Brief reviews of three new books that curious wine enthusiasts should consider.
Rebecca Gibb, Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud (University of California Press). Reviewed by Sue Veseth.
As long as there had been wine, there has been fraud. If there is money to be made, someone will figure out how to make it — and then how to make a little more, legitimately or not. Or, as Rebecca Gibb, MW, writes, “A splash of narcissism blended with greed makes for a toxic combination.” Gibb engagingly covers centuries of narcissism, greed, and wine fraud from ancient Greece and Rome to recent history, and efforts to root out and address fraud at all levels of the chain.
Gibb’s writing style reminded me in some ways of the style of another author and journalist I admire: Sarah Vowell. Gibb’s writing is light, breezy, and full of interesting content with contemporary references.
I started noting particular phrases from Gibb’s book that tickled me: a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s “inner wine nerd,” for example, and, in discussing Jefferson’s efforts to recover from a broken wrist, “… so he decided to do what we would all do when we are in pain: cross the Alps on the back of a mule.” Another treat: using Bart Simpson to tell the story of Austria’s mid-1980s scandal involving diethylene glycol added to wine.
Make no mistake, however: behind the writing style is serious research, scholarship, and analysis. She digs into the numbers, sequences of events, historical context, and principal players. The chapter on the 1911 riots in Champagne — the subject of Gibb’s MW thesis —is particularly deep and wide.
No doubt, people will continue to commit wine crimes, likely with new technological tools, such as artificial intelligence. But, in the end, it all seems to come down to greed. The lesson from the 1983 movie Scarface may apply, as the character Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) said, “Lesson number one: don’t underestimate the other guy’s greed.”
Wine is good, but wine and a story is better, so wineries everywhere love to tell their stories, often in the form of lavishly illustrated books. Sue and I have a love-hate relationship with winery books. We love to read them and look at the beautiful illustrations, but when we are on the road we fear that our winery hosts will give us copies of their books, which are typically large format, heavy from the glossy stock they are printed on, and nearly impossible to pack.
This new book about South Africa’s most famous winery conveniently arrived in the mail from the Academie du Vin Libaray and we were very happy to receive it. It is beautiful, of course, and tells this winery’s fascinating story with panache. Joanne Gibson focuses on the winery’s rich history while co-author Malu Lambert brings things up-to-date, showing the winery’s recent transformation into both a world-class producer and a wine tourism destination. A final chapter provided by the winery itself looks at the road ahead.
In a way Klein Constantia has grown into the reputation that its wines first established in the 17th century and that persisted through centuries. Once upon a time this signature wine was held in great esteem as one of the most desired wines in the world (and priced accordingly). The Constantia name rings in literature to signify opoulence, taste, luxury.
But, like South African wine in general, Klein Constania suffered from deep decline before rising again in the last 30 years. I was especially pleased to see the contributions of Duggie Jooste, who essentially resserected the winery and put it on the path back to prominence, and viticulturalist Ernst le Roux and winemaker Ross Gower who worked so closely with him. I had the pleasure of meeting Duggie’s son Lowell Jooste and Adam Mason, the winemaker who continued Gower’s work, on my first visit to South Africa. Both are prominently mentioned here.
Duggie Jooste and his team are the heroes of this fascinating story of rise, fall, and eventual rebirth spanning more than three centuries. Eventually the Jooste family realized they lacked the capital to take the winery to the next level and sold to the current owners, who have indeed taken that step and given us a wine, a place, and now this beautiful book that warmly honors its unique history.
Daniel E Bender, The Food Adventurers: How around-the-world travel changed the way we eat (Reaktion Books). Reviewed by Mike Veseth.
I am pre-disposed to like books that take a global perspective (I guess that’s why I wrote Around the World in 80 Wines!) and I enjoy thinking outside the box, and trying to learn about wine by studying related fields.
So I could not resist Daniel E. Bender’s new book that looks at how around-the-world travel (think Jules Verne) changed the way we think about food. If travel could change food, maybe it could change wine? I was curious to start the adventure.
At first glance, the story is a bit discouraging. You want to hear that, if travel is broadening, then global travel is positively enlightening. But many of the early tourist circumnavigators, whether traveling over land or by ship, seem to become more parochial as the miles accumulate. Foreign food? Disgusting and sometimes even dangerous (don’t drink the water).
There are exceptions to the general rule that global travel tends to reinforce local prejudices about food in these pages. Ristafel, the Dutch-Indonesian colonial feast, always got high marks from travellers, we learn, although more for the elaborate service than for the food itself. And, zooming ahead to the jet age, the fake Polynesian experience of Trader Vic’s restaurants in Hilton hotel around the worlds was both ridiculous and ridiculously popular. Both the ristafel and Trader Vic’s get full-chapter treatment.
Travel and exposure to foreign food, according to the accounts that form the base of Bender’s book, both open minds and palates and shut them tightly closed, which nicely illustrates Thomas Friedman’s theory that globalization is “everything and its opposite.”
Bender focuses on how these global tourists encounter foreign food, but wine appears frequently in the travel accounts. Not foreign wine, but the familiar European wines (and spirits) that the travelers brought with them. Indeed, alcohol seems to have fueled the commercial around-the-world travel industry. The Franconia, a tourist steamer with 356 passengers, typically left home port with 4000 bottles of whiskey, 4000 bottles of wine, 2800 bottles of Champagne, and 49,000 bottles of beer to be consumed during the circumnavigation.
I suppose the Franconia’s passengers were as suspicious of foreign drinks as they were of the disgusting, dangerous foods they encountered. No wonder they hurried back on board the ship each evening to eat and drink the familiar foods of home (as many cruise ship passengers do today!).
My reading of Bender’s book is that travel hasn’t made as much of a difference in food and drink as I might have hoped. Perhaps travel is too much of a surface phenomenon in most cases? Maybe migration is the more significant source of change?
It seems that the spread of food and wine cultures depends on personal experiences and relationships; the deeper those connections, the more significant the effects. Worth reflecting upon this as you contemplate your next foreign adventure.