How to Love Wine – book review

htlw“How to love wine” is a book by Eric Asimov, the New York Times chief Wine Critic.  Amazon price is currently just under £11.  The book is subtitled “A Memoir and Manifesto”, and what follows is A Book Review and General Kicking About of Issues Raised by the Book.

I read this book  quickly as it is not heavy in any sense of the word.  It switches between memoir and manifesto in a seemingly random way, and there is much repetition of the main thrust of the manifesto.  You can easily imagine that it was written in one pass with minimal editing. With tight editing it could be half the size.   I would find it difficult to argue that is a good book.

Despite all that, I found myself quite enjoying it.   It helps that Eric comes across as a nice bloke, and someone with ideas that I largely agree with.  The big positive is that it got me thinking again about my relationship with wine, so in that sense I felt I got my money’s worth, and I hope Eric would take some pleasure from that.  While reading it I found myself  largely nodding along with the author, and indeed some bits seemed very similar to stuff I have written in the past. But then, on further reflection, especially when paying attention to some detail, I realised we do not see entirely eye to eye.

The main thrust of Eric’s manifesto is, I hope, summarised in this paragraph…  No one should feel under any obligation to understand wine or become a connoisseur.  If you are happy drinking whatever wine is on special offer at the supermarket, that is fine.  Many people would question that this needs saying at all, but there are many wine experts, critics and merchants who embark on a moral crusade to get supermarket drinkers to trade up.  And there are others who play on the fear and ignorance of ordinary punters, seeking to persuade them that they should educate themselves about wine so they can avoid looking foolish in restaurants and in sophisticated company.  Eric rightly assures people that no one need learn about wine, and that no one need fear it. He thinks wine is not easy to understand, and does not like those who claim to teach you all you need to know in a few easy lessons.  But it you decide you really do want to know more about wine, you should approach it is in an easy and relaxed way, with an open mind and a willingness to explore.  It largely involves drinking the stuff, and paying attention to what you drink.  So far so good – I agree.  I would just add that if you want to progress only a little beyond the supermarket plonk stage in wine appreciation and then stop, that is fine too.

Where I diverge a little from Eric’s view, is in how to learn about wine, and the value of wine books and courses.  Eric would have you start your exploration by taking the guidance of a good wine merchant, and drinking the suggested bottles with meal.  Sadly, I think it is a lucky person that can find such a wine merchant – one who is both knowledgable and good at listening.  Also, learning about wine at the pace of one bottle per meal is rather slow.  By all means do drink with meals, and understand that is the best way of appreciating most wines, but I would additionally suggest using all opportunities to taste wine that present themselves – wine societies, merchant tastings, walk-around wine festival type tastings etc.  Realise the limitations of those formats, but use all those opportunities to explore.  Also, if you have friends that are also interested in learning about wine, club together with them to share bottles, with or without food. Listen carefully to what other people tell you about wine, but do believe everything you are told. If someone says something you think is particularly interesting or important to you, check it out. What is the evidence?

Also, unlike Eric, I think there is value in reading wine books at an early stage, not to learn how to appreciate wine, but just to get some facts under your belt.  I think it is a lot easier to understand your taste in wine as you explore if you have a basic understanding of grape varieties, European wine regions, and how they relate to each other.  It is handy, for example to know that red Burgundy is usually made from Pinot Noir, and that the Medoc is a sub region of Bordeaux.  If you like Burgundy, you can then explore other Pinot Noirs, and if you like a Medoc wine you will probably like other wines from Bordeaux.  Wine is not simple for two reasons in my opinion.  One is because there is a lot of nuance and opinion.   The other is that there are so many facts to get your head around.  I think it helps to learn the facts, and to learn the difference between fact and opinion.  I also happen to get a lot of pleasure from reading technical details about wine.  I am not saying that is good or bad, but I get the impression Eric does not think such things are relevant.  I’d just say that people should be encouraged to explore wine in the way they feel most comfortable with. I am a scientist by education, and that colours the way I get to know the world.

Finally, I’ll just say that I was not sure exactly what Eric was saying about wine as an expression of culture.  It is clear that he likes wines from small producers that use traditional methods, but it is not so clear whether that is mainly from an emotional and ideological viewpoint, or does he really think those wine taste better?  And if they do taste better, is that something that would come out in a blind tasting for him, or is it an example of “drinking the label”?  Personally I share the same views in an emotional way, but doubt that the weight of tradition and history transfers itself to the wine glass as a recognisable taste.  I would also point out that most punters, even wine lovers who buy at better wine merchants, have little idea about how devoted to local tradition the producer is.  Some may have read articles about the producer, but I am cynical enough to suspect that journalists writing such articles do not always get the full story.  Those producers most fully embedded in their own cultures are probably the ones least likely to get visited by foreign journalists, and quite likely also produce rubbish wines.  That, by the way, is a good example of opinion and unsubstantiated fact. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to prove or disprove it 😉

Palmento, Sicilian Wine Odyssey – book review

PalmentoA Sicilian Wine Odyssey, by Robert Camuto.  RRP is now £13.99 for the paperback version, but you can get it delivered by one of Amazon’s partners for around £11.00.  21cm tall and around 300 pages.

