Book Review: Robinson and Murphy on American Wine

Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy, American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States. University of California Press, 2013.

I’m in Sacramento this week for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, the largest wine industry gathering in the Western Hemisphere. I came for the informative seminars of course but it’s the trade show that really takes my breath of away. Hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of products and services — wow! It makes me reconsider my vision of wine in America.

Wine isn’t just about bottles and corks and retail shelves and its not just California, either. The American wine industry is broad and deep, spanning the continent and reaching into almost every imaginable type of business and walk of life. Looking across the trade show floors (two of them because there are so many exhibitors) provides a dramatic vision of what wine in this country has become.

American Wine, the beautiful and informative new book by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy, has the same breath-taking effect. No matter how you think of American wine, this book shows you that there is more to it than you ever imagined.

Drilling Down Deep

The main text is organized around geography, as you might expect, starting with large national regions, then the wine producing states (with California getting the lion’s share of  the page count), then regions within states, AVAs, sub AVAs and so on.  As the authors drill down, they pass through many layers that include geography and geology, history, industry, viticulture, producers, personalities and finally the wines themselves.

As a test I worked my way though the Sonoma section in detail and it was an amazing experience to have all these dots connected so seamlessly and well and illustrated with beautiful photos and useful maps. By the end, after taking in all of Sonoma’s regions and AVAs, I felt that I had a much more nuanced understanding of this complicated and important region and its unique characteristics.

One of the things that I like best about American Wine is that it takes its title seriously and attempts to do for the entire country what it obviously does for California. You would expect the major producing states like Washington, New York and Oregon to get detailed treatment here and they do. But you might not expect detailed analysis of Colorado, for example, with its rapidly emerging industry, or Missouri with its important viticultural history. Indeed, every state makes wine in one way or another and every state gets serious consideration here. (Alabama and Mississippi get just a paragraph each, it must be said, but maybe that’s not a surprise).

A Bit Overwhelming

By the end of the book I felt a bit overwhelmed, and not just by the vast landscape of detailed information. It was more of an emotional response. American Wine helped me re-imagine America as a country where wine is deeply embedded in history and culture and widely embraced.

Wine consumption is still low in America if we judge by European standards, and wine still struggles to overcome the legacy of Prohibition. American Wine recognizes these challenges, but it projects an inspiring vision of wine today that suggests how it might evolve and develop in the future.

While no single volume can possible satisfy all interests (I’m sure my friend Karl will wonder why New Jersey didn’t get the attention he believes it deserves), I think this American Wine lives up its “ultimate companion” subtitle. Highly recommended.

>>><<<

American Wine is the second new book Jancis Robinson has published this season. Wine Grapesco-authored with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, came out just before the holidays. It’s a magisterial survey of global wine viewed through more than 1300 grape varieties. Writing just before Christmas, I declared it the best gift a wine enthusiast could hope to receive. Now you can add American Wine to the list.

Only one thing could make Wine Grapes better (apart from a lower price, of course) — access to a searchable electronic version. Jancis says they are working on it, but it’s not a simple task with a book of such size and complexity. Fingers crossed that we see it before too long!

Book Review: Italy in a Bottle (but maybe not what you think)

Grappa: Italy Bottled by Ove Boudin. (Originally published as Grappa: Italien på Flaska) Stockholm Text, 2012. Kindle download available here).

Any book that is subtitled “Italy Bottled” should be about Italian wine — right? The only question is which Italian wine? Italy has so many wines, so many wine regions and so many grape varieties that the question is maybe not so much which wine as it is which Italy?

So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that this is a book about grappa, not wine, and since this is the Wine Economist blog, not the Grappa Economist or the Spirits Economist, I wondered if I would like it. Seduced as usual by all things Italian, I optimistically opened the e-book and began.

What a beautiful book — that was my first impression. The photos made me wish for a coffee-table sized physical book so that I could just drink them in. But I imagine that a physical book would be enormously expensive (Amazon lists the used 2008 edition of this book in hardback at prices that start at $320 and peak out over $500. Yikes! The e-Book is only $3.99.)  E-book it is, then, but this is definitely best viewed on a computer or tablet with a larger color screen.

Cool photos are nice, but it’s Italy after all, so you expect physical beauty. What about the book itself (and why would a wine enthusiast care)? 

Two Books in One

There are really two books here. The first can be thought of as a Practical Companion to Grappa because it really does tell you nearly everything you might want to know about this fiery liquid and in an interesting and informative way.

Grappa is closely related to wine because it is distilled from vinaccia, the grape solids that remain from the wine making process. The vinaccia residue from red wine is already alcoholic, since the skins and the juice were in contact during fermentation and can go straight to the distillery pot (fresher is better, the author advises). White wine vinaccia is alcohol free because the skins were whisked away before fermentation — these aromatic solids need to be fermented before distilling can begin.

The Wine Road to Grappa

So wine and grappa are related both in terms of raw materials (the grape varieties) and process, but there’s a lot more to the connection than this. Author Boudin assumes that you probably know very little about grappa, but that perhaps you know a bit more about wine and he exploits this fact. He defines the process of making grappa by  reference to wine-making, he talks about grappa terroir and he even outlines a grappa-tasting protocol that generally parallels wine tasting but is fundamentally different from it in some respects.

