One of the very first books I read about wine was Leon Adams' remarkable Wines of America. Published in 1973, its narrative took us into vineyards to see the land and into cellars to meet the people and learn their histories, just as wine was on the cusp of entering American culture.
California was only just coming into focus for most Americans, but the intrepid Adams ranged from coast to coast. He explored the Finger Lakes in New York, the byways of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri and hardy souls seeking to make something of the grape in Texas, Arkansas, Ohio and Michigan. He did not miss the first glimmers of what would be coming from Washington and Oregon, either.
I knew Leon, who died in 1995. He was no snob about wine, but he praised no wines that did not earn it. He was a storyteller, and a good reporter, too. He got the details right. The book conveyed a palpable sense of reality.
Over the years, others have taken a shot at capturing between the covers of a book the vibrant developments in the world of wine across America. Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy are the authors of the latest, American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States (University of California Press, 278 pages, $50), just published. Robinson, an Englishwoman, bestrides the wine reference business; her must-have reference books include The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine and Wine Grapes. She also has her own eponymous website. Murphy, a Californian, has written and edited wine journalism in California for years.
A worthy effort on many levels, the book covers all 50 states, shining light on corners of the U.S. most of us probably don't think of as wine country. Lovely photos enliven the pages, and handy information boxes deliver facts efficiently. The maps are solid, in the same format as Robinson's atlas.
I would recommend the book more enthusiastically if the coverage of regions I know (because I've been writing about them myself for several decades) showed better insight, and accuracy. The Oregon chapter, for example, calls Argyle "a textbook Dundee Hills producer with a splash of Champagne-quality wine to liven things up." Actually, it also has extensive vineyards in Eola-Amity Hills, and it started as a sparkling wine house; it is by far the state's largest maker of fizz.
The book is at its best when it, like Adams' effort, tells personal stories. It comes to life explaining how several of Washington's leading vintners partnered with Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills to make it the state's most celebrated site, or how the friendship of Gary Figgins and Rick Small founded winegrowing in Walla Walla Valley. But as it roams farther afield, much of the text takes a more distant approach, reciting facts and history rather than humanizing the story.
Although more than half of its pages re-till the well-plowed ground of California, every state has at least a page or a few, even Alaska and Hawaii. The coverage sees the glass half full. Colorado, for example, which I know better than others, strikes me as more of a mixed bag than its five pages of text suggest. It's fun to drink a Colorado-grown wine from time to time when I spend several weeks every summer there. But aside from a memorable Woody Creek Cabernet Franc and some Rhône blends from The Infinite Monkey Theorem, I have a tough time justifying the prices asked for the drinkable but not exceptional wines I have tried.
My experience, limited though it might be, is similar with other touted wine-producing states, such as Arizona, Texas and Virginia. Good wines? Sure. High batting average? Uh, not yet. More critically, I have yet to find wines that represent character personal enough, that speak a distinctive enough language that I want to seek them out when I don't happen to be in the region where they are made.
This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Around the world, even in Italy or France, wines from places that are not viticulturally renowned seem charming in their home clime. But they need that context to succeed. Try them on neutral ground and they don't seem quite so special.
Some wines certainly will emerge from currently unsung states, but this book treats them all as if they are equal. When Adams wrote Wines of America he correctly tabbed California Cabernet and Oregon Pinot Noir, which hardly anyone was even talking about, as wines worth watching. What's your prediction for which wines from which unacclaimed American regions might be next?