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.

Two New Wine Guides: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Two new wine guides have appeared just in time for the holiday wine-book-gift-giving season. Informative and interesting, they present us with two very different ways to think about wine and buying it. Perfect for a comparative review!

The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine by Jeff Siegel (a.k.a. The Wine Curmudgeon) 2013 (also available as Kindle e-book).,

Complete Wine Selector: How to Choose the Right Wine Every Time by Katherine Cole, 2013.

These books remind me of the parable of the hedgehog and the fox that served as the inspiration for one of Isaiah Berlin’s best known essays. The fox knows many things, the story goes. But the hedgehog knows One Big Thing!

The Complete Wine Fox

Complete Wine Selector is the fox in this story.  Gosh, it sure does deliver on its promise to be complete. There is just so much useful and interesting information packed these 250+ pages. Sue and I were both impressed.

And it really does focus on choosing wines, providing both general principles and specific recommendations. Cole builds the book around the idea that people should learn about styles of wine and not just focus on varietals, appellations, etc . The ten wine glasses on the book cover represent the ten wine styles that she analyzes in the book, including crisp, lean whites; rich full-bodied whites; light, refreshing reds; sparkling wines and rosés; continuing down the list until we reach fortified wines.

The idea of thinking about wine in terms of style is very useful even if it is not really new. Hugh Johnson stakes a claim to it in his foreword to the book and I have seen many restaurant wine lists that focus on style versus grape or country of origin. There is even a chain of stores called WineStyles organized along these lines.  Cole’s comparative advantage is in the execution of the wine styles strategy, taking us from general principles to specific wines and wine recommendations very effectively.

The final pages of the book present more general background information, such as how wine is made, how it should be served and stored, good places to buy it and so on. Interesting and good to have, but the stories behind those ten glasses on the cover are what you are here for. Like the fox of the famous fable, this book knows many things and organizes them in a way that will delight many readers.

My only real criticism is that the graphic design sometimes seem to overwhelm the book’s content, although I acknowledge that some readers (especially those under 30 years of age) will disagree. Trying to fit content into design-determined boxes sometimes results in text that is hard to read. And sometimes images seem to just fill a designed illustration space rather than usefully illustrate a key concept. On the other hand many of the graphics (such as the detailed wine label illustrations) are really good, so perhaps I am being too picky (Sue didn’t object to the design at all).

I loved Cole’s previous book on biodynamic viticulture in Oregon. I’m happy to have her new wine guide on my bookshelf!

The Hedgehog Curmudgeon

Jeff Siegel’s new book is the hedgehog. Although Jeff knows as much as any fox about wine, his book digs deep into a single topic — his One Big Thing — cheap wine. Like Rodney Dangerfield, cheap wine “can’t get no respect” and Siegel aims to change that.

Some people treat cheap wine as if it were a contagious disease, but not Jeff Seigel. He knows that bad wine (of any price) is a curse and good wine, especially if it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, is a blessing.  Cheap wine today is the best in history. Celebrate!

The table of contents gives you an idea of how the story is developed.

  • Why cheap wine matters
  • Cheap wine’s long and winding road
  • The revolution in cheap wine
  • Understanding cheap wine
  • How to buy cheap wine: The basics
  • How to buy cheap wine: Advanced course

There is a lot to like in this book — lots of fascinating stories. I like the strong sense of history that comes through and the appreciation that the rise of quality cheap wine was in a way the triumph of technology and business competition over entrenched attitudes among consumers and industry politics that resisted change. This book is about more than cheap wine, you see, although Siegel takes care never to stray too far from his hedgehog focus.

There are many twists and turns on the path that Siegel chooses and, as I look at my notes, his hedgehog touches on a lot of topics that Cole’s fox also explores. No surprise there, I suppose — they inhabit the same wine forest even if they focus on different elements of  it. Both are interesting books that you should consider if you are looking for wine guide that wants to shake up your way of looking at things!

Beyond the Budometer: Tim Hanni’s Vinotype Analysis

Tim Hanni, Why You Like the Wines You Like2013.

