Book Reviews: Wine World Upside Down

I love it when a wine book surprises me. Here are brief reviews of two recent books that surprise in different ways.

George Gale, Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine. University of California Press, 2011.

Phylloxera — the little bug that destroys vineyards — has turned the world of wine upside down more than once and its affects continue to reverberate today. As George Gale notes in his conclusion, it is a mistake to ever think of phylloxera in the past tense. It is a global problem that can only be controlled — not eliminated — if the world’s wine growers and vine scientists continue to share their insights and work together.

Dying on the Vine is a detailed history of phylloxera that naturally focuses mainly on the U.S. (the source of the scourge) and France, where its impact was first and perhaps hardest felt and where the debate about what should be done was therefore the most heated. Gale is a good story-teller and I enjoyed the fact that he made what might be dry science and history into an engaging human tale. I’m sure the guy in the airplane seat next to me wondered how I could be so entertained by an academic publication!

But it was easy. Gale’s good research yields page after page of “ah ha!” facts that connect dots that you might already know and give you new ones to ponder.  To choose just one as a teaser, consider this. Why did it take so long for phylloxera to infect French vineyards, long after the first American grape vines were planted on European soil? The answer: shipping technology. The earlier grape vine imports spent so long in the ship’s hold that the plylloxera lice died off before they could do any harm. Faster ships meant that they were still alive when they arrived in France.

What is surprising about Dying on the Vine? Well, I didn’t expect it to focus so much on the intellectual origins of the debate about what phylloxera was and what to do about it. That’s because I didn’t realize that Gale is a Phillosphy professor who thinks quite a lot about science. Phylloxera set different systems of belief and scientific ways of knowing against one another and I think it is fair to say that the battle against the vine louse could not be engaged in full until the intellectual wars had been fought and won.

I think that for Gale the battle in the vineyard is almost more important for what it teaches us about the philosophy and sociology of science than the story that it has to tell about grapes and wine.  A book that can be read and enjoyed at many levels: highly recommended.

Mike Desimone and Jeff Jennsen, Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide. Sterling Epicure, 2012.

Wines of the Southern Hemisphere turns the wine world upside-down in a different way, turning the wine glass upside down on the cover and inverting the world wine map just inside. I suppose that it is true that the wines of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil don’t get the attention that they deserve. Desimone and Jenssen set out to remedy the situation by giving them a big (580 pages) volume of their own.

Here’s how the book is organized. Each country gets a short but informative overview followed by sections on the major grape varieties, the main wine regions (with brief profiles of important wineries), a handful of recipes for local dishes and interviews with several key wine figures.

Is this a “complete guide” as the cover promises? Of course not, but you’ve got to forgive that. It’s impossible to be really complete about a subject of this size. My copy of Michael Cooper’s excellent  400-page Wine Atlas of New Zealand isn’t a complete guide to that country’s wine industry (although I suspect it comes pretty close) so how can the 600 or so pages in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere be compete? Well, it obviously it can’t be. A book like this needs to be a useful introduction to the world of Southern Hemisphere wine, not the final answer, and I think it is successful on this basis.

And this is what’s surprising. When I first picked up the book I thought that it was crazy to even try to cover so much territory — can you imagine a book called Complete Guide to Wines of the Northern Hemisphere? Ridiculous!

But then as I read through the book I came to realize that it isn’t a ridiculous idea at all. The southern half of the wine world is a lot smaller than the northern half. Turn your desk globe upside down (or check out the map I’ve inserted below) and you’ll see that there isn’t very much land mass in the critical “wine belt” of 30 degrees to 50 degrees of latitude. At least not much compared with the northern hemisphere.

And once you accept that it is impossible to be truly complete, then it is possible to enjoy the book because its entries are generally relevant and well chosen.  The analysis of the grape varieties is useful (more useful than I expected), the introductions to the winegrowing regions are interesting. The profiles of individual wineries are too brief — what can you do? — and there are not enough of them — an unavoidable problem, especially for the Australia chapter.

My biggest surprise? The winemaker interviews. Although the set of questions that each of the figures was asked is much the same, the answers differ quite a lot and some of them are quite revealing.  A nice surprise in a book that exceeds my expectations even if it doesn’t quite live up to its “complete guide” billing.

Book Review: New Bottles + Old Wine = Good Reading

A review of Howard G. Goldberg (editor), The New York Times Book of Wine (Stirling Epicure 2012) and Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course (Stirling Epicure 2012).

Two new wine books have arrived on The Wine Economist doorstep. What they have in common is that they revise or repurpose some “vintage” wine writing. Does old wine [writing] in new bottles [books] work? Yes! And I recommend both books. But refilling bottles isn’t as easy as it looks and both books could have been a bit better. Herewith two brief tasting notes.

The Big Book of Wine

The New York Times Book of Wine is a real treat. It’s a big book (about 550 pages of text) that contains more than 150 articles taken from the pages of the New York Times over the last 30+ years, starting with some of Frank Prial’s wine columns back in the 1980s and stretching through Eric Asimov’s 2011 contributions.  It commemorates the 40th anniversary of regular wine writing at the Times and is, therefore,  a chronicle of my generation’s embrace of wine seen through the eyes of Asimov and Prial as well as Florence Fabricant, R.W. Apple, Jr., William Grimes, Frank Bruni and several others.

