual suspects in the U.S. wine industry, although I wish he’d go into more detail, especially about Washington and Oregon where I spend a good deal of my time. His discussion of California is detailed, as befits the largest producing state, followed by basic information about Washington, Oregon, New York, Virginia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Illinois (sorry Idaho — maybe next time). Zraly played an indirect role in the spread of wine producton from coast to coast — good to honor that contribution here.

Sometimes More (Zraly) is More

Criticisms? There is a lot of interesting data here, but I couldn’t find  many sources, which was frustrating since some of the statistics are (inevitably) out of date . Ernie Loosen will be surprised to learn that he has “recently” entered into a partnership with Chateau Ste Michelle to make Eroica Riesling wine in Washingtong State, for example. The relationship goes back to 1999.

And as with the last edition I am disappointed with the “digital” elements. QR codes send you to web pages with very brief videos of Zraly in action, pronunciation guides and to an on-line store where you can purchase wines.

Zraly’s videos show why he has been such an influential teacher, but at about 2 minutes each they are too short to add very much. One video was mainly devoted to showing a chart that was printed on the page where the QR code was found, which seemed redundant to me. I think the videos are a good idea, but if Zraly is going to do them there needs to be more time and effort invested. My suggestion: instead of overviews why not pick a topic in the book and drill down in the video, taking full advantage of the opportunity of live action? Use the videos to add to the book in ways that text and tables cannot.

But these are small matters in the bigger context and not things that you want to dwell on when making a 30th anniversary toast (Champagne is best for this, we are advised, and I won’t argue even though I’m on a Prosecco kick these days). So cheers to Zraly and the book he has used to help guide us all these years. I hope both man and book enjoy many more years (and editions) and that the wine culture they have helped create will continue to bloom extravagantly.


A bottle of white? A bottle of red? Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Billy Joel video. Cheers!

Not That Easy Being Green (Wine): Review of Two Books

Britt & Per Karlsson, Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking: Sustainable Viticulture and Viniculture. Floris Books, 2014.

John Kiger, A Vineyard Odyssey: The Organic Fight to Save Wine from the Ravages of Nature. Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

It’s really not that easy being green if you are a winegrower or wine maker. For a long time green wines (organic, biodynamic, sustainable and so forth) were not a very dynamic category here in the U.S. You could find them, but they were tucked away in what I call the “green ghetto” neighborhood at the supermarket, close by de-alcoholized wines, half-bottles, and other sometimes slow-selling SKUs.

Some research actually suggested that consumers were not only unwilling to pay more for organic wines, as they often do with other organic products. They actually valued them less than other wines. So many people who made organic or biodynamic wines didn’t go out of their way to advertise the fact. Much different from Europe, where “bio” wines are a strong category.

This is changing and I expect to see green wine sales grow, albeit from its current small base. The dynamic is driven by both supply and demand. On the supply side, more and more wine grape growers and producers simply want to be green — they see it as the best way to do business, especially in the long run — and want to advertise that fact and develop the market category.

Jean-Guillaume Prats, chief of the wine group at LVMH, goes further. He told the Wine Vision 2014 audience that in considering vineyard investments, if you can’t grow the grapes organically, maybe you shouldn’t grow them at all! He’s obviously focused on the luxury wine segment, but the message resonates in other parts of the market.

On the demand side I see green wines as part of a bigger movement. A friend pointed out to me that consumers who shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other upscale supermarkets simply expect that the products they find there will be organic — and are turned off if they are not. They look for organic certification everywhere else in the store. Why should wine be any different?

So things are changing, although it may take a while for the build-up of small ripples and waves to come crashing to shore. I think this is a good time to rethink green wines and the two books reviewed in this column are excellent places to begin.

Green Wine Primer

Britt and Per Karlsson write about wine from their base in Sweden and this book, which first appeared in Swedish in 2012, is a welcome green wine primer. Its scope is broad, including organic, biodynamic, sustainable and natural viticulture and winemaking.  The Karlssons provide good depth and detail, covering the science, economics and regulatory politics of green wine today. Theory and practice, just what you need.

I was especially interested in the curious politics of EU organic wine regulations. Because of the desire to have one set of rules for everyone from Greece to Latvia, the compromise results can seem illogical. The limits on copper use, for example, seem driven by the need to accommodate Burgundy in a particularly bad year and so are out of balance for other parts of the EU. A regional approach would seem to make better sense here as in many other instances, but I think some of the Eurocrats are suspicious of regionalism, so illogical compromise rules.

Although there is more detail about European practices and regulations than New World activities, I found plenty to work with and the contrast of regimes helped me understand them all much better.

The book is clearly written and organized and lavishly illustrated with color photos that are both beautiful and informative. I learned something new in every chapter, but I was especially interested in the biodynamics section. The combination of thorough research and personal interviews with growers and winemakers made this material come alive for me.

Sometimes the smallest points are the most satisfying, so I was pleased to learn the origin of the numbers that are used to identify the biodynamic preparations. These preparations often raise eyebrows because they seem to represent the “voodoo” side of biodynamics — manure stuffed in cow horns, buried in the vineyard and then made into a tea to spray on the vines, for example. Why are they identified with numbers not names? Numerology?

No, it’s more about politics. The numbers (cow horn manure is Preparation 500) may have come about when the Nazis in Germany banned biodynamic agriculture, the Karlssons report. Proponents learned to speak in a numbers code to avoid detection.  Who would have guessed?

The Karlssons present all this information objectively and openly question some of the most extreme claims of green wine proponents, but I don’t think you write a book like this unless you think there is something in the concept itself. In this regard I think they reflect both the times, which as I noted before now seems to favor organic products, and their location (Scandinavia is a good market for green wines).

This is a fine book and worth your attention.

Green Isn’t Easy at All

It really isn’t easy being green — not easy at all — and as much as the Karlssons give a strong sense of this in their survey, there is really nothing like a report from the front lines of the battle. John Kiger and his wife Deb own and operate Kiger Family Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, which is not a region where nature cuts the green winegrower any slack. Just the opposite in fact. At times it seems like being natural is a battle against nature itself.

Kiger’s book makes a nice pairing with the Karlssons’ because it is at once so similar in topic and yet so different in approach. Kiger’s book is clearly personal, for example. The author presents a first person account of the triumphs, failures and struggles. The book has heroes (including the Kigers and their allies) and villains, too, chief among them is oidium or powdery mildew, which  is a threat to vineyards everywhere and perhaps especially in cool-climate Sonoma Valley.

Kiger becomes obsessed with powdery mildew, by his own account, and so we learn a great deal about it. This intense focus is very helpful because an organic wine farmer necessarily becomes obsessed with all the harmful fungi and harmful insets and so forth and is driven to find natural ways to combat them.

The book’s first chapter is titled “If I’d Only Known Then What I Know Now,” which tells you that it really hasn’t been easy being green, and the last chapter is called “Truce.” which might suggest that the Kigers have come to terms with nature’s many sides. But I think it is really that they have accepted that  each new year starts a new cycle of natural challenges like powdery mildew and that this struggle has value in itself in addition to the grapes and wine that are produced.

These two books make a nice pairing for your wine economics bookshelf. File them alongside Caro Feely’s books on her struggles with organic and then biodynamic winegrowing in France. Follow this link to read my review of Feely’s books. Cheers to everyone who struggles to be green — we know it’s not easy!


Here’s the obvious music for this column and the lyrics sort of apply to the green wine case, don’t you think?

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.


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.


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