Book Review: Tom Acitelli on How American Wine Came of Age

Tom Acitelli, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Chicago Review Press, 2015.

At one point when I was working on my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated I realized that I needed to know more about how the craft beer industry developed here in the United States. So I talked with a lot of people and read a lot of articles and books on the subject.

One of my favorite references was a brisk and informative 2013 book by Tom Acitelli that he named The Audacity of Hops , an audacious play on the title of Barack Obama’s best-selling book,  The Audacity of Hope.  

Actitelli’s  beer book was useful and entertaining. It was packed full of information, but organized in an interesting way around personalities and key events. I have recommended it to several friends as a great introduction to the craft beer movement. Now Acitelli has written a wine book, too, and it fits the same profile: usefullly packed full of information and entertaining, too. I am pleased to recommend it to my friends.

An American Tale

Acitelli sets out to explain how the American wine market rose to become the largest in the world, starting more or less in the 1960s and moving on to the current vibrant wine scene.  Those 50 years are packed full of history, so it is necessary to pick and choose who and what to highlight and what factors to skip over.

The main thread will be familiar to many wine readers, drawing a line from Andre Tchelistcheff to Robert Mondavi and Mike Grgich, Jim Barnett, Warren Winiariski, and on to Randall Grahm and other familiar names. Defining moments are located in this narrative, including especially the founding of the Robert Mondavi Winery and the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting.

These stories are familiar and important, but what I found interesting was Acitelli’s ability to uncork unexpected facts and insights. It is clear that his writing ability is matched by his research skills. 

American Wine Culture

Although American Wine is the title of this book, it could have been named American Wine Culture because the story of how American attitudes toward wine changed is given at least equal treatment to the development of the wine industry itself. Thus, for example, the book begins not in a vineyard in Napa nor a cellar in Sonoma but in a restaurant in France where we meet Julia Child, the American who would  become television’s The French Chef.

Julia Child? Julia was not a particularly important shaper of American wine, but she was important in the transformation of American attitudes and behaviors about food and life, which has implications for wine. American wine would not be what it is today without the great cultural shift that Child helped lead.

In my 2011 book Wine Wars I wrote that Robert Mondavi tried to do for American wine what Julia Child tried to do for American cuisine. Taken together over a long period of time and in company of many others, it was a powerful movement. The intellectual and cultural transformation of America was a necessary pre-requisite for the growth of American wine.

American Wine Beyond the Headlines

Acitelli writes that, “A few events, the coverage they engendered, and a surprisingly few individuals changed all that [U.S. wine culture].” This focus on a small number defining moments like Sideways and the Judgement of Paris, media reactions, and famous names like Parker and Mondavi helps the author tell the story, and he tells it very well and in good depth, but it is a narrower story than the one I understand.  I would nudge the breadth versus depth trade-off needle just a little bit the other way.

I’d happily trade yet another Robert Parker story, for example, for a fuller account of Oregon’s stunning emergence and how that altered both American wine itself and the idea of what wine could be in America. Oregon pioneer David Lett, alas, gets but a single mention here as one of a group of Davis boys who went north.

There are so many great tales in the rise of American wine that I wish even more of them appeared here. But it is impossible to tell every story or fully satisfy every reader and that doesn’t diminish my respect for this book , which I happily recommend to novice and expert alike  Great story-teller (Acitelli) meets great story (wine in America) — it’s a perfect pairing. Cheers!


If American Wine is the story of the last 50 years of wine in the United States as told from the outside in (stressing media, culture, international influences and reception), what would an inside-out story look like? Come back next week to find out.

Jerry Lockspeiser Reviews Money, Taste & Wine for Harpers Wine & Spirit

Thanks to Jerry Lockspeiser  for his review of Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated  at the Harpers Wine & Spirit website.  It’s a warm and generous review and I think Jerry has caught the spirit of what I was trying to accomplish in the book. Many thanks.

Please click on the link to read the entire review. You can find links to all the review here. Here’s a quick “blurb” excerpt to whet your appetite.

“Mike Veseth appears to be on a mission . . . in discussing aspects of the wine world in a language ordinary mortals can understand. . . . He is so adept at making complex issues fun and accessible. This book should appeal to wine consumers and professionals intrigued to understand more about the issues behind the product itself.”

Wine Sustainability & Sensory Analysis Congresses at SIMEI 2015

milan1I am pleased to report that I will be speaking at two international wine congresses in Milan, Italy next month.

I’ll be speaking at  the International Congress on Sustainability “SUSTAINABILITY AS A TRIBUTE TO WINE QUALITY” on 3rd November 2015  and “DISCOVER THE SENSORY FACTORS” on 4th November 2015 during the 26th edition of SIMEI – International Enological and Bottling Equipment Exhibition in Milan, Italy. This event is sponsored by the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.

The congresses feature innovative and interactive programs and an impressive group of speakers and participants. I am very pleased to take part! Here is a description taken from the conference website.