This is a fascinating collection and makes great browsing. Goldberg organized the pieces around themes such as “Wine Writing and Writers,” “What You Drink with What You Eat,” “South of the Equator,” “So, There You are in a Restaurant” and “A Magnum of Miscellany.”

At first I headed straight for the older articles because I love wine history and I see these columns as windows on the world of the past. I was going to skip the most recent articles because I read them all when they first appeared in the Times, but sure enough I was sucked in by the topics and the writing and the chance to contemplate them along side the older accounts. I spent a very pleasant summer afternoon in this book’s embrace.

Story-Telling Challenge

It’s a fine book, but it could have been even better. I have some experience with books like this, since I was editor of the New York Times 20th Century in Review: The Rise of Globalizationwhich appeared 10 years ago. I was given 100 years of everything in the Times — articles, editorials, op-eds, photos, cartoons, obituaries, etc. — and asked to tell the story of globalization from 1900-2000. My first impulse, given the vast quantity of material at my disposal, was to put things in piles — all the international trade stories here, all the financial crisis stories there, and so forth. But then I realized that I wasn’t telling a story, so I threw everything in the air and started over, trying to draw out the key threads that made the whole story make sense. I’m not sure how well it worked — there were more than 500 articles — but I tried to go beyond collecting and organizing to also tell an important story.

That’s what I miss in this wine volume. It’s great reading, but what’s the point? What do we learn about wine or about our society’s attitudes towards wine when we read 30 years of wine columns? Maybe there is no big story (although Asimov’s Foreword suggests that there is), just a collage of the individual authors and articles — a feast of tapas and sherries, as Goldberg writes in the Introduction. But I’d like to think that all this good writing adds up to something more. That’s the challenge I toss out for the expanded volume that I hope to see when the Times wine column celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Updating a Classic

Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Compete Wine Course is a big book, too, but in a different way. Zraly presents us with the vast panorama of whole world of wine. The book isn’t long (although you get your money’s worth in its 300+ pages) so much as heavy. The heavy paper stock that allows the color illustrations to be so clear and clean gives the book a real physical heft.

Zraly has been helping people learn about wine for more than 35 years and this book has been in print for as long as I can remember. The cover says that more than 3 million copies have been sold. The book is certainly comprehensive and interesting — the result of many years of fine tuning, I suspect — giving both the beginning and more advanced wine student something to master and something to think about. There’s a reason why it has been around so long.

I was interested in this new edition because it includes a number of features designed to appeal to today’s smart phone enabled wine enthusiast. This seems like a great idea — aren’t all publications moving in this direction? — and so I wanted to see how it would work? The answer is that it is a good beginning, but more work needs to be done to bring the iFeatures up to the level of the text itself.

There are three types of electronic features that can be accessed by scanning codes or entering URLs: introductory videos for the nine main sections, 1300 vocabulary audio files (to remove the fear of pronouncing Viognier) and links to the Sherry-Lehmann wine store’s online catalog to shop for the wines you have just read about.

Devil in the Details

The Sherry-Lehmann shopping links were the most successful and I think this is a nice service to provide readers, although I can understand why competing wine merchants might disagree. The audio files were more hit and miss. Most worked fine, but some were clearly mislabeled showing a lack of attention to detail. There were two “Willamette” links, for example, one of which pronounced the AVA “Yakima” instead of the Oregon name.  And although the “Chelam” link clearly pronounced the word “Chelam,” I am almost certain that “Chelan” — a Washington State AVA — is what should have been there.

The brief introductory videos were great to the extent that they gave me a real sense of Kevin Zraly himself and the passion he brings to his teaching. Really made me want to take a seminar from him. But they were just 60 seconds each and therefore hopelessly superficial.  They added something to each chapter, but they did not nearly rise to the potential that streaming video offers.  This needs to be better done or not at all.

While I am picking nits, I would like more documentation of the data (which is generously provided) in the book so I can track down the source and date for the many tables and charts provided (the footnotes could be provided via web link to keep the book from getting any heavier). Some of the data is dated and some of it needs more explanation — the footnotes would let the curious reader dig a bit deeper without getting in the way. OK, I’m a university professor, so naturally I would want more documentation. But I really think some readers would appreciate it.

Just as I challenged the Times editors to tell more of a story with their columns, I’d like to encourage Kevin Zraly and his team to try to more fully realize the potential of apps and web links and streaming video to expand, enrich and transform the wine education experience.

Summer Reading: Simpson on “Creating Wine”

Summer a a good season to kick back and do a little reading (the other good seasons for this are Winter, Spring and Fall). Serious reading? Fun? I dunno — it’s up to you. A local newspaper columnist has added Wine Wars to his summer business book reading list (along with Daniel Yergin’s The Quest and The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America by Marc Levinson among others). Sounds like serious fun to me.

So what am I reading for serious fun this summer? The answer is Creating Wine by James Simpson (Princeton University Press, 2011).

A Book and Its Cover

Please do not judge Creating Wine by its cover. The main title plus the illustrations of two grape vines might suggest that this is a book about practical viticulture or perhaps home winemaking. The devil is in the details and in this case the truth is in the subtitle (The Emergence of a World Industry 1840-1914). This is the story of how the world wine business evolved in the critical years before war in Europe and Prohibition in the United States when the roots of today’s global industry were established.