Writing about the problems of “misunderstood” Riesling earlier this summer (and why people are so hung up on the dry-sweet thing), I was struck by a distant memory of … the Budometer! I recalled reading an article some years ago about a wine expert who had taken the qualitative differences in personal wine perception and taken them to the next level by quantifying them through painstaking experimentation.

The result was the Budometer which was not a measurement of how many Budweiser beers a person could drink (although that would be interesting, too), but a way to determine what types of wines an individual consumer might prefer, with the seemingly inevitable trial and error  phase eliminated. Budometer and is taste buds if you see what I mean.

It seemed like a great idea when I read about it, however I admit that I didn’t do much with it at the time.  But it was easy enough to find that old Wall Street Journal interview online and so I set about to retrace my steps.

From Budometer to Vinotype

I have bad news to report. The Budometer is no more. But don’t despair because it’s been replaced by something better, the Vinotype. And the wine expert who got all this started is still at it, too. His name is Tim Hanni and he’s a famous person in American wine history. He and Joel Butler were the first Americans to pass the devilishly difficult Master of Wine exam. Fewer than 400 people in the world have survived the rigorous process that gives them the right to wear the initials M.W. next to their names.

I’ve never met Hanni but he seems like an unusually interesting person. Although he knows pretty much all there is to know about wine he doesn’t drink the stuff (or any alcohol) any more. His mission now is to help others enjoy the beverage that he no longer imbibes.

Hanni’s research indicates that wine drinkers hardwired into four basic groups or Vinotypes, which he calls sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive and tolerant. It you want to know all about Hanni’s system you should probably read his 2013 book, Why You Like the Wines You Like or visit his websites www.timhanni.com and www.myVinotype.com. I’ll provide a quick summary here, but I risk over-simplifying. You should seek out the more complete reports available in the book on the websites.

Sweet to Hypersensitive

Prefers Brown Sugar … Probably a Sweet.

“Sweet” wine tasters are very sensitive to anything that assaults their senses (not just in wine, according to Hanni). Bitterness and alcohol in wine must be covered up with a blanket of sweetness.  Women (about one in five) are three times more likely to be Sweet Vinotypes. White Zinfandel is their kind of wine. It isn’t a lack of sophistication (White Zin drinkers get a bad rap in wine circles), it’s just the way they are built.

A little more than a third of both men and women in Hanni’s surveys are Hypersensative Vinotypes. They have intense sensory experiences as the name suggests. Hanni says they love fragrances and “revel” in aromatic memories. Rather than cover up offending flavors with sweetness, however, they instead seek out delicate wines that are dry or off-dry, aromatic (obviously) and very smooth. They avoid big red wines with lots of oak (or any wine with overt oak treatment). Sparkling wines, drier Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc wines fit this profile very well along with lighter reds like Pinot Noir.

Are You Sensitive or Tolerant?

“Sensitive” vnotypes make up about a quarter of the wine drinking population and Hanni says they are the most adventurous drinkers (and eaters, too). They like to try new things. Accordingly they enjoy a broad range of red and white wines while leaning towards the drier side of the sweetness spectrum.

“Tolerant” Vinotypes are less sensitive when it comes to harsh, bitter sensations such as you might find it rugged, high alcohol red wines.  Given a choice, Hanni says, Tolerant Vinotypes head for the big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and are not daunted by high alcohol levels because the smack of the alcohol is mitigated by a deceptive sweetness that they perceive even in a completely dry wine.

You won’t be surprised to learn that men outnumber women two to one among Tolerant Vinotypes. The next time you see a couple drinking in opposite directions – he with a big, bold Aussie Shiraz and she sipping a delicate Oregon Pinot Gris, don’t shake your head, just appreciate that you’ve stumbled onto a “mixed marriage,” Tolerant male and Sensitive female.

You Are What  You Drink

The key to the Hanni’s Vinotype analysis is that people are very different from each other and their wine preferences are not just about wine – they reflect a person’s sensibilities more generally. Thus in one incident reported in his book, Hanni pressed an apparent Hypersensitive vintoype all the way and asked if by chance he sometimes wore his underware inside out (to avoid the relative harshness of the interior seams). “How did you know!” came the response.

