Master of Wine and scientist Benjamin Lewin’s non-fiction book What Price Bordeaux has a title that, unlike many non-fictional works, is meant to convey a series of meanings or themes that are touched on at some point in the body of the work itself.
In this case, What Price Bordeaux refers, at turns, to
- The skyrocketing prices of wines from Bordeaux’s top chateau, while its minor AOCs are in such crisis that they are forced to sell their wines for distillation in order to avoid bankruptcy.
- The maddening opacity of Bordeaux’s wine business, which Lewin investigated intensely in the writing of his book, and where simple data points, such as the average price of a bottle of red Bordeaux in 2007, were hidden from him by the area’s professional organizations.
- The 1855 Classification of Bordeaux’s top producers, which organized the “best” wines by price in the Medoc (Lewin boldly offers an updated, new classification in What Price Bordeaux, which contains some shockers in terms of who now ranks above whom in current Bordeaux market prices).
- The loss of Bordeaux wines’ identities in favor of an “International” red wine style currently more popular with consumers and influential wine critics – resulting in skyrocketing price increases and occasional price crashes for high-end Bordeaux wines.
What Price Bordeaux contains enough fodder for a month’s worth of wine blog posts, but that would deny you the pleasures (and shock) of reading it (which I recommend that you do). Instead, it’s the last point above that I want to talk about, concentrating on Chapter 10 (“The New Bordeaux”), which alone is worth the price of the book.
After reading Chapter 10 in Lewin’s book, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that Bordeaux wines are becoming more and more like those of the Napa Valley not just because they are chasing the elevated scores that wine critics give to that style of red wine, but also because they may have no other choice…
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Just when you thought that wine has been analyzed form pretty much every angle possible, along comes Philadelphia native, biochemist PhD and former medical research scientist Sondra Barrett.
Sondra’s journey to wine seems spiraling and circuitous: Originally a researcher on human leukemias, she was asked to photograph a patient’s leukemia cells, which lead to her presenting slide shows of normal and abnormal cell comparisons at oncology clinics. After attending a photographic exhibit of chemicals of the brain, Sondra saw parallels in her leukemia work and, noticing an artistic quality in the brain chemical photos, decided to try similar photographic techniques on molecular structures in nature.
Structures like wine.
Sondra is now the author of a recently released collection of those photographs, titled Wine’s Hidden Beauty.
And the images in this book (Sondra sent me a review copy) are, simply put, extraordinary.
According to Sondra:
“My ﬁrst discovery was at Sterling Vineyards when I was artist-in-residence documenting winemaking from the inside out. The winemakers gave me barrel samples and wines from all over Napa Valley. This extraordinary experience led me to uncovering distinct patterns and beauty in a glass of wine. Early on, a Napa grape grower, Rachel Balyeat, provided some ﬁnancial support for me to delve further into the life of wine. She hosted a special dinner with acclaimed wine maestro André Tchelistcheff to discuss what these pictures could mean. Andréʼs ﬁrst reaction – ‘They are the jewels in wine. Put them on silk scarves.’”
I think Andre was on to something (though I don’t wear silk scarves so I’ll stick to admiring the photos in printed form)…
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Reading Corked: A Memoir, you may find that you don’t much like author Kathryn Borel. And it will probably have nothing to do with her being a Canadian (sorry, Canada… just poking fun at you because you won all of those Olympic hockey gold medals…).
She is, by her own fearless admission, not the best of traveling companions. Neither is her father, with whom she travels to some of France’s most famous wine regions in an attempt to connect more deeply with him while they still have time together on this planet. Even a healthy proportion of the storied French wine producers that the Borel clan visit in Corked are portrayed as, to put it mildly, difficult.
Corked isn’t about wine appreciation, but it touches on the topic frequently and views it obliquely, as if through a funky, tilted lens; it circles the topic as if both wine and Kathryn were old cats in some new territory – familiar, but with a sense of fight-or-flight caution. Let’s put it this way: Kathryn describes her new book (also her first) as being about “wine, France, my father, existential dread, and death.” So you know the viewpoint on wine is going to be different.
As it turns out, wine plays a minor, but important, role in Kathryn’s sometimes hilarious, sometimes quirky, sometimes painful recounting of her journey through French wine country – at turns a vehicle for connectivity, and an insurmountable and intimidating barrier.
And it’s exactly because of that unique viewpoint that I was so stoked to read Corked and to interview its author (if you need further convincing of Kathryn’s unique view on life, just check out how she introduces Corked on video, or visit her craftily quirky – or is that quirkily crafty? – blog).
If Corked reveals a truth about the human condition, it’s that coming to a shared understanding as adults – to a place where we can truly appreciate one another – isn’t always as simple as sharing a glass of excellent vino; sometimes it takes a gut-wrenching rite of passage. That probably mirrors the relationship some of us have with wine at one point or another in our lives.
Read on for the interview, which is mostly full of wine-related topics but, thanks to Kathryn, is totally full of awesome – just prepare to be entertained, a little moved, and a lot impressed by his woman…
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