The story told here is how different wine regions adjusted to exogenous shocks (such as the Phylloxera scourge) and disruptive technological change (such as improved transportation) and how these differential responses set the industries on courses that still vary today.

Significantly, Simpson finds his explanations for the New World – Old World gap not simply in history or culture, but instead in differences in relative factor abundancies (land scare Old World, labor scarce New World) and differing patterns of political and economic power.

Old World and New

This is an economic analysis  (the author is professor of economic history at the Carlos III University of Madrid) so, although there are no equations, there are plenty of useful tables and charts, which add to the story. And although it wouldn’t hurt to have taken an introductory economics class to understand some of the terminology, I don’t think this is a firm pre-requisite.

Part I focuses on Europe and particularly France and introduces in quick succession the problems of the railroads (19th century globalization), Phylloxera and the development of viticultural science, and the political economy of the response to fraud caused in part by Phylloxera-driven shortages of wine grapes.

The rest of the book examines Europe’s failure to penetrate export markets (especially the U.K.) followed by comparative analyses of the evolving wine industries in Bordeaux, Champagne, Spain, Portugal, the U.S., Australia and Argentina. A final chapter brings things forward to the present.

I enjoyed this book because of the way it helped me make connections. In every chapter I found two or three interesting facts that I already knew and then Simpson supplied the key connecting idea. Suddenly it all made sense! A very satisfying (and informative) read.

Chinese Workers in California Wine

Let me pick one example to illustrate. Thousands of Chinese workers came to the United States in the 19th century to help build the transcontinental railroad. Many remained, especially on the West Coast, after the Golden Spike was driven home. Cheap, hardworking and quick to master new skills, they became the backbone of the California wine industry.

But economic conditions changed and anti-Chinese attitudes emerged and many were driven from the country; an underlying labor shortage was revealed, only partially bridged by fresh immigrants from Italy and other European countries. The problem of scarce and expensive labor became the defining economic constraint of American wine, Simpson tells us (just as the uneconomic division and re-division of European vineyards over time defined Old World wine economics).

The technical innovation of a “vertical” winery, where the force of gravity moved the grapes and juice from one part of the production process to the next, was created to economize on labor, Simpson says, not just to provide more gentle treatment of the grapes as a dozen wine tour guides must have told me over the years.

Creating Wine is a great book for anyone who loves wine economics, wine history or … wine! Highly recommended for a seriously fun summer read.

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Note: The Jake Lee painting of Chinese vineyard and winery workers in Sonoma County shown here was originally displayed in Kan’s Chinese Restaurant in San Francisco. Click here to read its fascinating history.

Artisan Wine versus Grape-a-hol: A Rant


I’m reading a new book by Michael F. Spatt and Mark L. Feldman called Grape-a-hol: How Big Business is Subverting Artisan Winemaking and the Future of Fine Wine. The book is an extended rant about the problems of artisan winemaking (especially in New Zealand).

A rant? That sounds bad, but I don’t mean it in a negative way. I really appreciate a good rant. In fact one of my favorite television programs (CBC’s Rick Mercer Report) is built around the host’s weekly rant (see above). Nothing like a good rant to let off steam … and to make a good point!

Spratt and Feldman have a lot of steam to let off and some good points to make. They see the wine world as a spectrum with artisan winemakers at one end and “grape-a-hol” producers at the other. You can probably already guess what they mean by grape-a-hol: “an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice and passed off as a substitute for fine wine.”

The Opposite of Fine Wine

Grape-a-hol is an industrial product made in mass market quantities or perhaps blended from bulk wines from various sources. It is the opposite of fine artisan wine.

At this point it helps to know that the authors are partners in Destiny Bay Vineyards on Waiheke Island, New Zealand (near Auckland) and so they know a bit about the extremes of the wine world. New Zealand certainly has its share of relatively large wineries, most of them owned by foreign multinationals like Pernod Ricard (Brancott Estate), LVMH (Cloudy Bay) and Constellation Brands (Kim Crawford). Whether you think they make wine versus Grape-a-hol is another matter, but let’s continue with the rant.

Destiny Bay Vineyards is at the artisan opposite extreme in several ways. First, in a country that is geographically remote from many of its markets, Destiny Bay is even more isolated. Sue and I remember the pleasant ferry ride from Auckland to Waiheke Island. It wasn’t very far, but it sure seemed like we were entering another world. I guess that’s part of the appeal.

The winery is small as befits an artisan establishment and the wines themselves are unexpected. No cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush Sauvignon Blanc here and no Pinot Noir, either. They aim to rival the top wines of Bordeaux, producing a Cab-strong Left Bank blend, a Merlot-led Right Bank and a third wine that drives down the center line.  Critics give the wines high marks — here is a Wine Advocate tasting note from the 2007 vintage (this wine scored 93):

The Magna Praemia 2007 has a very refined, very Right Bank bouquet with blackberry, tobacco leaf, scorched earth and wild-hedgerow. Understated but growing in intensity in the glass. The palate is full-bodied with fine tannins, very powerful and yet controlled. Harmonious towards the finish. Very polished but beautifully poised, this is a wonderful Waiheke wine. Drink 2011-2018. Tasted at the blind Waiheke Island tasting and then at the estate the following day.

