Herewith brief reviews of a series of regional wine guides by Benjamin Lewin MW and the newest volume in Caro Feely’s series on her family’s wine and vineyard experiences in France.
Not Your Usual Wine Guide
Benjamin Lewin MW, Guides to Wines & Top Vineyards Series. Vendage Press, various dates.
Benjamin Lewin travels the world analyzing the changing character of wine and writing about it in his many books and columns. A few years ago he decided to re-purpose some of this research into a series of “Intelligent Guides” to the world’s most famous wine regions.
Thus the research for his Wines of France became the raw material for a number of guides to individual wine regions. Satisfied with the results, Lewin moved on other regions. Here is the list of Lewin guides so far (a guide to Mosel and Rheingau is due out next year).
Bordeaux: Left Bank
Bordeaux: Right Bank
Burgundy: Côte d’Or
Southern Burgundy & Beaujolais
Barolo & Barbaresco
Port & the Douro
Napa Valley & Sonoma
These aren’t your usual wine guides. They don’t give tourist-friendly hotel and restaurant recommendations, for example. Your smartphone can do that. But they do dig down in surprising depth given their slim size in the facts and controversies that are key to a region’s wine identity.
Each compact volume, available in inexpensive e-book or paperback formats, first analyzes the region in terms of the key characteristics, dynamic forces, and critical issues and then moves on to analytical profiles of producers and their wines.
The choice of e-book and print-on-demand paperback formats allows Lewin to keep the books up to date. In fact, he is just now releasing updated and expended editions of the guides that include both profiles of the producers he sees as most important and mini-profiles of many others.
Lewin writes that
The series is partly a response to the view that wine books are becoming an increasingly specialized niche (except perhaps for reference books), and that people are more interested in focusing more precisely rather than reading broadly. The guides are partly oriented towards people who simply want to know about a region (so the text follows a similar approach to my books) and partly for people who may be interested in visiting producers (so there are details in the profiles, using symbols à la Michelin, to help with planning, and maps to show producer locations).
I loaded a couple of the guides onto my tablet for a recent speaking trip to Spain and Portugal. I found the guide to Port and the Douro to be remarkably useful. Clear, interesting, focused, analytical — it helped me understand a region that I was already familiar with in more depth and detail, especially the controversial beneficio system of the 1930s that continues to shape the Douro wine industry today.
The Alsace guide made me sad — but in a good way. We haven’t been to Alsace in many years and reading it made me realize how much we missed on earlier visits and how urgently we need to go back! And it helped me understand the variability I have experienced with wines from different Alsace producers, too. Fascinating!
Lewin’s guides, like his other works, are clear, detailed, and analutical. Lewin constantly asks questions and drives to answer them. He doesn’t hesitate to share his opinions, but always backs up his arguments. The result, for me at least, is a deeper understanding of the region and its changing place in the wine world.
Now back home, I have had time to read several other volumes in the series and I found each to be utterly fascinating. If you want to understand one of the wine regions in the series or contemplate a serious wine tourist expendition, Lewin’s guides are the place to start your research.
France Meets the Archers
Caro Feely, Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France. Summersdale, 2017.
Glass Half Full is the third volume is a series of books where Caro Feely chronicles her family’s struggle to make a life and make a living by making organic wine on a small vineyard estate in France. Caro and her husband dreamed that vineyard dream that so many of us have, but unlike others they took bold action and moved to France with their two small daughters.
Feely’s books should be required reading for anyone thinking about taking such a big step. Really, Silicon Valley Bank and other specialist wine industry lenders should have cases of this book and the previous volumes in their offices to hand out to people who come in looking for start-up winery loans!
What emerges from Feely’s clear prose is a realistic view of the wine business from the perspective of a small French vineyard. It is a positive story: the wines are great and the effort is worth it. But the physical and emotional toll can sometimes be very high. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong at some point (I think Mr. Murphy has a law about this) and stress levels run high.
I enjoy Feely’s books, including especially this new one, on many levels. I fell like I’ve gotten to know the Feely family a bit over the years and the personal stories and accounts of learning to live in France are part of the attraction. But, wait. There’s more.
Caro Feely weaves into these accounts a good deal of practical information about life in France, viticulture, winemaking and the wine business, too. In this regard Feely’s books remind me a little bit of the long-running British radio show The Archers, with its continuing story of rural life. Listeners these days think of it as a radio drama pure and simple, but it was actually created back in the 1950s with farm education to raise productivity and feed the nation in mind. Listeners came for the drama, but left with useful information about new farming practices and technology.
Caro Feely’s books are fun, informative, and moving, too. Highly recommended.