Grappa is tasted differently from wine because grappa is a different and much stronger drink with a different purpose. Wine tasting is performed on certain occasions or moments – for example when a new bottle is opened or when a glass of wine is served – and afterwards the wine is enjoyed. A grappa on the other hand should be tasted every time! At every intake of the bouquet, at each mouthful, at every swallow and at every taste sensation and association. Grappa is a complex sensory experience that simulates an inner-dialogue as well as a discussion around the table.

Good advice, I think if you want grappa tasting, not grappa drinking and grappa drunking. But good advice for wine drinkers, too. We shouldn’t take these precious liquids for granted. We should always taste (and enjoy)!

Unexpected Pleasures

The fact that Boudin’s insights about grappa often apply to wine is one of the unexpected pleasures of reading this part of the book. To pick an appropriate economic example, Boudin writes about the difference between artisan grappa and the bulk industrial product (a difference that exists in the wine world).

You might expect that he would praise the boutique product and condemn the manufactured commodity. But you would be wrong.

Some aficionados and purists (who only accept boutique grappa) are of the opinion that industrial distillers are a threat to the future of true grappa. However, both distillery schools have their different roles that in the big-picture presuppose each other’s existence.

The role of the industrial distilleries is to provide the world with grappa. Volume production and efficiency are key words here. Industrial-scale grappa is made from not only fresh grape skins, but also grape skins that have been stored for a period of time. Due to the production techniques, industrial grappa has a more neutral flavour. But industrial distilleries can still deliver a good, consistent-quality grappa. …

Customers have the right to know what they are buying. When, where, of what, by whom and by which method is the grappa made? Today, there are not enough labeling requirements to ensure that detailed information is consistently provided. The manufacturers themselves determine to a large extent what should appear on the bottle.

A declaration of goods of this kind would be beneficial for the smaller artisan distillers as they could lay claim to certain quality concepts as discontinuo (batchwise production). The industrial distilleries could offer this as they have the resources, the advantage and a global market. And a stronger focus on the quality of grappa would increases the interest in grappa and consequently the market.

This scenario would benefit all grappa producers.

Giro d’Italia / Grappa Edition

The second part of the book reports on a personal tour through Italy’s grappa heartland and it reads like what it is — a grappa enthusiast’s travelogue, complete with all the practical facts (I visited this town, stayed at this agritourismo, dined at this small restaurant, etc.) that you might expect. It is well written and useful if you want to follow in Boudin’s tracks, either for grappa or wine or simply for  pleasure.

I’ll admit that I didn’t read all of this part of the book. I only wanted to know one thing: Did he go to the hills outside of Asti and visit Azienda Rovero? Sue and I stayed with the Rovero family during our 2011 trip to Piemonte. We loved their wines and the local cuisine they served at the restaurant.  The grappa was great, too, but I ignored Boudin’s advice and didn’t taste it in all its fullness.

But I will the next time because of course he did go there and devotes ten pages to his experience. It sounds like it was one of the highlights of his journey.

Grappa: Italy Bottled is a beautiful book that will interest a wide audience that includes wine lovers. Highly recommended!

>>><<<

The photo above shows the chapel at the Rovero winery and distillery. Boudin had dinner there and so did we. Here are notes from our meal for your reading pleasure!

One highlight of our stay was a meal at the family restaurant, which is generally open only on weekends. Enrico’s mother prepared a menu of regional dishes that Enrico paired with Rovero family wines. It was the perfect way to learn about the wines — tasting them with the local Monferrato cuisine while talking with the winemaker about wine, wine markets and his plans for the future.  So you want to know what we ate, of course. OK, here’s the menu.

  • Two types of typical Piemontese salami crudo
  • Small puffed pastries stuffed with local cheese
  • Fried zucchini flowers
  • Soft herbed cheese
  • Salad of shredded chicken and radicchio in balsamic dressing
  • Zucchini and basil flan in an intensely rich Parmesan cream
  • Torta di fagiolini (green beans)
  • Tagliolini (thin, flat pasta) with peas and zucchini
  • Veal and roasted potatoes in a Barbera sauce
  • Panna cotta, bonet (chocolate panna cotta), and hazelnut cake

And the wines that complemented the meal:

  • Rovero Baptista (Riesling Italico)
  • Rovero Villa Drago (Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Rovero “La Casalina” (Grignolino D’Asti)
  • Rovero Spanase’ (Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Nebbiaia (Nebbiolo Monferrato)
  • Rovero “Gustin” (Barbera D’Asti Superiore)
  • Rovero Rouve (Barbera D’Asti Superiore aged in French oak)
  • Rovero Brachetto (frizzante red dessert wine)
  • Rovero Calasaya (fortified Barbera D’Asti)
  • Rovero Ampolo Reserva 1998 (grappa made from Barbera)
  • Rovero Brandy (aged in barrel for 10 years)

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.

>>><<<

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.

>>><<<

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!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,805 other followers