Although the wine sounds lovely, I was prepared not to like this book because of the in-your-face (Big Business Subverts!) attitude of the subtitle. But it won me over. The short punchy chapters all have a point and they make it without much beating about the bush. (Rants are usually best in small doses). I learned a lot about the wine business and especially the New Zealand wine business from these anti-Grape-a-hol protesters.

A Whale of a Wine

I’ve written several Wine Economist columns about the increasing trend towards shipping wine in bulk — whale-size ocean containers filled with a 24,000 liter Flexitank bladder instead of cases and cases of bottled wine. So I was fascinated to read about this from the artisan Kiwi standpoint in Chapter 3 (The Plonk that Launched a Thousand Ships) and Chapter 4 (The Mouse that Tried to Roar).

Only about 5 percent of New Zealand wine was exported in bulk before 2008, according to the authors’ figures, but now the number approaches 50 percent. Spatt and Feldman argue that while this might make sense from the Grape-a-hol perspective, it doesn’t suit New Zealand’s particular interests very well. They especially see the loss of quality control when bottling takes place abroad as a threat to the country’s precious wine reputation.

Here is a sampling of the chapter titles to give you a sense of the book’s breadth and tone:

Brand Burning in the Supermarkets

The False Economy of Cheap Wine

Wine Competitions and the Gambler’s Fallacy

Day Traders, Dilettantes, Parasites and Pilot Fish

Harry Potter has Nothing over Biodynamics

Claptrap about Closures

Mantra or Manifesto?

The book ends with “The Mantra for the Artisan Winegrower: Authenticity, Integrity and Responsibility,” which is a sort of manifesto for wine terroirists. They call upon artisan winemakers to re-take the high ground in the wine wars by banding together locally as the Waiheke winegrowers have done in creating the Waiheke Certified Wine program. Together, they believe, the terroirist multi-local groups can mount a solid front against the multinational Grape-a-hol producers.

But it won’t be easy, they say. “Artisan winemakers are not looking for special treatment, subsidies, or protectionist trade barriers, ” they conclude. “However when tax, regulatory, and industry association policies conspire to exclude them from markets, burden them with punitive costs, and undermine the provenance on which their individual brands stand, they have a legitimate grievance.”

Yes. And a reason to go on a rant!

Malbec & Maradona: Wine and History in Argentina

Ian Mount, The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec. Norton: 2011.

Malbec and Maradona

The most stunningly creative student paper I’ve received in more than 30 years as a college professor was written by a first year student enrolled in my introductory International Political Economy class. We were studying Argentina’s latest financial crisis and she analyzed the situation not just through facts and figures but rather by telling the story of Diego Maradona, the legendary soccer player who achieved great success on the global stage but succumbed to the pressures, stresses and temptations that came with it.

Maradona is always measured against Pele, the Brazilian star who is often proclaimed the greatest soccer player in history, and every talented young Argentinean forward is compared to  him (Messi is only the latest “next Maradona”). But an air of tragedy is unmistakable despite Maradona’s heroic achievements. This same air, my student wrote, hangs over Argentina’s politics and economy, and then she proceeded to analyze Argentina’s political economy history in detail in  terms of the Maradona story. It was, in both conception and execution, a brilliant analysis.

Ian Mount’s new book on Argentinean wine, The Vineyard at the End of the World, is also brilliant and in much the same way. Like my student’s paper, it can be read at several levels. It is, first and foremost, a history of the Argentinean wine industry from its roots with the Spanish explorers to its current spectacular flowering.

Although Argentina has been a major wine producer for literally centuries, it has only arrived on the global stage in the last ten years. Within Argentina its long history is heavy baggage that sometimes weighs it down. For the rest of the world, however, Argentina is a new discovery and the lack of prior experience of and attitudes toward its wines has arguably been an advantage.

Mount fills us in on the history and serious readers will appreciate the added depth this gives to the appreciation of the wines themselves. It also provides an interesting contrast to neighboring Chile and its wines, whose history is perhaps better known. But that’s only the beginning.

 Lucky Survivors

Malbec is a second theme, which is understandable because Malbec is king in Argentina right now. Malbec from Argentina has been one of the hottest product categories in the U.S. wine market is the past few years. But today’s Malbec (like Maradona) is a lucky survivor of Argentina’s booms and busts – a lot of Malbec was grubbed up during the market swings and swirls. It makes me appreciate wines (like one of our favorites, Mendel Malbec) that are made from the surviving old vine blocks.

More than anything, however, this is a history of Argentina itself told through wine, making this a book that deserves a very broad readership. Based on my previous research, I knew that Argentina’s politics and economics were reflected in the wine industry, but I didn’t know how much. Come for the Malbec, stay for the politics, economics and personal stories of those who succeeded or failed (or did both) and try to understand the country and people of Argentina.

Significantly, the book ends with a sort of Maradona moment. In terms of wine, Argentina has won the World Cup with Malbec, although the country must share the glory with international consultants (like Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland) and foreign investors and partners (too numerous to mention). But for all its strengths the industry is still somewhat fragile, struggling to overcome the problems of the domestic wine market that it still depends upon and the domestic economy in which it is embedded.

