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

Vinted on June 23, 2008 under 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).


Cheers!

(images: fortscotch.files.wordpress.com, amazon.com, 24hourmuseum.org.uk)

Book Review: 101 Wines (or “Will Gary Vaynerchuk Save the World of Wine Reviews?”)

Vinted on May 12, 2008 under book reviews, wine books

You see, it’s like this:

Gary Vaynerchuk is the Howard Stern of the on-line wine world.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last two years: Gary is the driving force behind Wine Library TV, an on-line video blog of wine reviews and palate-building tips that has become a sensation in the Wine 2.0 community.

In his chosen medium (in this case, web video), Gary – like Howard Stern – unleashes his slightly-irreverent style with over-the-top, grass-eating gusto. Depending on your demeanor, you might find Gary’s love-it-or-hate-it, in-your-face style endearing and energizing, or downright exhausting.

Off-line – also like Howard Stern – things are bit less off-the-cuff, and a bit more calculated.

Gary has stated that he is not in the wine business for the money, but “for my soul.” This assertion seems entirely genuine (otherwise, how could he sustain the energy levels on a daily basis!). But it only takes hearing a few sentences from his father (a sometimes-guest on his video episodes) delivered in a more straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to realize that business is business – and for business, it had better be at least partly about the money. That money comes by virtue of getting wine from the shelves of their N.J. family store (Wine Library) and into the glasses of wine consumers…

To that end, Gary has performed brilliantly, shrewdly parlaying his on-line exposure into business success: he has garnered TV spot appearances (4 minutes on Ellen will still get you far more exposure to more eyeballs than any on-line presence), spearheaded a tenfold factor growth of his family’s brick-&-mortar store, and purchased on-line wine social networking website Corkd.com (with trails leading back to Wine Library).

Well, performed brilliantly notwithstanding his poor taste in NFL teams of course.*

Gary’s approach is New Media, for sure – but it’s sagacious, old-school business sense all the way.

Gary’s latest foray into expanding his media media presence is the printed word: his first book, 101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World hits the streets in paperback tomorrow. Following is my review of Gary’s latest friendly assault on the wine world.

[ Full disclosure: I received 101 Wines from Gary's publicist for a review (under the condition that I could write any positive or negative reactions, of course). ]

If you’re skeptical about a wine retailer writing a book of wine recommendations (I had my doubts as well), take note that not every wine in 101 Wines is available via Wine Library. At least, not yet anyway… I know this because I checked it myself.

The Low Down

Like Gary’s video episodes, there is minimal wind-up (less than 15 pages of introduction) in 101 Wines, and maximum time (200+ pages) spent on extolling the virtues and colorful descriptions of his wine picks. For those bordering on ADD, the final 20+ pages of the book provide quick-hit lists of recommendations for holidays, or based on top his rankings.

“Without the benefit his exuberant live delivery, some of the written descriptions lack the punch they would otherwise have ‘in person’”

Gary’s enthusiasm translates to the printed page – mostly. Without the benefit of his exuberant live delivery, some of the written descriptions lack the punch they would otherwise have “in person” (case in point: a wine that has characteristics of a big guy in a barrel floating towards your mouth…).

Still, you have to give serious props to a self-described “wine guy for the average Joe” who isn’t afraid to recommend wines made from Charbono, Tinto Fino (recognizing the sometimes-neglected rising star that is Spanish wine), or who is bold enough to spotlight excellent Lebanese wines. Hardly the first choices that the average Joe might be looking for at their local wine shop.

Like wine itself, 101 Wines is best consumed in responsible doses. This is no knock on the writing, which is witty and expressive. It’s just an acknowledgment of the fact that reading about wine tasting is like trying to learn how to french kiss by studying a diagram. Fortunately, each wine in 101 Wines is given about two pages of focus, making every recommendation a quick-hit read so you can get on to creating a shopping list and finally tasting.


Buy It or Skip It?

Buy it. 101 Wines is an entertaining and fun read – likely, you’ll feel as though Gary is talking you through a gunshot-speed introduction to some skillfully picked wines. It’s geared towards the wine novice in its presentation of wine varietals and Gary’s vocabulary of wine descriptors. More experienced oenophiles will find value in Gary’s recommendations, some of which will surely surprise those that still doubt Gary’s palate.

101 Wines is an entertaining and fun read – likely, you’ll feel as though Gary is taking you on a gunshot-ride introduction to some skillfully picked wines.”

While the tone of 101 Wines is all-Gary, it’s also a slightly toned-down Gary. If you enjoy the Love-it-or-Hate-it style of Gary’s on-line video episodes, then you will likely enjoy his imaginative descriptors on the written page.

If you’re not a fan of descriptors like “badass flowers” and comparing wine to the theoretical taste of purple paint, then this book will NOT turn you into a “Vayniac.”

But if you haven’t yet checked out of WLTV, and if you like a no-nonsense wine approach, you’ll also probably enjoy this book.

In the book’s introduction, Gary discusses his view on changing the world of wine. In a nutshell, that revolution in wine appreciation boils down to this: By eschewing snobbishness and empowering the palates of the masses, wine consumers will no longer be shackled by the reviews of a handful of people critics in traditional media dictating the prices and styles of today’s wines. This wine 2.0 liberation will allow excellent wines that don’t fit the current mold of securing high Parker scores to be appreciated by a wider audience of consumers.