I hope you take Hanni’s test and find out your Vinotype. It’s fun and also useful to think seriously about your habits, attitudes and sensory experiences. What will you learn when you are finished? Well apart from Hanni’s cool list of suggested wines,  I hope this helps you accept that people really are different when it comes to wine and other things in life. There is no reason why you should like everything your friends like in wine (and indeed there are good reasons why you might disagree). If you are a Sweet Vintotype you are never going to enjoy that Napa Cabernet and the Cab lover is never going to understand your passion for White Zinfandel.

The Riesling Question

Hanni has gone far beyond the Vinotype in his research and I encourage you to check out his work because there is a lot that might stimulate your imagination (if you are a Sensitive type) or challenge your firmly held habits and beliefs (if you are on the Sweet side and unwilling to break out of your comfortable routine).

For me, thinking about the Riesling problem, there were several key points. The sweetness scale that the International Riesling Foundation promotes is probably more important than I thought since both Sweets and Hypersensitives might look at Riesling wines, but they will be looking for very particular styles.  Senstitives might find something interesting in all Riesling styles, but Tolerants will want nothing to do with the wine.

This is a problem, according to some research that Hanni reports, because Tolerants buy wine much more frequently than Sweets. Getting Sweets to drink more Riesling could be problematic because they just don’t drink it very often in the first place.

Food for thought, don’t you think?

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In other news … the Kindle version of Extreme Wine has been released!

Three New Books: Sicilian Wine, Postmodern Winemaking & a Wine Economics Textbook

September is an awkward time of the year — it will still be summer for a few more weeks here in the northern hemisphere, but the start of both the harvest cycle and the school year are upon us, too. Still time to play, but work beckons.

This situation inspires me to review three new books from the University of California Press. We’ll start with a bit of summer wine touring, go on to autumn wine making, and then head back to the classroom.

The Sicilian World

The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio. University of California Press, 2013.

I admit that I didn’t know very much about the wines of Sicily before I picked up this interesting and informative book. I guess I just didn’t realize what I was missing! The authors really do take the title seriously, revealing a stunning 360-degree examination of Sicily’s world of wine.

Many (most?) readers will be drawn to the excellent discussion of Sicily’s wine grapes and the detailed survey of Sicily’s regions that make up the second half of the book. After all, if you are interested in understanding the wines themselves as a consumer or enthusiast or perhaps visiting Sicily as a wine tourist, these are the critical sections.

But I have admit that I was fascinated by the introductory chapters, too. The authors drill down into Sicily’s wine history and the factors that unexpectedly pop to the surface are politics and economics! Perfect for a political economist like me.

I was surprised, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. After all, what about Italy is not political? And what about Italy is not economic? And Sicily, with its unique position in terms of politics, economics, history, and geography is a completely fascinating case.

My favorite sections? The analysis of how external factors (trade) and internal incentives (quality versus quantity property rights structures) shaped – or rather pushed and pulled – Sicily in its key formative decades. And the analysis of the European wine policy and its changing impact that opens chapter 3 is worth the price of the book alone. Never seen this explained so clearly. Highly recommended.

Postmodern Turn

Postmodern Winemaking: rethinking the modern science of an ancient craft by Clark Smith. University of California Press, 2013.

[Note: as of 9/5/2013 this book was out of stock awaiting a new printing. UC Press tells me it should be available again by the end of the month.]

I know Clark Smith’s name from his work on music and sensory appreciation of wine, but within the industry he is seen as something of a winemaker’s winemaker – with a twist. His monthly column “The Postmodern Winemaker” in Wines & Vines magazine is required reading for anyone interested in the cutting edge. These columns and other previously published material, edited to be accessible to a broader audience, are the basis for the book.

The book is a complex blend of theory, practice and philosophy. It wouldn’t hurt to have a good background in both postmodernism and winemaking if you want to get the most out of it. (Smith provides a handy winemaking primer in an appendix, which is worth having on its own, and also a glossary of postmodern terms).

