Here are two brief out-of-the-ordinary wine book reviews for your late-summer reading pleasure: “Dragon Vine” (or “Dragonvine”) and “Vine and Prejudice.” Special thanks to guest-reviewer Pierre Ly.
Steven Laine, Dragon Vine (iUniverse, 2022). Reviewed by Pierre Ly.
Carmine Cooper had never planned to take over the family winery. But when his father dies in a wildfire during harvest season, he puts his Master’s degree in architecture on hold to finish the vintage and decide whether to sell the winery. Having already lost his Chinese mom earlier in life, Carmine is the only one left to take care of his little sister Ava.
Steven Laine’s novel, Dragon Vine, begins in the terrifying but now sadly familiar context of the deadly wildfires that regularly affect California wine country. The turning point in Carmine’s life would be hard enough to deal with as it is, but it’s about to get much worse as he discovers his father’s outstanding debt and a land dispute with a disgruntled neighbor, faces ICE investigations, and, last but not least, San Francisco Chinatown gangs get involved!
There are many things I enjoyed in this book. First, the author takes the time to develop several key characters’ personalities and back stories. He does so in stages, never giving it all away at once, which kept me eager to learn more. Second, I enjoyed how Laine uses various elements of the story, often via dialogues, to educate readers about wine. Carmine’s journey lends itself naturally to show how difficult a business making and selling wine is. Experts and members of the wine trade will recognize many things, while readers less familiar with these issues will learn about them through Carmine’s eyes. After all, he’s a newbie himself, thrown overnight into the high pressure situation to run a winery, and we feel for him as he continues to learn the hard way.
As the story develops, we even learn about the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms, and also about how ICE raids affect wineries. Here again, the chosen characters help weave these topics seamlessly into the story. More surprisingly, we learn about wine tasting, sommeliers, and wine sales from a prominent Chinatown gang member, Jessica, a wine newbie herself, seeking a new profitable venture. Many readers will enjoy rolling their eyes along with Jessica as she discovers wine speak, tasting notes, and more. I especially liked the important part played by her Coravin, the device that allows you to preserve your nice wines in the long run by pouring small glasses without opening the bottle. I use one myself, and had never thought of how organized crime could take advantage of it.
The book is structured around 58 short chapters and goes back and forth between several separate story lines before connecting the dots. One of them is more separate than the others, and it could almost form an independent short piece of historical fiction. It is set in imperial China between 235 and 210 B.C., during the reign of China’s first emperor, and serves as a backstory for an ancient grape variety.
Throughout the first part of the book, I must admit to being a little impatient to see how the distinct story lines would eventually connect. The lengthy development of the imperial China story, while interesting and fun for its own sake, does delay the development of the central thriller plot a little. But I pushed myself to accept the author’s approach and stuck with it. My patience was rewarded once the dots started to connect more explicitly and the rhythm accelerated. Despite my early doubts about the length of the imperial China chapters, I found the aha moment very satisfying when Laine connects this back to the central plot.
The last two-thirds of the book are fast-paced and action-packed. The author excels at building vivid scenes made for TV, and his passion for the wine industry and the people that make it shines through. Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book and recommend it to wine enthusiasts and fans of thrillers and family drama.
Reviewer Pierre Ly is professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound and co-author with Cynthia Howson of Adventures on the China Wine Trail.
Atilio Scienza, Vine and Prejudice: Fake Science and the search for the perfect grape. Forward by Stevie Kim. Illustrated by Miriam Ferrari. Translated by Richard Hough. Mamma Jumbo Shrimp publishers, 2022. Reviewed by Mike Veseth.
This thought is provoked by a San Francisco newspaper review of Richard Brautigan’s book Trout Fishing in America. “… there is nothing like Brautigan anywhere,” the review suggests. “Perhaps, when we are very old, people will write “Brautigans,” just as we now write novels. Let us hope so.”
Well, there is nothing quite like a Scienza either, as represented by this new book, Vine and Prejudice. Like a Brautigan, it is a short paperback with relatively short chapters (Brautigan’s are shorter than Scienza’s or just about anyone else), each telling a story that builds, sometimes directly sometimes obliquely, towards the point, which might not be exactly what you expected.
Trout Fishing in America, for example, talks a lot about trout, but it is more about America. Vine and Prejudice talks a lot about science and viticulture, but it is really more about how people think of wine than the wine itself. That said, a Scienza, like a Brautigan, is by its nature open to interpretation. Different readers, stimulated by the contents, will walk away with different insights and conclusion.
My reading of this Scienza, for example, is especially shaped by the chapters that address the role of science in society. The world is like a sculpture — how you see it depends upon how you choose to look at it. You can stand in one place as see only one side, for example. Or you can move around, taking in many points of view and seeing many sides and angles.
Professor Scienza is clearly of the “walking around” viewpoint. The scientific perspective is very important and must not be ignored, but it isn’t enough by itself. He is deeply concerned, however, by recent anti-science and “fake” science trends and, I suppose, the possible reaction to them. Science has become part of the culture wars in some places, blunting its benefits.
Scienza makes this concern relevant to his wine-lover readers in many ways, but perhaps especially by discussing the role of science (and anti-science) in the history of phylloxera, the controversial status of hybrid grape varieties in that history, and the strong prejudice against hybrid varieties today. As you may know, some argue that hybrid varieties will be more and more important as the wine industry copes with climate change. It is important, therefore, that the science of the situation be considered.
A Scienza is not as easy to read as a Brautigan — the Professor is a professor, after all, and discussions of science are necessarily technical at times. At the end of the day Scienzas and Brautigans make us think and re-think and avoid prejudice against science and other things, too.