Godforsaken Grapes – a slightly tipsy journey through the world of strange, obscure and underappreciated wine, by Jason Wilson. I got my copy from Blackwell’s a few days ago, as soon as it became available in the UK, for £17.60.
The title of the book is a reference to one of Robert Parker’s more infamous pronouncements, this time about how godforsaken grapes like Trousseau, Savagnin, Grand Noir, Negrette, Lignan Blanc, Peloursin, Auban, Calet, Fongoneu and Blaufrankisch produce wines that are rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend. Parker’s actual sentence was rather long and rambling, but can be found here if you are interested. With the title of Godforsaken Grapes, Jason Wilson seemingly throws down the gauntlet in Parker’s direction, but in the book itself he generally avoids direct confrontation, and the focus is not always on the actual grapes. The book’s subtitle is a much fairer reflection of its contents: a slightly tipsy journey through the world of strange, obscure and underappreciated wine.
Wilson’s slightly tipsy meanderings mainly take him to producers in Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy, but they also touch on France and Portugal, and towards the end he moves home to the USA to discuss people’s attitudes to unusual grapes and wines there. The geographical focus seemed a bit strange to me, but as the book progressed, I realised that it was essentially based on some of the more left-field trips and visits he got invited on in the course of being a wine journalist. And that leads me on to my main criticism – the book does not explore these godforsaken grapes in any sort of systematic way.
The descriptions of the locations and people he meets are often detailed and evocative, which is good in itself I guess. Although I don’t always buy into the idea, journalists and other writers are often encouraged to tell a story or paint a picture. But in this book I felt the background detail often overwhelmed the meat of the subject, and was not enthralling enough to stop me skipping through paragraphs, or even over them. But perhaps that is just me?
On the positive side, I found Wilson’s opinions to be balanced and well reasoned. He does not adopt an evangelistic tone, so more conservative wine-lovers would find the content inoffensive. And as someone who tends to seek out unusual wine anyway I was not embarrassed by how he fought my corner, as I am often by the preachers in the natural wine movement. I was also impressed that he addressed so many issues concerning these less well known grapes and wines. Some points I felt could have been made a bit more forcibly, but most were covered. For example, we were told: how the quality of the grape is not necessarily the reason it came to be a minor player; how some grapes seem obscure, but that is only from our Western perspective; how the even the names of some grapes can dissuade consumers in some countries; and how the popularity of different grapes and wines can be mere fashion. All this was of course in addition to describing his experiences with particular grapes and wines.
If you want a book to sit down and read, and are looking for something to pique your interest in more unusual wines, this might be for you. On the other hand, if you expect a reference book, or more structured presentation, to feed an existing passion for godforsaken grapes, you could be disappointed. I probably fall into the later category, and am a indeed little disappointed. But I still appreciate the good aspects of Wilson’s book, and will probably be referring back to it from time to time. It does at least have an index, which will be useful in that regard. Overall I certainly do not regret buying it.