Posts Filed Under book reviews

The Botanist, The Vintner, and The Politicos (Book Review)

Vinted on December 19, 2008 binned in book reviews, wine books

An alternative title to Christy Campbell’s The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved For The World might well be “How French Politicos Tried to Set Wine Science Back 200 Years, Putting All of the World’s Vineyards in Perilous Jeopardy, Yet Somehow Told Without Conveying Much Suspense.

To be fair, The Botanist and the Vintner is well-written, impeccably researched, and expertly manages to make the topic of the phylloxera epidemic interesting (even for non-history-buffs, and non-wine-geeks).

Campbell’s chapter explaining the strange reproductive cycle of the phylloxera louse alone is probably worth the purchase price of the book. It’s no wonder that the complicated sexual life of the pest confounded some of the greatest scientific minds of the late 1800s – any species whose short-lived male variant has no anus, no mouth, and no digestive system is so frighteningly bizarre, there’s no way you could dream that up something that odd.

And yet, I walked away from this book feeling oddly underwhelmed and a little unfulfilled.

If you’re a fan of wine, eventually you will come across mention of the tiny vineyard pest that came perilously close to wiping out the world’s supply of fine vinifera. In summary (and this is a very, very high-level summary), the little sucker feasts on the vine, and uses various parts of the vine as breeding ground.

The trouble for European vinifera is that it didn’t evolve with the louse as did the vines in North America, so when international travel and shipping became viable in the 1800s, the pest finally had a means to travel from its native land. Many American vines have rootstock that can recover from the scars left by feeding phylloxera – most European vines didn’t, and they began to die at an alarming rate as the louse spread across Europe. Because of its complex sex life, it took 19th Century scientists years to come to agreement on how to stop the pest (grafting onto American rootstock).

The Botanist and the Vintner takes you through this journey of vine destruction, and exposes you to the frustrating world of European politics (which, by most accounts sadly has made little appreciable progress since the 1800s), which delayed action on recognizing and then implementing the final root cause solution to the deadly invasion.

Not to mention the sizable financial prize that was due to those that found the real cure, most of which never got paid out by the French government (let’s not go there).

The book handles all of this well, but during the telling suggests a potentially dire future facing the vineyards of the present day that are grafted onto seemingly “safe” American rootstocks. It appears that some of those rootstocks are again becoming susceptible to an evolving phylloxera.

But after teasing us with the potential of another winemaking Dead Zone, The Botanist and the Vintner decides not to go there. Which is a shame, because the book starts there in its Prologue, which begins by describing an aerial surveillance of spreading phylloxera infestations in California in 1994. We are taken back to the present in the Postscript… to take a look at wine conisseurs chasing after wine from ungrafted viniferia vines as if they were the El Dorado treasure of the wine world.

No modern phylloxera update. Why start there if you’re not going to finish there? It felt like a bit of unrealized suspenseful potential to me.

So, if you’re looking for the history of the first world phylloxera louse epidemic, The Botanist and the Vintner is your book. Just don’t expect a full-circle treatise on the topic for modern times.





Wine – The Book I Wanted To Hate

Vinted on December 5, 2008 binned in book reviews, wine books

I really wanted to hate this book.

I was sent a promotional copy of Wine (edited by Andre Domine, who has authored a number of wine- and culinary-related books), and form the moment that it arrived, I was primed to hate it.

It’s huge. It’s impossible to comfortably read it in bed (trust me, I’ve tried it). At well over 900 pages and what feels like nearly 20 lbs of weight, it seemed better suited to my workout routine crunches than my wine education.

But a funny thing happened on my way to hating this book – I fell in love with it. And now this post is going to be precariously close to sounding like an advertisement for Wine. But I don’t care so much, because the book Rocks…

When I cracked open this book, I was thinking that the world needs another wine reference / introduction / tome like I need a hole in the head.

The first chapter states “Wine… has also become more egalitarian in that never before in its history has such a hige, high-quality range been available to so many people.”

You could say the same thing about wine books, I thought.

The truth is, if you’re a wine novice, you have dozens of decent choices when it comes to finding books to increase your wine know-how. If you’re a wine expert, there are a few key resources that you will undoubtedly tap into from time to time (especially the Oxford Companion). Newcomers to the wine world also have a good many wine resources available to them on the web, and most wine blogs are in some way geared towards the newbie.

Those of you who are past the point of being a beginner, but are not in the trade, or are otherwise someone with an ‘Intermediate’ level of wine knowledge, you have far fewer resources available to you.

Which is why most of you who fall into the “Intermediate” camp will probably dig Wine. It combines lucid and informed writing about all aspects of vino with some beautiful (but mostly functionally relevant) photographs, useful maps, and information on most of the world’s winemaking regions. In a way, it’s a bit like a one-stop-shop combination of the excellent Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and the fabulously-illustrated World Atlas of Wine.