This is a very personal book, based on Smith’s years of experience. It might not be a book that you sit down and read from cover to cover. It feels like it wants to be read a little at a time, and not always in the given order, and then digested for a while. Or maybe that’s just my reaction because my background in viticulture and oenology isn’t as strong as it could be.

What’s the bottom line of Postmodern Winemaking? Well, I think the book rather intentionally resists a one-line summary. Certainly there is a lot of technical and technological discussion here and the notion is that technological advances are not always progress. The postmodern winemaker uses technology, that’s for sure. Woodchips, not traditional new barrels or popular staves, are an integral part of Smith’s winemaking (he hasn’t bought a barrel in years) and I was fascinated to learn about  a controversial process called flash détente. But it’s important never to let the science run the show.

I talked about Smith’s book with an Oregon winemaker recently and her takeaway was that the march of technology was shrinking her niche — highly natural wines of origin — into a tiny sliver. She was quite upset — she knew she was fighting a battle, but she didn’t quite realize how outnumbered she was! That’s not the message I got from the book, but I can see how she would read it that way.

Interesting. Challenging! Definitely worth your time, whether you are postmodern (or a winemaker) or not.

Textbook Approach

American Wine Economics: an exploration of the U.S. wine industry by James Thornton. University of California Press, 2013 (to be published in September).

Finally, with classes starting up I am reminded that there are now some university courses on wine economics and so what could be more useful than a textbook on this subject? You might think that I would be the author (and that this post would be filed under Shameless Self Promotion), but I have sworn off textbooks now that I have retired from teaching – I wrote or co-authored textbooks in economics, public finance and international political economy earlier in my career.

This book is called American Wine Economics and it focuses on the U.S. wine industry of course, but with due acknowledgement that the wine world is a very small one now and that international and global integration is a powerful force.

This book, due to be published later in September, fills a useful niche and I think it has the potential to expand the number of wine economics courses both in the U.S. and abroad. The core of the book is a survey of the wine economics literature presented in a way that will be accessible to readers with at least a little economics or business background. I am grateful to see all this material collected in one place.

If I have a criticism it is that the book is too ambitious (or perhaps it is too cautious?). You need to understand something of wine to understand wine economics, so the author provides a brief primer such as might be found in a basic guide, which will do its job for newbies. You also need to understand some economics concepts and tools, so these are presented as well.

The result is that there is a lot of background material to get through before the core chapters are finally reached. A less ambitious author might have sent readers to specialized publications for the wine and economics background or put the primers in appendices. No perfect solution, I suppose, and this is probably a good compromise. The core chapters certainly are meaty.

If you have an interest in pushing deeper into the academic side of wine economics, this is a good place to begin.

On the Wine Trails of Italy (with the Michelin Man)

Michelin Green Guide Wine Trails of ItalyMichelin Guides, 2013. Cynthia Clayton Ochterbeck, editorial director; Maura Marca and Carlo Vischi (in collaboration with Debora Biona), contributing writers.

I love visiting Italy, meeting the people and trying to speak the beautiful language. I’ve spent more time in Italy than any other country outside the U.S. (thanks in part to a stint teaching at the Johns Hopkins Center in Bologna), so I’ve learned a lot about the food and  wine and always look forward to going back to learn more.

I have accumulated far more than my fair share of Italian touring guides, which I enjoy reading  before, after and during each trip. The publication of Michelin’s new Wine Trails of Italy was the perfect excuse to dig out some of my favorite guides and compare them to this new one.

Bring In the Usual Suspects

Standard operating procedure for a trip to Italy at The Wine Economist office involves collecting together a number of timeless references — the usual suspects. I always start with Burton Anderson’s classic The Wine Atlas of Italy & Traveler’s Guide to the Vineyards, which somehow manages to be informative and relevant more than 20 years after its publication (it was the Veuve Clicquot Wine Book of the Year for 1990).

Anderson’s wine atlas paired with the most recent edition of Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines guide is usually enough to get me started. Anderson gives the broader context and Gambero Rosso shows me what’s new. Connecting the dots is up to me. The Italian Wine Guide from the Touring Club of Italy is another indispensable (if now somewhat dated) companion.

