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Wine Tip: The Cellar Bookshelf

Our editors review recently released books about wine

Posted: March 1, 2012

Note: These book reviews first appeared in the December 31, 2011 - January 15, 2012 issue of Wine Spectator.

Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists
By Mike Veseth (Rowman & Littlefield, 264 pages, $24.95)

It's said that wine is bottled poetry, but Mike Veseth knows it is also big business. Veseth, a professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, has pulled together his love of wine and economic sensibilities to write a book that is an interesting, accessible read.

Veseth is clearly enthusiastic about both wine and economics, and as a self-proclaimed "wine economist" he explains the intersection of these interests with verve. It's a quick tour of the field, and for the purposes of his discussion, he sticks to big names and describes the successes of Yellow Tail, Charles Shaw, Blue Nun, Costco, Tesco and even Olive Garden with admiration. As an economist he sees the benefits of globalization, including more choices for consumers and a stabilizing effect for an industry that reacts slowly to changes in supply and demand.

Veseth falls short, however, of painting the picture of an actual "war," as his title suggests. Certainly globalization and the notion of terroir (the "somewhereness" of wine) might seem at odds, but, as he points out, terroirists and globalization not only coexist in the market, they also borrow tools and ideas from each other. He also doesn't address the thousands of other brands that fall somewhere between the extremes of mass-produced and small traditionalists.

At times the book can be a bit repetitive (it was drawn from multiple essays from Veseth's blog at wineeconomist.com), and it's unclear if he's writing for wine novices or enthusiasts. But there are plenty of fascinating takes on not only the economics of wine, but also how history, culture and even climate change affect its direction.
-MaryAnn Worobiec

Grand Cru: The Great Vines of Burgundy Through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards
By Remington Norman (Sterling Epicure, 240 pages, $35)

Burgundy is a complex region. The good news is that there are a number of excellent books that explain it. Remington Norman's latest, Grand Cru, joins two other must-have volumes published in 2010, one by Allen Meadows, the other by Jasper Morris. Norman's The Great Domaines of Burgundy, first published in 1992, was a fresh look at the region, offering detailed profiles of its finest domaines and merchants, with sections on Burgundy's two major grapes, viticulture, and winemaking, as well as a section on how to taste, buy and enjoy Burgundy.

This formula has served Norman well, first in Rhône Renaissance, then in subsequent editions of Great Domaines (2002 and 2010). Grand Cru follows the same template. The first half of the book is its strong point. Norman lays out a brief history, a discussion of terroir and climat—two concepts that are the foundation of Burgundy's classification of vineyards and winemaking philosophy—and an excellent description of the morphology, geology and pedology of the Côte d'Or, the heart of Burgundy's great vineyards.

This is followed by a profile of each grand cru, providing information on the size, principal owners and vine age of their holdings, origins of the cru, topography, geology and a description of the style of wine. Norman also incorporates profiles of his top premiers crus and why they should or should not be included in any reconsideration of the appellation laws.

This is the meat of the book. It will hold the attention of serious students of Burgundy, particularly those interested in the Jurassic origins of the underlying mother rock. As Norman writes, "The Côte's geological composition is a major key to understanding its wines and, far from being dull, the story is fascinating and well worth telling." He also includes the influence of combes, or the side valleys that bisect the Côtes at different points, a major factor in the mesoclimate that is often ignored.

What's missing from these sections is coverage of the grands crus of Chablis. There are passing mentions, but profiles of the seven grands crus in Chablis would have made this book more complete. And that would have been enough. Following the format of Norman's earlier books, the latter half of Grand Cru covers the major grapes, viticulture, climate and vinification, followed by a section on tasting, buying and enjoying Burgundy. Though these parts are full of useful information, it comes across as formulaic and in some cases repetitive.

This is a well-researched book, and Norman's knowledge of Burgundy is commanding. It offers a different perspective, one from the point of view of the region's best vineyards, and explains why they are thusly classified. Though it could stand on its own as a reference volume, it's even better as a companion to other fine books on the subject.
-Bruce Sanderson

How to Import Wine: An Insider's Guide
By Deborah M. Gray (Wine Appreciation Guild, 328 pages, $29.95)

In a previous life, I aimed to be a wine importer. I got so far as to assemble a group of small Bordeaux châteaus willing to work with me, and had a professional in the field evaluate them.

"These are good," he told me. "You can probably sell them. How many cases can you get?"

"Two or three hundred cases of each," I replied.

"That's a start," he responded. "But what is your 50,000-case brand? You need that, too."

That's when I decided to be a wine writer instead.

I wish I had had Deborah Gray's book at hand during my wine importing days; I might have saved myself time and money. I'm sure that many other wine lovers dream of becoming wine importers, too. For them, this book is essential reading.

