Next to a good wine, I might settle for a good wine book, if only I had time to read them. Having just finished writing a 20,000-word thesis last week on a rather weighty subject, I decided to reward myself with a little wine reading. Fate recently fed my bibliophilia with a few wine books, some of them gifts, others timely purchases, and in poring over them I decided to expand on this subject in the months ahead.
Just to nip at it for the moment, during my far-flung rovings as a wine writer I’ve met a number of locally and internationally renowned wine writers — predominantly men, even though women are among the very best. I regret that since I still lack a sufficient knowledge of important Romance and Germanic languages, I’m sure I miss a lot of great wine writing I might otherwise enjoy. Then again, it inspires me to stumble along with my usually sporadic studies of French, Spanish and German, a great help when it comes to wine labels.
English, in any case, provides us with a wealth of wine literature, and whenever I pick up a newspaper while traveling in America I read the wine column, if there is one, to gain market insights. In general it’s interesting, but despite the romance, the pleasure and the history inherent in wine, some writers still manage to make it sound suffocatingly dull. No offense to my fellow Americans, but as much as I appreciate our best wine writing, I believe the British have a clear-cut overall edge in this department.
That may seem an odd thing to say, since even though the Romans took the vine to what was to become England and Wales 2,000 years ago, commercial wine produced in those two countries has yet to achieve international distinction.
What makes British writing better in general, I believe, is generally better wine writers, perhaps another way of saying that if the best of them don’t have a greater veneration for the English language per se, at least their writing suggests that they do. That’s good enough for me.
(Moreover, to its credit, Britain seems to have no equivalent to a certain power-crazed New York wine publication that would consistently win the International Arrogance-in-Wine Award, if there were one.)
Given the misplaced hauteur often attributed (especially in Japan) to wine, an everyday drink, one might presume the front rank of world wine writers to be largely stuffy snobs pontificating self-importantly about wine between affected, superficially reflective sips of Chateau Whatever. Not so. The doyen of international wine writers, Hugh Johnson, is a singularly modest, personable and accessible Englishman, who says he learned to write before he learned to like wine.
Another Briton among many whose wine (and food) writing delights me is Paul Levy, a great stylist. The Australian Oz Clarke’s wine writing bristles with his robust personality. And dare I omit mavericks such as the American Willie Gluckstern? Get his book, “The Wine Avenger” (Simon & Schuster, 1998). I’m sure you’ll enjoy this very savvy, unpretentious wine scribe.
Tucked down where perhaps too few tend to notice a good wine writer, in South Africa, is John Platter, whose “John Platter’s South African Wine Guide 2000” recently came in my mail. Platter has an extraordinary knowledge of his subject and writes with great style, and no doubt his staff of 10 associate wine writers made telling contributions to this fine book about the cellars, vineyards, winemakers and restaurants of South Africa (Injectrade 25 Pty. Ltd.; e-mail at email@example.com).
I’ve written a bit about Austrian wine this year, and before I visit Austria again I’ll check out “New Wines From the Old World: The Wines of Austria, a Traveler’s Guide” by Giles MacDonogh, a zany Brit I ran into at the Emperor’s Ball in Vienna two years ago. Ask the Austrian Embassy how to get this well-written book, a guide to the regional characteristics and individual wineries by a good wine writer fluent in German.
During my winery visits to Virginia in late June, some friends gave me another interesting wine book I’d overlooked, since it was published in 1993. Joy Sterling’s “A Cultivated Life: A Year in a California Vineyard” (Villard Books/Random House), if considerably less than a trendsetter in style and finesse, is a mother lode of day-to-day wine lore centering on Sonoma County’s respected Iron Horse Vineyards.
“All the talk about a rivalry between Napa and Sonoma is absolutely true,” says Joy, who married the Iron Horse winemaker. “It’s like Bordeaux and Burgundy, Tuscany and Piemonte.”
And why not? Rivalry breeds better wine. This book lacks a lot, including a glossary for those who don’t understand things like “maloractic fermentation.” But by picking through the words as if they were ripening grapes, one can extract a good a bit of essence from “A Cultivated Life.”
More to come on wine books. Cheers! Bon appetit!