Worth a look – even if you might need to hit the gym and bulk up before being able to lift it…





"Wine on Tuesdays" on a Wednesday (Book Review)

Vinted on October 15, 2008 binned in book reviews

I figured that it was about time for another book review on, so I’m jumping back into the book review swing of things with my take on Debra & Keith Gordon’s Wine on Tuesdays: Be a Serious Wine Drinker Without Taking Wine Too Seriously.

[ Full disclosure: I received a media copy of Wine on Tuesdays. Not that Dude doesn’t buy his own books, but… ]

The Low Down
Co-author Debra Gordon is no stranger to wine writing, having penned material for Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Vines, and Wine Adventures. She and husband co-author Keith are also dabbling in blogging.

Wine on Tuesdays reflects the Gordon’s writing experience – it’s well-written, accessible, and at turns funny and engaging. The tone of Wine on Tuesdays is lighthearted and its target is squarely on the wine novice, which puts it into the now-very-crowded field of wine introduction texts.

Which is the main problem with reviewing Wine on Tuesdays it’s good, but (for me) lacked any real “wow” moments to give me a clear picture of its ideal target audience. While I found some topics covered superbly well (it has one of the best intro chapters on Champagne that I’ve ever come across), other topics (usually the more complex ones, notably dessert wines) are casually treated and maybe a touch oversimplified – which could be confusing for some readers, especially those new to wine… who theoretically happen to be the target audience…

Buy It or Skip It?
That depends.

Given the tone and overall style of Wine on Tuesdays, If you’re a budding wine lover you could do a lot worse than this well-written guide. Whether or not you will enjoy it is largely a matter of presentation – with so many great overall wine introduction guides available in the marketplace, the one best suited to you may really be down to writing style preference and the order of how the topics are presented. If you want to get into wine in a very structured way, starting with grape varietals first, then try Wine on Tuesdays. If you prefer a less structured approach, then there are better options.

It won’t replace my current favorite wine intro book, Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine, and it probably won’t make its way into my list of Essential Wine Reads, but Wine on Tuesdays is certainly a viable alternative for budding wine enthusiasts – enjoyable, and packed full of relevant and helpful wine info.





Book Review: Angels, Thieves and Winemakers (Wine Poems)

Vinted on June 23, 2008 binned in book reviews, wine books

Joseph Mills, author of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries and faculty member of the NC School of the Arts, recently released a book of wine poems titled Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers.

I was contacted by Mills, who asked if I’d be interested in writing a review of the new collection. It didn’t take me long to say Yes, since

  1. my undergrad major was English Lit, and I really dig poetry (not a well-known fact about me, I suppose), and
  2. I really, really dig wine (hopefully you’ve caught onto that one already).

In the realm of wine poetry, Mills doesn’t exactly have a ton of competition. Hafiz comes to mind, and I’m not sure 600+ year old verse is the best to go by for the purpose of comparative analysis. So, we’ll just have to review Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers on its own poetic merits.

How does Mills’ collection stand up?…

The Low Down
Dylan Thomas he’s not, but Mills has a gift for creating interesting and accessible verse, often including a subversive and thought-provoking twist.

Take, for example, the poem Opening Up which starts (quite humorously) by putting the reader in a familiar position:

As the dinner progressed / people’s comments / about each wine / became increasingly / ridiculous, and when / the woman beside me / praised the way a red / unfolded in the mouth, / I snorted so hard / I almost shot snot / onto my plate.

The same poem concludes a tad more soberly:

If we’re lucky / as the years unfold / we open up / until we reach a point / we can appreciate / one another’s complexities / and even the tart irony / of finding yourself / at the table’s next seat, / taking seriously, / so many of those things / you once mocked.

Buy It or Skip It?
Buy it – If you’re into wine, you’ll find something to like in Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers.

At their worst, Mills’ poems read a bit too much like the short-hand from a personal journal. At their best, they’re immediately accessible, clever, and offer nuggets of truth that are just dark enough to get you thinking.

I often found myself wishing Mills had ended a poem earlier to impart greater impact, rather than trying to tidy up his sentiment with an additional verse or two – it feels as though he sometimes errs on the side of playing it safe for the reader. In Sea Changes, Mills writes: “In college I read / the Iliad and Odessey, / and although I thought / they could be shorter, / overall they were better / than I expected” – I could apply the same critique to a number of the offerings in Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers.

But there’s no doubting Mills’ flair and cleverness, which alone make Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers a worthwhile read (preferably with a glass of interesting vino in one hand).





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