In a way, Gary’s popularity really is changing the wine world, and convincing a great number of people that wine, like beer, is damn fun. But as Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once said, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” As Gary rails against the industry impact of Robert Parker‘s points-based wine rating system, it’s worth keeping in mind that Gary himself uses a Parker-esque 100-point scoring. As Gary’s popularity continues to grow, securing him as the most influential wine reviewer outside of Parker (Robert, that is, not Peter!), won’t this surely add to the issue of winmakers “chasing the points” to increase their bottle selling prices?

Only this time, they’ll be chasing after the Vaynerchuk point?

Will Gary chose the Dark Side? Or will he deliver on the promise of his wine reviewer “Robin Hood” status?

Time will tell…

Cheers!

* Gary – got a bet for ya: If the Jets have a better record than the Steelers this season (yes, that’s the most difficult 2008 schedule in the entire NFL Steelers), I will personally record a video spot to air on your show – wearing a Jets jersey, & introducing you as “the master of all wine AND football. ” If the Steelers have a better record, then you can plug my blog on WLTV, mentioning me as “the guy who knows more about football than Gary Vaynerchuk.” I’ll also take a bottle of `04 Branson Coach

Now, the gauntlet has been thrown so please don’t go the route of Mary Ewing-Mulligan, who (to-date) has cowardly ignored my challenge to arm wrestle her for a bottle of `82 Mouton.

Here we go Steelers… HERE WE GO!

(images: opusseven.com, wikipedia.org, pictopia.com)

Book Review: Noble Rot (A Bordeaux Wine Revolution)

Vinted on April 28, 2008 under wine books

Book Review – Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson

“…the soil of Yquem is like that of a Stradivarius”
- Lur Saluces

The second edition of the on-line Wine Book Club is being hosted by Tim over at the venerable Winecast.net blog. For more information on the WBC, or to jump on in and participate yourself in a book review, check out the official Wine Book Club website and the the Shelfari WBC reader group.

This time around, Tim has chosen Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution by William Echikson. The book is not short on accolades, having been a James Beard Foundation Award finalist. Echikson is also no slouch of a writer, having worked for Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and written a handful of other well-received books (on wine and other topics).

The Low Down
Noble Rot centers (for the most part) on the history (ancient and recent) of Chateau Yquem, the Sauternes-based makers of some of the sweetest, most expensive, and most intoxicating elixirs known to winemaking…


Similar to Hungary’s famous Tokaji, the sweet wines of Sauternes receive their special magic by virtue of the fungus Botrytis cinearea (aka noble rot). The fungus draws out the water and concentrates the juice left in the grapes while on the vine, and also imparts exotic hints of yeast to the final ultra-sweet wine. High in acidity and sugars, the wines of Yquem are typically capable of aging for decades, if not hundreds of years, while still retaining sweetness and fruity complexity.

Nature doesn’t always cooperate to provide the right environment year-on-year for noble rot – so sweet Yquem is not always produced in every vintage, and grape selection is a laborious (and therefore expensive) process.

[ On a side note, I've often wondered who the first poor schlep was that decided to ferment the grapes affected by Botrytis. Like lobster, there is nothing appetizing about their appearance; that person must have been really, really desperate at the time - "I don't give a sh*t what they look like - throw them into the vat!"... ]

The result is an ultra-expensive, ultra-complex wine, from a Chateau with extreme cache factor (having been run by a single family of nobility for generations). Even at restaurants where it’s offered, Yquem doesn’t always make it onto the wine list.

With a big spender who doesn’t know anything about wine, putting a bottle of Château d’Yquem on the table is like giving a Porsche to a 16-year-old.” – Aaron Brown, Sommelier of L.A.’s Ortolan restaurant.

The term “noble rot” could also be applied to the nasty struggle for power within the ranks of Yquem itself, to which Echikson devotes a good portion of the book.

Most interesting for me in Noble Rot was how Echikson skillfully details the work ethic of love-him-or-hate-him wine critic Robert Parker. It’s fascinating to watch how a small parcel of Right Bank Bordeaux land, modern winemaking techniques, and a rising Parker score can take a Bordeaux family from near-poverty conditions to fame and fortune (as was the case for the makers of Valandraud), culminating in bad blood between business relations. As Jacques Thienpont (the force behind the similarly meteoric Le Pin) says in Noble Rot: “Life is like a river… You follow it and it takes you on a strange course.” Some stranger than others, no doubt.

Buy It or Skip It?
This is a tough call for me. The book is certainly well-written. But I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer. If you can put yourself in one (or more) of the following categories, then you’re liable to love Noble Rot and should probably buy it as soon as possible:
a) You love you some Bordeaux wine
b) You prefer your history shaken, & with a twist of gossip
c) You are in the wine industry.

Otherwise, you may enjoy it as a decent read – or you may wonder what all the fuss is about and why Echikson is spending so much time dealing with stuffy old EU nobles fighting each other over stylistic differences and the merits of class. “Just pass the damn Le Pin already!” you may find yourself shouting. So, I hesitate to recommend this book to the casual wine aficionado – there are more accessible (and equally interesting) reads out there for the budding wine lover.

I struggled to understand the best audience to appreciate what the book has to offer.

Lur Saluces (who heads Yquem) has said that “Yquem basically belongs to those whom love it and no matter from whence they come… it belongs to its admirers.”

In other words, it’s not for everybody. And neither is Noble Rot.

Cheers!

(images: amazon.com, antique-wine.com, och.free.fr)

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