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From Atlases to Potboilers

New releases and updated classics for winter reading

Posted: December 17, 2003

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The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery, by Louisa Thomas Hargrave (Viking, 2003, $24.95, 251 pages, hardcover)

Perils indeed. When Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted the first Vitis vinifera grapes on Long Island in 1973, they rushed in where wise men feared to tread. They had no training, no experience, no advisers and no examples to follow. It should have been a disaster. Instead, 30 years later, the Long Island wine industry is flourishing and this naive but determined couple can take a large share of the credit for its success.

Their adventure ended in 1999, when they sold the winery and filed for divorce. In her memoir, Louisa Hargrave reflects on the journey. In a straightforward, modest tone she recounts high hopes, frequent setbacks, occasional triumphs and the unending strain of trying to make their dream come true.

Hargrave never minces words. On learning how to prune their vines: "None of us knew what we were doing." On tending the vineyard: "Fungus was a bad problem, but birds were worse." On winemaking: "We did all sorts of things wrong when we made our first batch." Yet she remains stoic, finding satisfaction in her children, her pets, her neighbors and her own growing strength and capability. She doesn't concoct a happy ending, but looking back, she can appreciate what she accomplished. In turning Hargrave Vineyards from fantasy to reality, she grew to a richer, deeper understanding of herself, and the world around her.

The Vineyard's readers will learn a great deal about the challenges and the satisfactions that come with growing grapes and making wine. But at heart, Hargrave's book is a coming-of-age story that happens to take place in a vineyard. Sometimes pedantic, often humorous, it is a poignant tale of discovery, loss and self-acceptance. Long Island is lucky to have her. -- Thomas Matthews

The Science of Healthy Drinking, by Gene Ford (Wine Appreciation Guild, 2003, $29.95, 192 pages, hardcover)

 

A journalist who has made it his life's work to cover the health effects of alcoholic beverages, Ford argues for medicine to trumpet positive findings about alcohol while making a concerted effort to address alcohol abuse as a separate issue.

In this book, Ford quotes extensively from scientific papers, letting the authors state the findings in their own language on the benefits and risks of alcohol consumption. Overwhelmingly, the news is good for moderate drinkers. Ford outlines positive results for everything from heart disease and stroke to cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes and even osteoporosis, kidney stones and ulcers.

However, he argues, the medical community is doing a woefully bad job of communicating what it knows. Wine Spectator readers have seen much of this information in these pages, but the general media often get it wrong or just ignore it. Ford points to a 2002 cover story on health in Time magazine to demonstrate how the news gets skewed.

This is the most information on these issues between the covers of a single book. Maybe it will make a difference. -- Harvey Steiman

Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine, by Charles L. Sullivan (University of California Press, 2003, $24.95, 223 pages, hardcover)

Zinfandel came to California in the mid-19th century and became the state's most widely planted red wine grape. Though Zinfandel has recently been overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon, Zin lovers are passionate and loyal. Count historian Charles Sullivan among them.

Sullivan writes enthusiastically about his taste for the wines, but makes no attempt to evaluate producers, instead quoting critics and the results of the long-running tastings at the Vintners Club in San Francisco. He's more interested in tracing the history of the wine over the past century and a half, and tracking down the mysteries surrounding the grape's origins in both Italy and California.

To piece together the story, Sullivan painstakingly examined old newspapers and other records in California, New York, Boston and Vienna, pursuing scientists and government functionaries along the way. His story offers a glimpse at how a good historian does the job.

In the end, Sullivan convincingly debunks the malarkey that "Count" Agostin Haraszthy, who founded Buena Vista Winery, introduced Zinfandel to California. The vines probably came with grape material from the eastern United States intended to be grown in hothouses shortly after the Gold Rush, well before Haraszthy could have brought it in. Sullivan's work suggests exactly how.

He also digs into the bigger mystery of Zinfandel's original identity. DNA testing shows that Zinfandel is identical to Primitivo, an important grape in southern Italy. Although it's unlikely that Zinfandel came to California from Italy, geneticists have found obscure grape varieties growing across the Adriatic in Croatia that suggest this former outpost of the Hungarian Empire may be the source of both Zinfandel and Primitivo. With personable prose, Sullivan weaves it all together for a delicious read. -- Harvey Steiman

Making Sense of Wine: Revised and Updated, by Matt Kramer (Running Press, 2003, $19.95, 240 pages, hardcover)

 
 

As readers of his Wine Spectator column know, Matt Kramer doesn't simply argue a point, he builds his case like a district attorney, driving it home with the conviction of a true believer.

This is not a book about wine geography or identifying the best producers. Instead, it addresses how to think about wine. On virtually every point, Kramer's take has a slightly different slant from anyone else's. That's what made the original edition, published in 1989, such a good book. Those who missed it the first time around should add this new edition to their bookshelves.

In the first edition, Kramer set forth a refreshingly candid, clear-eyed approach to wine connoisseurship, alternately waxing philosophical about concepts such as terroir and offering practical advice on how to clean wineglasses and decanters. In the intervening 14 years, Kramer must have refined and revised his thinking about some, if not most, of the issues he raises. But aside from a few updates of facts here and there, very little of the original text has changed.

There is a new preface and one new chapter, "Twenty-First Century Wine -- The Consequences of Success." In both, he applauds the dramatically rising quality of winemaking around the world. He also explores the benefit and harm from what he sees as overreliance on technology in winemaking and on "mega-validators" (among which he includes Wine Spectator's ratings) for choosing the wines we drink.

Agree or disagree, this book will make wine lovers think. -- Harvey Steiman

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