“For the 2015 edition of SIMEI – International Enological and Bottling Equipment Exhibition – the WORLD LEADER in wine technology and the only international biennial exhibition which presents at the same time machinery, equipment and products for production, bottling and packaging  of all drinks, Unione Italiana Vini has confirmed its commitment in the organization of global hot topics congresses.”

milan2“The Congress will develop two different but strictly connected topics and will involve the most authoritative international experts of the scientific community. Prominent personalities have already been invited to participate in two complementary Steering Committees, chaired by two recognized international icons, the likes of Ettore Capri (Opera Research Centre- Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore) and Anita Oberholster (Enology Department of Viticulture and Enology- UC Davis).
“Stakeholders from the wine chain will fully be involved: farmers, service providers, operators of sustainability programs, retailers and the trade in general, consumers will be called to participate in an event that will exploit modern techniques of interactive participation.”
“That is the natural sequel of the International Congress that was held during Simei 2013 (SUSTAINABLE VITICULTURE AND WINE PRODUCTION: STEPS AHEAD TOWARD A GLOBAL AND LOCAL cross-fertilization).”
Here are two videos that explain the international congresses and another that shows what SIMEI is all about.

Now in Paperback: Extreme Wine

The paperback edition of my 2013 book Extreme Wine has been released, taking its place with the hardback, e-book and audio-book versions. Now there is really no excuse for not having a copy of Extreme Wine with you wherever you are!

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do it all the time, which is why wine producers give so much attention to their label designs. Extreme Wine‘s paperback design is even more attractive than the hardback — there is something about the way the colors come through on the paperback that makes the package “pop.”

Lighter, less expensive and even more beautiful — Extreme Wine paperback has it all. Talk about shameless self-promotion!

A Backseat Reader’s Guide to the Oxford Companion to Wine

Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, The Oxford Companion to Wine 4/e.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

I started teaching a university course called The Idea of Wine at about the time that the third edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine appeared and it was such a fantastic reference that I had my students purchase it and read various entries for each class session along with other books and articles.

The Curse of the Backseat Reader

One day about a month into the class I asked the students to give me feedback about the various readings. When it came to the Oxford Companion there was nearly unanimous praise. Concise, detailed, informed, well-written — they liked everything about it except its heavy weight, which burdened their backpacks.

One student disagreed.  What don’t you like about the book, I asked? All the other students seem to enjoy it? “Well, they didn’t have to listen to my father reading article after article to me from the backseat of the car all the way back from San Francisco!” 

Yes, I suppose that could get tedious. The Oxford Companion does invite a certain kind of use that I now call Backseat Reading. Start anywhere in the book and whatever article you have chosen will suggest two or three others to jump to. The number grows and grows and pretty soon an hour has slipped away most agreeably.

Backseat reading. Pure pleasure for the reader with a book like this, but hard on the daughter up front in the driver seat who has to endure endless interruptions. “Hey, listen to this!” “Hey, did you know this?” And on and on and (I am sure it seemed) on some more.

There are at least two ways to read the Oxford Companion — look up an entry, read and digest it. Or let yourself surf the book as you would surf the net. Either way it is a great addition to your bookshelf.

New and Improved!

So what’s new about the fourth edition? Well, the format is the same, with alphabetically listed cross-referenced articles that range in length from a couple of paragraphs to several pages. There are maps, too, although you won’t mistake this for a wine atlas. The utility my students found is here as well as is the pure pleasure of the backseat reader. It is still heavy (unless you buy the digital edition, of course) — the Oxford editors limited Jancis and Julia to a 4 percent increase in total word count.

By the numbers, here are now 4104 entries written by 187 authors. The count of new entries is 300 starting with “access system, wine” (Coravin and other wine dispensing systems) and Accolade Wines (formerly part of Constellation) to WSET, Zametovka, and Zelen (the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and two grape varieties from Slovenia respectively).

Beyond the numbers, entries have been thoroughly rewritten and updated as necessary to take into account the hundreds of ways the world wine map has changed. New research, new trends, new players, new rules, new priorities. No wonder we needed a new edition. I found the articles very fresh, which is not always the case with revisions. The authors and editors have done  a distinct service to the wine world with this edition.

A great resource, great source of pleasure for wine lover and in every respect even better than before. Cheers to Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. What an incredible achievement!  Highly recommended — just don’t let your dad get in the backseat with it!

“Wine By Numbers” and the Wine Market Data Trilemma

Readers send me email every week looking for wine economics data because they frequently get frustrated trying to find current information about wine consumption, production, prices and trade. Lots of data are collected, but it isn’t always easy to sort through and it is often available only at a cost (frequently a very high cost).

Sometimes it seems like there is a wine economics data trilemma (I talk about trilemmas in my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated).  Researchers want the three Cs: data that is current, complete and cheap (free is even better), but it is hard to get all three.

Current and complete will cost you. Current and cheap is sometimes available, but it might not be complete. Complete and cheap, yes, but maybe a bit dated. You can probably think of examples of all three “trilemma” trade-offs.

There may not be a solution to this trilemma, but I am always looking for resources that can help fill in the gaps and I think I have found one in “Wine by Numbers,” which is provided by Il Corriere Vinicola and the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.  The website explains its purpose this way

The first web magazine dedicated to the international wine trade. Data and figures of the main exporter and importer countries at a glance: Italy, France, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Brazil.