It is not a big book, not on glossy paper, and it does not have colour pictures. So don’t buy it to leave on the coffee table to impress friends.  Also, do not buy it if you expect a reference book on the wines of Sicily.  The author visits some 20 producers, but you do not get a neatly arranged set of pages on each one, with a description of the winemaking philosophy, list of wines with tasting notes,  table of statistics, and photograph of the winemaker with his dog.

All the information is presented in terms of a chronological description of the author’s visit to each place over the course of a year.  You also get to hear about the journey between some of the wineries, and there is even one chapter were he did not visit a producer at all.  You learn about the history, landscape and people of the island, but it is all through the personal experience of the author and his interviews with other people.  The same applies to the wines – when he tastes or drinks a wine he sometimes describes them, but you never get anything that approaches what you would call a tasting note.  Nevertheless, while claiming no great expertise, he seems to understand wine well, and I find it easy to relate to what he has to say.

Personally I find many wine books rather tedious, and this approach is very refreshing.  However, without the support of the conventional wine book framework, the success or otherwise must largely hang on the quality of the author’s writing.  In my opinion, Camuto writes very well and the book is successful.  In particular, I appreciate the directness of his style when describing people and wines.  He can be brutally honest but rarely, if ever, judgemental.  You can boo, hiss and cheer along as you read about the people he visits, but I wonder to what extent you would be agreeing with what Camuto really thinks.

Wine Grapes – book review

The full title is “Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 wine varieties including their origins and flavours”, by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz.  For more information and a peak inside, see the winegrapes.org.  Don’t worry about the RRP of £120.  It is still an expensive book, but I bought mine for under £64 including postage from UKPaperbackshop, who sell through Amazon.

My immediate reaction on receiving the parcel was to be surprised at how light and modestly sized it was.  Then I discovered why the book of well over 1,000 pages  was so light.  With the exception of the colour plates, which are cleverly and unobtrusively bound in, the paper used is thin and light.  It is almost bible-like, which is perhaps quite fitting.  I found the overall appearance quite beautiful.  The typefaces have a classic feel to them, the relatively light weight makes the book easy to use, and the binding works with the paper quality to ensure the book will lie open at any page without any problem at all.

Having enthused so much about the binding and typeface, I feel I need to point out a couple of glitches. Part of at least one grape pedigree diagram is illegible due to the binding.  The problem is that the printing goes too far into the spine and it is absolutely impossible to open the book wide enough to make it all visible.  All in all, it is a bit of a blow for those readers wanting to know the details of the pedigree of Briana, a “minor but usefully winter-hardy and increasingly popular American hybrid”, but I think I can live without it.  (Update: The other pedigree diagrams affected by this problem are Pinot and Prior.  All three are available here as PDFs.)  Also, the font used for the grape variety name headers could do with some kerning.  When I first saw the variety TAUBERSCHWARZ I was wondering if it was two words: TAUBERSCHW ARZ.  In this blog, my browser does a lot better job of kerning the WA combination than the book.  And while I am at it, I found a spelling mistake – grindchildren.  Lest I risk of becoming the Craig Revel Horwood of wine book reviews, the design and attention to detail still gets a 10 from me!

The style of writing is clear and authoritative, with a regular pattern followed throughout the book, nice use of fonts to add meaning, good lookups to access the information, and plenty of references to chase up if you want more. It is not designed and written to enthuse the casual reader – with the exception of the plates there are no pretty pictures, and no boxes on the page design to attract your attention and draw you in.  But that is just the way I like it, and if you are not already eagerly seeking information about grapes it is unlikely you would come to this book anyway.

I was especially pleased to see many varieties have a description of the taste of their wines.  From a drinker’s perspective this must be the most important information, and in other wine grape books I have often felt short-changed when this is lacking.  I just wonder how the tasting information was collated.  Like many other things to do with book, it must have been a mammoth task.

As to the quality of the information… who am I to comment?  I am prepared to defer to the authors on that issue.  I am convinced.

Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia 5th Edition – book review

This is the first time I have owned any edition of Tom Stevenson’s encyclopedia.  Since early in my wine geekdom, I have been aware of its existence, and aware of how highly regarded it is, but I started off by buying other reference tomes: “The Oxford Companion”, “The World Atlas of Wine” and “Vines, Grapes and Wines”.  So by the time I was contemplating getting this encyclopedia, I decided that I probably already had more wine reference books than I needed.

I finally decided to sacrifice nearly another 2 inches of bookshelf space when I realised a lot had changed in the world of wines since my first reference book buying spree several years ago, and that maybe it would be fun to get more recent information by buying the new edition of a different book rather than upgrading my existing library.

Initially I was very pleased I did.  It offers a different slice through the world of wine, using geography as the main way to access information, and a quick flick through convinced me that it would indeed give me new information on up-and-coming wine regions and recent wine law in the more established regions.

I was also impressed by the layout of the pages, and use of diagrams.  I hate it when books use boxes and main text paragraphs that spread over multiple pages, so you have to keep flicking backwards and forwards and eventually lose your place.  That annoyance is carefully designed away here.  I was particularly pleased with the clear text and diagrams used to explain different pruning systems, the only little glitch being that a couple of systems seem to have horizontal spurs that are continuous from vine to vine!

What I was not so sure about is the rigid structure of short titled sections in each region, variously devoted to châteaux, appellations, sub-region or styles.  It might look good, and give apparent uniformity, but sometimes alternative presentations would be more useful, e.g. grouping Burgundy grand crus by village, and text explaining how sherry styles relate to each other.  You probably need to read the book, and try to get information out of it, to see what I mean.

The maps, whilst not as detailed as in the Atlas, are pretty much as good as I have seen anywhere.  That is… not particularly great, but I have high standards it seems.  I think wine region mapping is tricky, and there is always the tendency to push too much information onto the same map.  I defy anyone to look at the map of Northwest Italy and tell me with confidence where the Brachetto d’Aqui region boundaries lie.  The solution to these map design problems should in my opinion be to use more than one map – not an increasing confusion of colours, hatching, lines and numbers.  Yes it would take more space, but as Tom eloquently explains in his introduction, geographical information is key to understanding wine, so I think a few more pages dedicated to maps would not go amiss.  I don’t want the detail of the World Atlas of Wine – just more clarity.

Two other things struck me about the encyclopedia.  One is that it is not afraid to mention specific companies and brands.  That does not just apply to wines, but to glasses and barrels for example.  I feel reasonably comfortable with that.  Wine is essentially a commercial subject and perhaps too many books are shy of tackling that fact head on.  The only commercial bit that annoyed me was Serena Sutcliffe’s introduction, which I read as one big gloat for Sotheby’s and the silly prices they sell top wines for. How do they get to put this advertorial at the front of an encyclopedia? Do they actually sponsor it?

The other thing is that there is an awful lot of opinion in the text of the regional sections of the encyclopedia.  I am thinking here mainly about views expressed on wine regulations and how countries organise their wine trade, and not so much about opinions on the wines themselves.  Now I have a lot of respect for Tom, and am happy to read what he thinks whether I agree or disagree, but I do wonder whether a work of reference is the right place.  I can imagine the editor defending the personal angle by saying it makes the book more lively, but I rather dislike the mixing of authority and fact with what is clearly opinion.  I can almost hear a wine bore sitting at a table regurgitating the opinion, and cloaking it with an air of authority gained from this book.

Consolidated update 16/07/12

After more time, I have been noticing more and more dodgy bits of information in the book, and I would not recommend it as an authoritative source .  You might want to buy the book anyway and enjoy the broad sweep of the information provided.  But as far as I am concerned its only value for me is to remind me of facts I have earlier obtained from more credible sources, or to act as a starting point for exploration.

I list the specific errors or half-truths I have found below.  How many others there are I do not know.  I am not going to check every fact, but these are the errors so far that leapt out at me as I dipped into the book.

Factoid on Rosé Champagne:  “It is the only European Rosé that can be made by blending white wine with a little red”.  There was a lot of misinformation about this when the EU were considering changing the rules, but the long and short of it is that the EU ban on making rosé by blending only ever applied to still tables wines with no geographic designation.

Factoid on Valpolicella Ripasso: “After having undergone this [ripasso] process, the wines usually cannot carry the Valpolicella appellation […], although some Valpolicella wines are turbocharched by ripasso without any mention of it on the label.”  Actually there are any number of ripasso Valpolicella DOC wines you can buy, and they openly have the r-word on the label.  There was a trademark dispute about the term ripasso, but that is was resolved when Masi relinquished their claim.

Factoid on Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grain: The cépage is “Pinot Noir plus a maximum of one-third Gamay and a combined maximum of 15% Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris”.  No!  The proportion of Gamay can be (and usually is) way above 1/3, but it must be less than 70%