After decades of “crisis and glory,” Mount sees a  bright future for both Malbec and Argentina. Let’s hope he’s right and the Maradona moment passes.

Ian Mount’s new book is a valuable addition to any wine enthusiast’s library. Mount provides a strong sense of the land and people of Argentina and the flow of history that connects them. Argentina is unique, as Mount notes early on, in that it is an Old World wine country (in terms of the nature of its wine culture) set in the New World, so that its history is broadly relevant and deeply interesting.

I studied the Argentina industry before going there last year, but Mount taught me things I didn’t know in every chapter. I love Laura Catena’s Vino Argentino for its account of the history of wine in Argentina told through the Catena family story and now I’m glad to also have The Vineyard at the End of the World for its broad sweep and detailed analysis. They are must reading for anyone with an interest in Argentina and its wines.

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Another Malbec-Maradona connection: Diego Maradona is most famous for a play that has gone down in soccer history as “the Hand of God” goal.  It was in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match that Maradona illegally struck the ball with his hand and scored the winning goal – an offense that was clearly visible to everyone in the stadium except the officials. Must have been the Hand of God, not Maradona, I guess.

Now (or very soon depending upon the release date) there is  Hand of God wine. We tasted Hand of God from the barrel when we were in Mendoza earlier in the year and we enjoyed the wine even if Maradona had nothing to do with making it. I suppose the name honors the importance of wine and soccer to Argentinean society and the struggles that both have endured. (Maradona’s team beat England in that famous game, so I wouldn’t look for big Hand of God wine sales in the U.K. market. Just saying …)

Special thanks to Jon Staenberg (proprietor of  Hand of God) and Santiago Achaval for letting us sample this wine!

Bottoms Up: The Bargain Wine Revolution

George M Taber, A Toast to Bargain Wines: How innovators, iconoclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks. Scribner, 2011.

George Taber knows something about how seemingly small events can sometimes turn the world of wine upside down. He was the Time magazine reporter who covered the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting where top French wines were matched against California Cabs and Chardonnays in blind tastings evaluated by famous French critics. The New World wines held their own and even took the top prizes in both red and white categories. Thus was a fermenting revolution recognized and encouraged.

Now the issue isn’t so much Old versus New as it is Expensive versus Cheap and Elites versus Masses. Taber sides with a democratic vision of wine and this book is a celebration of the fact that there are more drinkable bargain (less than $10) wines in the world now than ever before. The glass is more than half full. Drink up!

What to Drink (for $10 or Less)

Taber’s celebration comes in two parts. The second half of the book is a bargain wine buyer’s guide. Taber provides top 10 lists of his favorite “$10 and less” wines and wine brands sorted by grape variety and region. He also recommends a couple of splurge wines in each category for good measure.

My, what a lot of inexpensive wine George Taber must consumed to write these recommendations. Bottoms up, indeed!

Here’s what I mean. The section on blush wines highlights 10 wines including a $3 Oak Leaf White Zinfandel (from Wal-Mart) and a $6 Riunite Strawberry White Merlot. I assume that Taber tasted the big selling Sutter Home White Zin and found it wanting since it does not appear on the list, but he doesn’t list all the wines he tried in each category, only the best ones, nor (and this would be particularly useful) the really really bad ones to steer clear of.

Revolution from Below

The first half of the book makes the case that maybe you should take bargain wines more seriously (and not just because of the current economic situation). Taber sets out to undermine the conventional wisdom about wine. Maybe wine judges are as confused as the rest of us. Maybe taste is so subjective that your opinion really is all that matters. Maybe (gasp!) bottles and corks are a pointless anachronism when it comes to everyday wines and you should reconsider your prejudice against “box wines,” which have changed a lot since you tried them in college.

My favorite chapters are the profiles of the iconoclasts who are leading the wine revolution. Taber’s reporting skills are put to good use in telling the tales of Fred Franzia (the godfather of Two Buck Chuck) and John Casella (the father of Yellow Tail wine).  Both wines changed the world in important ways and it is interesting to have their stories told so effectively and to be able to see these two phenomena side-by-side.

The final chapter (before the buyer’s guide) examines China. Will it too change the wine world? Maybe – that’s the answer here. China is still a work in progress and perhaps it is too soon to draw many conclusions. Taber does a good job pulling together different trends and facts.

What’s a Bargain?

One of the ironies of this book comes from the fact that Taber needs to define what he means by “bargain wine” and value (like taste) is pretty subjective. He draws the line at $10, which is a good thing I believe since this allows him room to include a lot of pretty good wines in his lists and not just focus on extreme values. Ironically, however, a $10 wine is classified as “premium” and sometimes “super-premium” here in America. The majority of American wine drinkers think of a $10 wine as a splurge.

I have friends who are afraid to try a $10 wine because they fear that they will be able to taste the difference and be forced to turn their backs on the $6 wines they’ve been enjoying for years.

I wonder if wine snobs will be annoyed by George Taber’s book? After all, with this book Taber seems to suggest that democratic wines deserve the same respect as those Judgment of Paris aristocrats. Me? I’m just grateful that he’s done the dirty work of tasting and sorting all those really inexpensive wines so that I don’t have to! Bottoms up!