What is Italy Anyway?

But it is impossible to visit Italy and to taste Italian wines because, well, what is Italy anyway? Mario Batalli once said that there is no such thing as Italian food, there are only the many regional cuisines of Italy and I think that this remark holds for Italian wine, too.

So inevitably I search for regional wine touring guides to match my focused travel itinerary. Hugh Johnson edited a series for Mitchell Beazley called Touring in Wine Country that included handy volumes on Northeast Italy and Northwest Italy (as well as Burgundy, the Mosel and other regions). I love these guides, which focus on wine towns and wine trails, with excellent advice on hotels, restaurants, wine and food shops, and of course wineries. Meaty, but just compact enough to fit into a day pack or car glove box.

I still pull out these Mitchell Beazley guides when I’m putting together a trip, but they haven’t been updated in nearly 15 years and the specific information they provide is now stale, even if much of the general advice remains relevant.

More Maps, Please

So where does the new Michelin guide fit in? Well, the format is attractive as you might imagine from a publisher with so much travel guide expertise.  The volume is narrow, deep (more than 500 pages) and packed full of information. The first 50 pages are filled with Wine 101 information (how to taste, what temperature is best, how to extract the cork, etc.) that does no harm even if it will do little good for seasoned readers.

A general introduction to Italian wine serves as a preface to wine regional wine itineraries, which vary in length from just a few pages (for the Aosta Valley and Liguria regions for example) to about 50 pages for Tuscany.  Obviously it is impossible to provide a truly comprehensive guide to any Italian wine region in such tight quarters, so this is an exercise in leaving things out. If you are OK with the deletions, then you’ll be happy with the guide.

Detailed maps were the first thing left out in the Michelin guide and this annoyed me at first, but then I realized that it would just be impossible to include all the necessary maps in such a brief volume. You’ll need to buy driving maps (Michelin maps, presumably) if you want to follow the routes. But, a few more maps would be useful if only to help see how the various wine routes are related. Better maps would be my #1 request if these books are ever revised.

The Michelin Touch

Each chapter begins with a quick overview of the region, its wines and the grapes the wines are made from. This is followed by suggestion wine route itineraries presented in a format that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever used a Michelin guide. These travel narratives are followed by a data section that lists tourist contact numbers, identifies the regional wine cellars and presents brief but well written  profiles of selected wineries. A very short list of accommodations brings the chapter to an end.

Compared to the other wine tourist guides on my bookshelf, the Michelin guide provides more non-wine information — a fact that puzzled me at first. But I guess you can’t live by wine alone, even in Italy, and knowing more about the cultural tourism elements is surely worthwhile, Indeed, I stumbled across some information that I wish I had known on my last trip to Alto Adige! I suppose that it just makes sense for a Michelin wine tourist guide to draw heavily on the core knowledge base of the main Michelin guides.

Bottom Line

Bottom line: Not a perfect wine tourist guide to Italy, but a very good compromise and a useful addition to the day pack. More depth and detail would be great, but obviously impossible given the scope of the guide.  A wine guide that ignores food seems just wrong (especially in Italy), but I suppose there are apps (or other guide books) for that. It’s a good volume to use in concert with other travel resources.

I still nurture a small ray of hope that Mitchell Beazley will revise those old wine touring guides or that the Touring Club of Italy will come out with a new edition of their guida, but until they do this Michelin guide will help fill the void.

Elephants Optional: Two New Reports on South Africa’s Wines

President Obama’s recent trip to Africa (including his much publicized pilgrimage to South Africa) presents us with a good opportunity to reassess our views. Africa has its problems and challenges (don’t we all!), but also successes and opportunities. This is true generally and, thinking specifically of South Africa, about wine.

Two new publications ask us to remember what’s old about South African wine even as we embrace the new. I’m talking about James Molesworth’s cover feature in the current issue of Wine Spectator and Tim James’s just-published book Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution (University of California Press, 2013).

Wine Spectator Showcase

The Wine Spectator report gives South Africa the full glossy wine magazine treatment (over 30 pages of text and photos), starting with James Molesworth’s “At a Crossroads” essay then continuing with a tasting report including ratings for more than 500 wines, a short list of wine recommendations, selected producer profiles, and brief travel recommendations for Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, Paarl and Swartland.