It doesn't pretend to be a roadmap to success; there is no such thing. But it raises many questions and suggests possible answers that any would-be importer must resolve before success is possible. Gray's personal story—told in short, often painful, anecdotes scattered throughout the book—give graphic evidence of the value of thinking ahead. Read it as you drink, and make sure you look before you leap.
-Thomas Matthews

The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain: A Regional Guide to the Best Producers and Their Wines
By Jesús Barquín, Luis Gutiérrez and Víctor de la Serna (University of California Press, 320 pages, $34.95)

The Wine Region of Rioja
By Ana Fabiano (Sterling Epicure, 256 pages, $35)

Spain has been underserved in English wine-literature, but two new books focusing on Rioja, the country's most prestigious red-wine region, go a long way toward filling this gap in knowledge.

Ana Fabiano has a 30-year relationship with Spain. She made her first professional trip to Rioja in 1987, and currently works to market and promote the region and its wines. Her book, The Wine Region of Rioja (to be published this spring), is a broad introduction, with a personal, even romantic, approach that's more impressionistic than systematic.

After an overview of Rioja's geography and history, Fabiano delivers brief descriptions of important bodegas, interspersed with short, lively profiles of significant people and places. A chapter matches recipes from local chefs with wines. The photography is lavish and lovely.

The Finest Wines of Rioja and Northwest Spain extends the area under scrutiny, but takes a more critical approach to the wines. Again, readers will find history and geography, followed by profiles of leading bodegas, more in-depth this time, with restaurant recommendations and beautiful photography by Jon Wyand (a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator).

The sections on the greater "Northwest" take in quite a range of regions and wine types, many of which will be new (and probably available only with difficulty) to most readers. It's unclear how this information fits with Rioja, but nevertheless it is interesting to real aficionados.

The three co-authors are all longtime observers of the Spanish wine scene, and jointly write for one of the most informative websites on the subject, elmundovino.com. Though Spanish, they write in fluent English, and their voices weave seamlessly in the narrative.

Rioja's history divides relatively neatly into three phases: a long "rustic" period, lasting from Roman times until the mid-19th century, when the modern wine industry was born; followed by a "traditional" period that many still consider its golden era; and the contemporary period, which basically emerged with the 1994 vintage, dynamic, exciting and controversial.

Fabiano doesn't really weigh in on this lively discussion, but Barquín, Gutiérrez and de la Serna swing away. They criticize both the "thin, acidic, dried-out wines" that too often marked the traditional style, and the "overripeness, overextraction and overoaking" that tended to mar the contemporary reaction.

Fortunately, in their judgment, "an increasing number of producers look for balance and finesse in their wines, even though they are more concentrated than before." This jibes closely with my own experience of these distinctive and impressive wines.

Voodoo Vintners: Oregon's Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers
By Katherine Cole (Oregon State University Press, 192 pages, $18.95)

Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally
By Alice Feiring (Da Capo Press, 240 pages, $24)

Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking
By Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop (University of California Press, 272 pages, $29.95)

Whatever you call them-authentic, naked, natural, real, green—the moment has arrived for wines from sites farmed with few chemicals and made with practices from the past. Think organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, wild-yeast fermentation, foot treading and aging in clay amphorae—buzzwords that have captured the wine cognoscenti's imagination. Three new books, released within a short span of one another, cater to the curiosity of wine drinkers seeking something deeper and purer than what they think they can find in "commercial" wines. Nonbelievers, too, can find worthwhile reading here.

For any wine lover who has wanted to learn more about biodynamics but has been deterred by less-than-accessible works, Katherine Cole has written an enlightening book, filtered through the perspective of the movement's colorful followers in Oregon's wine community.

Cole, a wine writer for The Oregonian, kicks off Voodoo Vintners with an excellent overview of the basic tenets of biodynamics. Upfront, she tackles the eccentricities and outré opinions of its Austrian founder, Rudolf Steiner, which have caused many to dismiss him as a crackpot. Cole explains their origins in the culture and history of his time, from just after the Second Industrial Revolution through the aftermath of World War I.

Cole brings a mix of open-mindedness, subtle humor and healthy skepticism to her clear-headed look at what critics often refer to as "faith-based farming." She demystifies the "preps" (field sprays and compost additives), astronomical timetables (not required for U.S. certification) and the spiritual concept of "intention" (which can be interpreted simply as careful stewardship of the farm), while also debunking thinly backed theories about why they supposedly work.

At the same time, she gives plenty of credence to the practical, sound aspects, such as cover crops, composting and biodiversity, which make biodynamics appealing to winegrowers such as Moe Momtazi of Maysara and Razvan Andreescu of Beacon Hill. These growers find in it both a connection to their ancestors' practices in their homelands and to their scientific training as engineers.

While Cole largely lets the winegrowers-including the naysayers-make their case, Alice Feiring, one of the most vocal U.S. proponents of natural wine, freely admits on the first page of Naked Wine that there will be no neutral point of view here. She holds firm, often polarizing convictions about what wine ought to be and has a bias against California wines in particular. These beliefs are challenged when she is dared to make a wine according to her principles—"nothing added, nothing taken away"—only to face the disappointing reality of making decisions to ensure there's a drinkable product to sell. (One horrifying setback for her is having to add water to counter high sugar levels, a completely legal practice in Sonoma.)