Chinese Wine [Uncorked]

Li ZhengpingChinese Wine 3/e (translated by Shanghai Ego — really!). Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Many of my conversations with wine makers and wine sellers this year have looped back around to the question of China. China seems to be the Great Hope for people who see it as a vital future market and also a Great Mystery for those who haven’t yet figured out how to uncork it.

Great Wine Wall of China

Uncertainty is the Grape Wall of China to those who wish to penetrate its market borders. The known knowns are few and the unknown unknowns many, or so I am told. Talk about assymetric information inefficiencies! So everyone’s interested in learning more about wine in China.

Hence my interest in this slim (146 page) book from Cambridge University Press. It is part of the “Introduction to Chinese Culture” series of brief guides that includes ten published volumes (Chinese Clothing, Chinese Furniture, Chinese Music and more) with additional volumes (Chinese Gardens, Chinese Jade, Chinese Food, Chinese Tea and so on) set for publication in 2012.

The back cover description of this book reads.

This illustrated introduction to Chinese wine explores the history of wine production in China, the legends and customs that surround it and its place in China today. Traditionally, Chinese wine and spirits were made from grain, and had three important uses: to perform rituals, to dispel one’s worries and to heal. Today, wine is still believed to have a therapeutic benefit, but the Chinese beverage industry has expanded on a large scale and now includes famous brands of beer and, increasingly, vineyards producing red and white wine for global consumption. Chinese Wine is indispensable reading for both wine-lovers and all those with an interest in the transition from traditional to modern Chinese culture.

The book delivers on this promise with clear direct prose and beautiful illustrations. But it would be a mistake to read more into this description than there is.

Lost in Translation

The term “wine” can easily get lost in the translation. Wine here in the U.S. is grape wine for the most part, but wine in China is a much broader concept including fermented fruits and grains. Chinese Wine  examines grain wine, beer, distilled spirits and Chinese-made grape wine. Changyu, Great Wall and Yanjing brand wines receive special attention.

Grain wine, especially rice wine, is much more important than grape wine in this narrative. Why? The author explains that “Grape wine is easier to produce than rice wine. However, as grapes are seasonal and cannot retain their freshness for long compared to grain, grape wine-making technology was not adopted extensively in China.”

Whereas grape wine is made when the grapes are harvested, rice wine (like beer) can be made year round from stored rice — a practical advantage. But grape wine was favored in times when it was necessary to conserve grain stocks.

The cultures and traditions associated with Chinese wine are superficially very different from ours.  Wine is if anything much more important in China (if I have read this book correctly) than it is here, but the social rituals of wine drinking seem to be the point, not the beverage itself. Maybe this is not so different after all? Chinese Wine is making reconsider what I thought I knew about grape wine’s social function in the world of vitis vinifera.

An Afterthought?

Chinese Wine treats us to discussions of the origins of Chinese wine, the varieties of Chinese alcohol, rituals and traditions, legends (a very interesting group of tales) and finally, towards the end, a bit about imported wine and its growing popularity. Seriously, imported wine takes up just a couple of pages if you don’t count the photos, and the most important brand name mentioned is Gallo’s Carlo Rossi red (which is credited with boldly entering the Chinese market in 1992).

Is that it? Is imported wine in China just an afterthought? Probably not, although it is good to put things in perspective. I suspect that the author was chosen because of expertise in Chinese cultural history and so the book reflects this (and goes lightly on China’s recent fascinating with Bordeaux). Certainly everything I read suggest that market for grape wines in China is growing and maturing rapidly.

But it doesn’t hurt to remember that wine exports to China to do enter a sort of market tabla rasa. Just because there are few European-style wine traditions in China doesn’t mean there are no wine traditions at all. And the importance of grain wine should not be ignored.

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I called this entry [Uncorked] because none of the traditional wine vessels illustrated in the book looks remotely like anything that you could stop up with a cork, highlighting the differences between Chinese and European-style wines. The urns and pots are often beautiful. A feast for the eyes!

In Search of Pinot Noir

Benjamin Lewin MW, In Search of Pinot Noir. Vendage Press, 2011.

Burgundy makes Burgundy, Benjamin Lewin reports (quoting a local producer). All the rest make [merely] Pinot Noir.

What should we make of Burgundy’s self-proclaimed status as king of the Pinot Noir hill? Lewin circled the globe to find out and this fascinating book is his report. I recommend it with enthusiasm.

To the Summit

Burgundy dominates the book, as one would suspect, both for its wines and because it is the standard of reference, and in the final pages Lewin reveals his conclusion: Burgundy does indeed stand at the summit based in part upon its superiority ability to age and develop in the bottle (with DRC and Domaine Leroy at the peak of the peak).

But Lewin’s search for Pinot, which takes him to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Oregon, California, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, reveals a number of near-rivals and raises many questions. The Pinot world may not be very big (compared with Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example), but it is a bigger world than Burgundians might like to think. And it is changing fast.