Molesworth does a great job capturing a sense of South Africa’s dynamism — this s a country that is moving quickly into the future. It was interesting to compare his ratings with my own experience when I was in Cape Town last year. I am not an expert taster and I always defer to those who are, but I was pleased to see some similarities in our reactions, particularly regarding the many fine Syrah and Rhone blend wines as well as the Bordeaux-style reds. And we seem to agree that many of the white wines are both extremely delicious and present extremely good value.

If there is one place where we differ just a bit it is Pinotage. I went to South Africa a Pinotage skeptic based on my early experiences with the grape variety back in the 1990s, but I have become a convert. Molesworth correctly notes that many of South Africa’s early post-Apartheid exports were not up to snuff and that’s when U.S. consumers like me got their first tastes of South African wine and their first (and sometimes last) experience of Pinotage.

Pinotage has certainly changed along with the wines more generally as the industry has caught up with international standards  and I found many favorites among wines made from old bush Pinotage vines and with careful use of oak, so I might put Pinotage a bit higher on the scale than Molesworth, but I wouldn’t want to press too hard to make it a “signature varietal.” South African wine is diverse and can’t be captured in any single wine, region or style.

I guess Molesworth just didn’t find the quality he was seeking in Pinotage. Or maybe the South Africa story is easier to tell Americans (at least for now) with Pinotage in the background. Either way, this useful survey of the territory is recommended Wine 101 reading for anyone who wants to discover (or re-discover) South Africa’s wines.

Wines of the New South Africa

But of course Wine Spectator only scratches the surface — it is impossible to do more than that in a few dozen pages. So if Molesworth’s fine feature makes you want to learn more, head straight for Tim James’s new book, Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution.

James digs down a good deal deeper into South Africa’s wine story in his 300+ pages of text and simple maps. The heart of the book is a collection of chapters on ten key wine producing areas with both general regional information and detailed profiles of the major wine producers. The profiles are very much up-to-date and capture effectively the dynamic nature of South African wine today.

The regional discussions are preceded by exceptionally informative overview chapters on history, grape varieties and wine styles and South Africa’s Wines of Origin system. The chapter on grape varieties and styles surprised me — I didn’t think an analysis of the grapes and so forth would be so interesting and teach me so much about South Africa and its wine industry.

This is a fine book  — well-written, detailed and interesting — that deserves your attention. What could make it  better? Perhaps James (or another author) will publish a colorful wine atlas of South Africa to supplement this volume. South Africa’s terroir is so complex and interesting — it would be great to see it explored (and illustrated) in equal depth.

Follow the Wine to South Africa

South Africa is one of the world’s top ten wine producing countries, so it more than fills the 300 pages available here. Want do learn even more? I guess the next step is to take a trip, which is what Sue and I are doing early next year.

I was hoping that the Wine Spectator’s travel section would be useful in making plans, but perhaps I was expecting to much. The collection of brief restaurant and hotel profiles whets the appetite, that’s for sure, but the luxury lodging choices are pretty  much outside my budget range.

Wine Spectator publisher Marvin Shanken says that Johann Rupert nagged him for years to visit South Africa and now that he finally has done it he urges us all to follow his lead. Molesworth and James give us a road map. Start packing you bags. And don’t forget your corkscrew.

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About that Wine Spectator cover photo. Elephants? Really? With all the beautiful Cape winelands vineyard and winery scenery, I wonder why they fell back on a cliché like African elephants? Oh well, if elephants are good enough for Wine Spectator 

Tasting Notes for Three Colorful New Wine Books

A number of new wine books arrived earlier this year. Sensing that I wouldn’t be able to find time to give reviews my full attention while in the final revision stages of Extreme Wine, I offered three of them to my university students for Spring Break reading. The only catch: they would have to write brief “tasting notes” for publication on The Wine Economist.

Celebrating Celebrity Wine.