The data are exposed in tables and figures with details on packaged wines, bulk and sparkling, showed in volume, value and average price.

Free monthly and annual pdf publications are provided by “Wine by Numbers” and, while they don’t eliminate the trilemma issue, they are great resources for anyone wishing to know more about world wine markets.

Book Review: The Perfect Wine? Multi-sensory Lessons from Planet Food

Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, The Perfect Meal: The multisensory science of food and dining. (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

One of the many benefits of speaking at Wine Vision 2014 in London last year was being able to participate in a multi-sensory wine tasting demonstration presented by Oxford professors Barry Smith and Charles Spence. As the Harpers report of the event explained, “it is not enough to get the liquid right” because how we experience a wine depends on many factors that can have both positive and negative effects.

Nose Clips and Jelly Beans

I have talked about this as “wine in context” and I wrote about it on The Wine Economist and then again in the first chapter of my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. Professors Smith and Spence are way ahead of my experiments and they were able to make many useful points in just a few minutes.

One quick experiment invited us to match wine with music, a task that Sue and I repeated in greater detail a few weeks ago at a lecture by Callifornia winemaker  Clark Smith. He actually had us hold a particular Chardonnay in our mouths for a few seconds and, by switching musical selection, changed the sensation from sweet to bitter. Unbelievable!winevision

One of my favorite moments at the Wine Vision seminar (captured in this photo collage) came when we were asked to put special clips on our noses so that the sense of smell was suppressed. Then we popped jelly beans into our mouths and … there was no flavor. None!  Now take the clip off, Prof. Spence directed, and a world of intense flavors erupted.   I knew that aroma was important to taste, but I have never seen it demonstrated so effectively. (And it was hilarious to see all of us standing around with nose clips popping jelly beans!)

The overall message was that wine is about more than what’s in the glass and that this is important both to consumers who want to enjoy wine and to the Wine Vision audience, made up of people who want to make and sell wine. And, as the jelly bean case showed, it isn’t just wine that depends on the multi-sensory context, it is everything and there may be much to learn from analysis of other products that can be applied to wine.

What Can  Planet Wine Learn from Planet Food?

Given all this, you can understand why I was interested in reading Prof. Spence’s The Perfect Meal, which usefully synthesizes the vast literature on multi-sensory analysis over on Planet Food.  Topics include

  • menus and service,
  • the art and science of food description,
  • the impact of plating, plateware and cutlery,
  • the  multi-sensory perception of flavor,
  • the role of surprise,
  • dining in the dark,
  • atmosphere,
  • technology and finally
  • the future of the perfect meal.

The idea is clearly that a dining experience can be improved through careful attention to each aspect of the experience. This is obviously also true for wine and in fact I think you can probably think of a wine analog for each of the dining factors I listed in the previous paragraph (glassware = plateware, for example).

I learned a great deal about dining and sensory analysis from The Perfect Meal, but of course my real purpose was to open up my thinking about wine — to think outside the wine bottle, if you know what I mean. Wine appears just once in the book — on page 56 in a discussion about the enormous variation in restaurant wine prices (same wine, much different price at the restaurant down the street), but ideas popped into my head in just about every chapter.

The Organic Wine Paradox

Here’s one example just to whet your appetite. Here on Planet Wine we suffer from what I call the Organic Wine paradox. Consumers seem to be increasingly interested in all things organic and your typical upscale supermarket features more and more organic products. But wine seems to be  lagging behind. Winegrowers are increasingly interested in going organic, but they are pushing on a string. Why don’t consumers pull organic wine along to a greater extent?

The Perfect Meal‘s authors report that attitudes towards organic foods are quite context sensitive and it is not always easy to predict whether an organic indicator will be a plus or a minus. They  report (pages 87-88) that when American consumers were surveyed about organic fruits and vegetables a frequent (28%) attitude (especially among those who indicated a low concern for the environment) was that the organic products would be healthier but have poorer taste. So organic can be a turn off, at least some of the time. Other studies found that consumers could find no taste difference between the organic and conventional fruits and veggies in blind tastings, so where did that attitude come from? Go figure.

Another study looked at cookies. The test subjects were presented with the same cookies, sometimes labelled organic and sometimes not. They apparently enjoyed the organic cookies s lot and bestowed on them  a kind of  “halo effect” because they associated them with lower calories even when there was no objective difference in calories, taste, etc. It’s all in our heads, I guess, and that’s important to remember.

There is much more to be said about the research into perceptions of organic foods, but let’s stop here and think about what we’ve learned. The success of  organic foods generally masks some real complicated consumer behavior. When the food is inherently healthy (fresh fruit) some consumers will see organic as a potential negative, but when the product is unhealthy to begin with (cookies) organic can be seen as a plus. So where does wine fit into this? In different ways for different consumers, I’ll bet, and the impact of an “organic” designation probably depends on other context factors, such as whether the wine is sold in Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or some other “green and organic” retailer. Organic wines face a very complicated consumer environment!

This is not the only example I could cite and probably not the best once, but it gives a sense of what The Perfect Meal offers to those of us on Planet Wine. An interesting read if you want to think outside the bottle!


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