Dr. Lewin’s Lab Notebooks

Pinot Noir (along with Riesling) is thought to be the ultimate “terroir” wine, so the wines themselves should tell the story. In vino veritas as they say. This line in inquiry takes us into the detailed tasting notes that are appended to most chapters. These are Lewin’s lab reports (he is a famous scientist — a cell biologist — so it is unsurprising that he would evaluate claims empirically). At best the tasting notes are insightful observations of the ways that wine changes as time and place are varied. Sometimes, I have to admit, they are a bit like wine porn, read to vicariously share Lewin’s delicious work.

Do the wines of Burgundy live up to the myth of Burgundian terroir? Sometimes is Lewin’s answer. Burgundy at its best reveals its terroirist magic, but it doesn’t always turn out that way; caution and care are warranted. Winegrowing and winemaking practices can highlight terroir or disguise it. It just depends.

And climate change threatens to make Burgundy more like everyone else’s Pinot Noir by fundamentally altering growing conditions. Indeed, the book’s final pages ask whether Burgundy will be able to maintain its subtle complexity in the face of climate change and other challenges.

New World Challengers

I received my copy of In Search of Pinot Noir just as I was leaving to give some talks in Oregon Pinot country and I reported Lewin’s conclusions to my audience, which including many wine industry people. If you taste wines from different Oregon AVAs made by the same producer, Lewin writes, you can taste the terroir — just like in Burgundy. But when you taste wine from different producers in the same AVA, no strong common terroir thread emerges. Terroir is a weak force in the New World, it seems. Why? Lewin has an answer.

If you taste the best available Burgundies against the best available Pinots from Oregon and California, Lewin writes, the French wines “blow away” the competition. But it’s a biased comparison since the very best wines from New World producers never see the marketplace. They are tiny production single vineyard wines that disappear into allocation list buyers’ cellars. Ironically, they have no impact on the regions’ reputations and cannot define a signature terroir style.

The best available wines are more comparable to Burgundian village wines than the grand crus, according to Lewin. No wonder they suffer by comparison to the best of the best Burgundy has to offer. No wonder that Burgundy is Burgundy and the rest are not. Interesting.

Much to Like [and to Learn]

In Search of Pinot Noir, like Lewin’s earlier books (What Price Bordeaux? and Wine Myths and Realities) is big and bold, filled with colorful (and informative)  charts, maps and photos. The depth and breadth of Lewin’s analysis is impressive as he breaks down each Pinot Noir region into the historical, cultural, economic and natural forces that shaped it in the past and continues to influence it today. A great wine economist read. A great read period for anyone with a serious interest in Pinot Noir.

I think I learned something new on almost every page. But the most interesting parts  of the book for me are the questions, not the answers. Almost every chapter ends with a question about the future of Pinot Noir. Sometimes they seem to be leading questions (where you are pretty sure how Lewin would answer them) but others are very much more open.

I sense that the search for Pinot Noir is open, too. Market forces and climate change mean that the future is up in the air. Will Pinot Noir retain its special status as the ultimate terroir wine? Or will it become just another “international variety” with subtle differences slowly lost as styles converge on a rich, ripe “international style?”

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What make’s Pinot Noir different? Here’s the famous scene from Sideways where Miles makes the case for Pinot Exceptionalism. Enjoy! (Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above)

NZ Winemaking: Delayed Reaction meets Arrested Development

Eric Arnold, First Big Crush: The Down and Dirty on Making Great Wine … Down Under. Scribner, 2007.

I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this 2007 book about wine-making in New Zealand. I am very interested in Kiwi wine and I’ve written about it on several occasions. Can’t explain my why I didn’t find time for it until now.

Delayed Reaction

First Big Crush is Eric Arnold’s account of a year he spent working at the Allan Scott winery in Marlborough. It is a chronological record of what he did in the vineyard and cellar, the people he met and the flow of life, wine and commerce as the seasons changed.

I felt a personal connection as I read the book because Sue and I spent part of that same year in New Zealand and so I visited some of the places Arnold describes and met a few of the same people.

One of my strongest memories of that trip (which produced a chapter called “Globalization versus Terroir” in my 2005 book Globaloney) was a conversation with Jane Hunter. Hunter had just come from a difficult meeting with growers where she told them the bad news — they’d need to drop more grapes to preserve quality. Growers (who are usually paid by the ton) understood the need for a green harvest, but it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

Arrested Development

Arnold does a great job putting that difficult day (and many others like it) into context. And although wine economists are surely not the author’s target audience, I found Arnold’s explanations of the economic side of the business very interesting, especially the stories about grower relations and handshake contracts (that sometimes are literally worth the paper they are written on), vineyard labor relations and the crazy market for bulk wine within the New Zealand industry, which reminds me of a game of wine-infused Twister.

Although I am glad that I read this book for the reasons I’ve just explained, I have to admit that there were several points where I nearly stopped reading. The problem? Well, Arnold reports a lot of crude behavior often using crude language. Some of the humor would not be out of place in a middle school locker room. I guess I’m not surprised that this sort of thing goes on among wine-makers since it goes on every where else. It’s just not my cup of tea (or glass of Sauvignon Blanc?).

Authentic Wine: Terroirist Manifesto and DIY Guide

Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW,  Authentic Wine: toward natural and sustainable winemaking. University of California Press, 2011.