Kayla asked to review Celebrity Vineyards: From Napa to Tuscany in Search of Great Wine by Nick Wise. This is an attractive volume, beautifully illustrated and printed on high quality stock. The book’s sixteen chapters provide detailed case studies of wineries associated with the A (for Mario Andretti and Dan Aykroyd) almost to Z  (Formula One driver Jarno Trulli and football coach Dick Vermeil) of international wine celebrity. (I wish soccer star Zinedine Zidane would start a winery just to make the celebrity wine alphabet complete!)  A nice mix of current stars along with  figures from the past such as Fess Parker and even Thomas Jefferson.

Here is Kayla’s tasting note for the volume.

This book exhibits an easy-going style of writing that gets down to the core of why these select individuals are involved with wine. His sense of story is sure to appeal to wine enthusiasts as well as those interested in the wines simply due to the fame of their financiers. Wise organized this book in a way that would make it perfectly suitable for those who want to read one section at a time or just place it on the coffee table for guests to peruse. All in all, I found the stories both appealing and well written. Wise brings these iconic figures down to earth with their relate-able passion for one of the world’s most amazing and diverse beverages.

The French Connection

Kelsey wanted to read  Into Wine by Olivier Magny and I couldn’t wait to see her “tasting note.” I gave Magny’s earlier book Stuff Parisians Like a very favorable review on The Wine Economist. As I read the first book I kept waiting for him to talk about wines that Parisians like. After all, Paris is the capital of France and France is the capital of wine, so how could Parisians not like wine? But I was wrong.

“It is very easy to spot tourists in a Parisian cafe,” Magny wrote, “They are the ones drinking wine.”  Having a glass of wine gives the tourists pleasure. Not drinking wine is what Parisians like to do.

Magny, with obvious frustration since he runs a wine school there, enumerated all the reasons wine has fallen from grace in Paris. Once it was the default choice, he says, but now young people especially understand that they have many choices, most of which are easier to comprehend and have better marketing behind them. Water, beer and spirits — these are the go-to beverages of Paris now.

Parisians may like not like wine, but Magny hasn’t let this discourage him. Into Wine starts with Magny’s introduction to the world of wine as an occupation and then veers off into a number of interesting issues. Here is Kelsey’s note:

In his book “Into Wine”, Olivier Magny introduces the reader to the concept of terroir and highlights its importance throughout the wine-making process— from the vineyard to its consumption. At times, however, it seems like the book was less “into wine” and more into promoting organic lifestyles. It is clear from the outset that Magny is a terroirist, but his account of wine is definitely an eye-opener to the perils and shortcomings of the modern agriculture and wine industries.

The book made me rethink where my wine and food are coming from, what goes into their production, and the negative consequences of modern wine-making and agricultural processes. If you want to know more about what terroir is all about and why it is important, this is a good read. His footnotes (though excessive and sometimes distracting) are entertaining and even once poked fun at the modern-day “hipster”.

Overall, Magny is witty and his book definitely has something to offer those unfamiliar with the concept of terroir and its role in today’s wine industry.

The Color of Wine

Erin picked The Wine Lover’s Coloring Book by Louise Wilson.  Her tasting note reads.

The Wine Lover’s Coloring Book by Louise Wilson makes learning about the world’s wine regions appealing and fun for wine enthusiasts and budding professionals alike! Wilson’s book is full to the brim with colorful diagrams and vital information, and the hands-on learning approach is particularly well suited to visual learners. This interactive book is the perfect blend of accessibility and educational content.

I liked the idea of this book quite a lot, but after paging through it twice I decided that I wanted more — more in the art or more in the text.  Could the diagrams do more to illustrate the terroir (as opposed to basic geographic lines of wine regions)? Could more be done with the wines themselves? And is it possible to do more while still keeping to the appealing coloring book format? I dunno — maybe not.

But the author is plainly very creative (and a fine artist, too), so perhaps she will think of a visual way to take her readers to the next level in a future volume. In the meantime, as Erin’s note makes clear, this is a welcome addition to the wine education bookshelf.

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Thanks to Erin, Kelsey and Kayla for their tasting notes. Thanks to the authors and publishers for providing the books.

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