As she weaves this tale, Feiring outlines the many ways and reasons why wine has been "tampered with" over the centuries (the list of U.S.-permitted additives at the end is sobering), taking on those who criticize natural wine as meaningless hype or overly romanticized. She delves into the arguments, often within the vin naturel community itself (much of her focus is on France), over how to define natural wine, when human intervention becomes "manipulation," and whether it's necessary to add sulfur as a preservative.

Through miniportraits of the vignerons who share and inform Feiring's beliefs, she traces the history of the modern natural-wine movement from its birth in the late 1970s in Beaujolais to its spread to the rest of Europe and the United States. In the end, the story is as much about Feiring's personality and passions as it is about what is natural or naked wine. How much you enjoy the book depends on whether you find her a kindred spirit. What sticks the most is her willingness to forgive vignerons she likes for having to add or do something that might be considered "unnatural" to a wine to prevent a loss—as long as they had the right intention.

For a more analytical approach, turn to Authentic Wine by Jamie Goode, a science editor-turned-wine writer, and Sam Harrop, a Master of Wine and winemaking consultant. They outline a definition of authentic wine at the outset, though they, too, acknowledge that it exists along a continuum. They then back it up with detailed discussions of each element: sustainable viticulture; appropriate grape ripeness; as few additions and manipulations as possible; wines free of faults; a sense of place; and a reduced carbon footprint.

Though it's not a light read, Authentic Wine is not without passion. The authors clearly believe more-authentic wines should be the industry's path forward, but they choose to express their vision through the accumulation of practical details to answer carefully posed questions: How do soils shape wines? What should be added to wine? What constitutes a wine flaw?

You don't have to care about biodynamics or natural wines to engage with the fundamental debate framed in Authentic Wines: Should we avoid wines that are widely considered delicious but could be made anywhere in favor of wines that may be more challenging but reflect the diversity of their origins? What is it you love about wine? Goode and Harrop give you plenty of fodder to consider, or reconsider.
-Dana Nigro

The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec
By Ian Mount (W.W. Norton & Co., 324 pages, $26.95)

In his first book, Ian Mount presents a thorough and well-researched history of Argentina's wine industry and the country's impressive success with the Malbec grape. Beginning with the 1561 invasion of Spanish conquistadors, who planted European vines around Mendoza, and ending with a modern-day wine revolution, Mount weaves a wine story of Old World culture with New World success.

In the past decade, Argentine Malbec has emerged as a major player in the global wine world and especially in the United States, where sales of the steak-friendly wine have grown from 200,000 cases in 2002 to more than 4 million cases in 2010. In short, Malbec's rise to fame is a unique combination of the country's European heritage, a series of political and economic crises, and the visionary spark of Nicolás Catena, the man most often credited with starting the country's wine revolution.

Mount, however, is meticulous in his approach to uncover all the factors that have contributed to Malbec's rise. For example, the Huar­pe Indians, he writes, used Incan technology to build the canals to channel snowmelt from the Andes Mountains down to irrigate Mendoza's sunny, desertlike terrain, a practice still employed today. Mount, who is based in Buenos Aires, also traces a tense and pivotal moment during the country's Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. By the end of this period, the nation's consolidated wine industry had collapsed, and by chance, calculation and perhaps political assignment, Catena was the last man standing.

From there, Mount documents the sprawling domino effect of Catena's pursuit to compete in the global market, the curiosity and teachings of foreign winemakers and the 2001 economic crisis that led to a gold rush to make and sell Malbec. The book not only offers history, often recounted by the characters themselves, but also excels at telling the personal stories of struggle and speculation. Collectively they become the tale of the country's and Malbec's recent revival.
-Nathan Wesley

Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine
By George Gale (University of California Press, 336 pages, $39.95)

A devastating plague that spans continents and changes the way of life for the survivors. A desperate search by the scientific community for a cause as the contagion spreads inexorably, sowing fear, panic and despair. This is not the plot line of the latest Hollywood doomsday thriller but a true story whose effects are well-known among grapegrowers and vintners: the havoc wreaked by the spread of the phylloxera root louse, first in France in the 1860s, then in most other major grapegrowing regions of the world.

In this scholarly book, George Gale, professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, investigates the whys and wherefores of the origins of the phylloxera plague. It's a path well-trodden, including by the erudite 2004 book The Botanist and the Vintner, by Christy Campbell. But where Campbell's tone was journalistic, Gale's is academic, albeit with a light touch.

Gale's initial wedge is the battle that took place within France over whether phylloxera was the cause of the vine death or an effect of some underlying malady. It took seven years before the consensus held that phylloxera was indeed the cause of the destruction of nearly all of France's vineyards. Valuable time was lost, but in the end, the challenge of finding a phylloxera cure was as profound to the greater culture as it was to viticulture. To Gale, it represents "the clearly recognizable birth of Big Science, that powerful amalgam of government, industry and research universities."

This a fine reference for the botanically inclined and researcher alike. So why dwell on a plague that happened almost 150 years ago? Because it is still with us, waiting to mutate, as it did in California in the 1980s, eventually destroying thousands of acres of vines. If anything, Gale could have extrapolated more in his four-page conclusion, which includes a quote by Nietzsche: "Whatever does not kill me strengthens me."
-Kim Marcus

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