“The wine industry is at a crossroads,” write Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop in the concluding chapter of their fine new book, Authentic Wine. “Wine is a wonderful natural, authentic product. Do we emphasize this naturalness, celebrate the diversity of wine, and put our house in order by steering away from unneeded additions and manipulations? Or do we allow wine to become simply another manufactured beverage whose flavours are manipulated to match perceived consumer preferences?”

Thus do Goode and Harrop state what I have come to call the Terroirist Manifesto. It is pretty clear, when you put it this way, that our only choice is to take up arms in defense of natural, authentic wine. Going down the other road is unthinkable (and perhaps undrinkable).

Terroirist Sympathies Disclosed

Let me say up front that I am very sympathetic to the Terroirist Manifesto. Indeed, I argue in Wine Wars that “the revenge of the terroirists” is a necessary feature of the future of wine. We need terroirists to keep us (and our wine) honest.

But does it boil down to a simple choice — this way or that way? Despite my stated sympathies, I say no. Wine is not a single thing, it is many things and I think it that monolithic thinking is the wrong approach. Wine travels many roads and I don’t really see the harm if some wines are industrialized so long as that doesn’t stop other wines from taking a more arts and crafts approach. It is up to us, the consumers, to understand the difference so that the wines of the type that Goode and Harrop champion will endure and prosper.

So it would seem that I disagree with the authors, but that’s not really true. What makes this a really interesting book (and one that I recommend enthusiastically) is that Goode and Harrop argue strongly for the principle of authentic wine and then carefully instruct on the practical matter of how to get there, focusing on choices in the vineyard, the cellar and the marketplace and taking account the real world differences between high volume commercial products and small lot craft wines.

In other words, I think Goode and Harrop are really telling winemakers that they don’t have to make a big choice — wine is not really at a crossroads — because there are practical sensible ways to achieve their goals without debasing the idea of wine as a unique element of society. The key is keep the idea of authenticity in the forefront.

Natural versus Authentic Wine

So what is authentic wine? Well, even after reading the book I don’t think I can give you a precise definition. This may be by design. Apparently Goode and Harrop originally wanted to title their book Natural Wine, but then the “natural wine” movement appeared, advocating extremely limited intervention in wine making. Although its advocates argue that this is the only way to make “real wines” (remember the English “real ale” movement of a few years ago), others say that it is just a fad or an excuse for the flawed wines that result from this extreme approach.

Goode and Harrop were probably wise to duck this controversy. Although their goals may align pretty well with those of the most vocal natural wine advocates, their strategies and tactics do not. They are far too practical (a good thing in my book) and understand that no one is going to risk making a million gallons on flawed wine because they are wedded to the most extreme versions of the natural wine principle.

Goode’s fingerprints are readily recognized on many pages. A scientist, he is also author of The Science of Wine, a book that I have read from cover to cover twice and consult very frequently. The combination of emotional manifesto and reasoned analysis works very well.

VooDoo Viticulture?

So what do the authors think of biodynamic wine (the topic of last week’s post)? Biodynamics is an interesting test — a sort of enological shibboleth. You would think that biodynamics would be the ultimate natural wine, but the question is more complicated in practice. Although biodynamic wine is pretty consistent with natural wine practices in the vineyard, I think biodynamic rules actually allow some winemaking practices (sulfites, for example) that the “natural wine” proponents forbid. So biodynamic wine may be authentic, but not natural. Very strange.

Goode and Harrop devote an entire chapter to biodynamic viticulture and they offer a very readable summary of the  limited academic literature on the subject. The bottom line: there doesn’t seem to be any objective evidence that biodynamics has positive effects that go beyond those available through standard organic viticulture. The cosmic “voodoo” elements may be just that and, the authors warn, they may even have negative impacts to the extent that they divert the focus from organic practices.

So biodynamics is a hoax? Well, not so fast, the authors say. The limits of the test studies are examined, as they should be, and then the chapter finishes with a set of profiles of winemakers around the world and their biodynamic biographies (this, interestingly, a thumbnail version of the approach Katherine Cole takes in her book about biodynamics in Oregon, Voodoo Vintners). Maybe it really is doodoo voodoo yoga (as I reported in my last post) after all!

Goode and Harrop can’t prove that biodynamics works, but they don’t want to dismiss it. They are sympathetic (as am I) perhaps for philosophic reasons or perhaps it is political — every movement needs a few fundamentalists to keep the party line from straying too far.

Authentic Wine: A Fork in the Road?

At the end of the day it is pretty hard to argue with the idea of Authentic Wine as presented here. This is partly because Goode and Harrop make such a strong case, but it is also because in “authentic wine” they have created a flexible concept that is narrow when they want it to be and loose when that’s what’s needed — along with a map for  consumers and producers to follow so they can enjoy the benefits of authenticity without tears or fears.

Go to the fork in the road … and take it! I think it’s a step in the right direction.

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In case it isn’t clear above, I recommend Authentic Wine enthusiastically. I read it in the galley stage and wrote a “blurb” that you’ll find on the back cover. I saw one critic refer to this as an “academic book” and I suppose it is — it’s published by the University of California Press. But that doesn’t mean that it is tedious and full of charts and graphs. It is actually full of people, which is a great way to tell a story. It is a serious book, but you wouldn’t be reading The Wine Economist if you didn’t already have a serious interest in wine.

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