Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: Wines of the World

March 18, 2010

Wines of the World

Susan Keevin et al.

Eyewitness Companions

DK Publishing, New York



If you are at all like me –and I think I am an average Vancouver denizen- you probably own a lot more books that you have never read than the ones you have. It is a bit embarrassing to confess this, coming from me, being a writer. Writers are supposed to read or to have read a lot. When I became more interested in wine I started to collect wine books, thinking “now, I have a real passion here, so I will read all these books.” 

Of course I was fooling myself. We are animals of habit and now, looking back, I should have known that, just as with my other books, I would only read a fraction of them. I must also say, however, that although I have not read most of my books front to back, I have definitely used them for reference, both for my fiction and wine writing. Just in case you started thinking “why should I read this blog? This guy is cranking wine stuff out of his head.” 

In any case, what I wanted to say on this one is that  if I had to choose one book, if I had the money and space on my shelf for only one wine book I would pick the one that gives name to this posting.  Wines of the World provides all the basic information you need in a mere 672 pages. It is compact, it has beautiful photographs, it’s made with nice, thick paper. Plus, it packs condensed, quality information on the world wine regions, grapes, wine people, top producers, history. If that were not enough, you will find handy maps too. 

I don’t know how they managed to pack so much into such limited space but that shows craftsmanship. (Should I write craftswomanship to be gender correct here? Just kidding). These guys knew what they were doing. I also find the language simple, accessible to all, avoiding the excessive industry jargon that drives the wine curious back to beer and rye. Nothing wrong with those two, don’t take me wrong.

If you only read the first chapter “Introducing Wines of the World” (it’s ok if you skip the old stuff and go straight to the 20th century) you will have already a pretty good grasp on the wine areas, who is making what, who is making more -or less- and who is drinking it.  For instance, on page 13 there is a neat table of production and consumption. For the year 2001, the consumption in liters per capita put Canada on place 15th, after France, Portugal, a long list of etceteras and even tiny Switzerland and beer oriented Germany. What they don’t say is that Vancouver drives the Canadian consumption up, with West Vancouverites downing a staggering 90 liters per head a year. That is a whole lot, and yes, this is fresh info that is not in the book. But that is why you come to this blog, see? Now, seriously, I have the 2004 edition, so expect updated info on the current one. You still need to come to Winecouver though. 

Pages 24 to 35 will make you a quasi-expert in terroir, vineyard soil and grape varieties. Knowing red from white and having Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay only in your wine knowledge arsenal doesn’t cut it any more, bud. The terroir explanation text is wittingly accompanied by cool illustrations that will cut through that looming boredom. Then you have the main grapes, both black (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir) and white (Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) explained in detail, as it should be. Most wine drank today still comes from those main grapes. Then you have shorter descriptions for other grapes that are becoming more popular. Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, for the dark ones and Viognier, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer among many other whites. Stuff you should know to help you understand and appreciate better your new choices. 

The continuing pages until the end of the introduction chapter give some insight on vineyard management and vinification. I find this latter one is quite relevant, as it relates directly to the stuff you are putting in your mouth. Oak vs no oak, blending, bottle aging, malolactic fermentation, these are all areas in which you want to have a working knowledge, for your drinking’s sake. Huh! Talking about sake, this book doesn’t include a Sake chapter, which makes complete sense. I still don’t get why wine people have got into the idea that Sake should be included in wine books, wine courses, wine tastings and wine shelves on stores. Even the Playhouse International Wine Festival has a Sake section! C’mon. Sake may be very tasty but is not grape wine. 

Pages 42 to 45 complete the introduction and are essential. They are about wine styles, meaning sparkling or still, light, medium or full body, red vs white. Here, as you go through the styles, you learn the basic wine lexicon associated to each style, plus a few aromas and flavors you may typically expect. To close this smartly put together chapter, pages 43, 44 and 45 have an inset each, telling you about stuff you definitely want to know: Tanninaged vs young wine and the building blocks of wine. I am talking about sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol, the properties you assess when answering two essential questions: do I like the wine? Is this quality wine? I must really like this book Have you noticed how many times I used the word “essential”? 

By the time you finish reading through the first 40 pages you will feel a lot more confident. You only have 630 more to go! ; ) You have now all these sections to explore on the wine regions, from Burgundy in France to the top producers in Lebanon. Yes, they do make wine in Lebanon, as they do in Israel. This a really good section for reference, both for when you want to take a quick look or when you find a wine you like and want to know more about the region. It is also fun to look for the “top producers” segment at the end of each wine region. Chances are that you will recognize some of the wines you have seen at your local store. 

The last bit of the book has some wine tasting technique tips, basic wine and food matching and main aromas and flavors you will easily identify in your wines. There is a very solid index, which I deem truly essential in any good wine book. And, huh, there is a wine glossary near the end too.  You should look at it. In case someone asked you what Qualitatswein mit Pradikat is. No. Seriously. I totally recommend this book. Essential.


Ivan Alfonso



A Hedonist in the Cellar, Great Read

January 14, 2010

A Hedonist in the Cellar Adventures in Wine

Jay McInerney

Borzoi Books Alfred Knopf

New York 2006 243 p.

A few months ago I read somewhere that while recipe books and books about food abound, books about wine are scarce. Whoever said that also said that good wine books are a rare species. It is sad to agree but I have to. It is obvious that a lot of people know a lot about wine and that among that lot a few are terrifyingly knowledgeable of the subject. However, very few are both versed in the affairs of wine and are -at the same time- good, strong writers. To our fortune, Ian McInerney is one of them and his “A Hedonist in the Cellar” is a delight to read.

Like those who are really good at what they do, McInerney renounces to all bragging rights. He doesn’t have that annoyingly pretentious “I-know-it-all” tone that many who think themselves wine connoisseurs do. His style is light and deep flavored,  like a Pinot Noir. His understanding of wine is concentrated and dark, like an Amarone. Or perhaps a Sagrantino, an obscure wine on which he illustrates us well with his vivid account “The Mysterius Beauty of Sagrantino di Montefalco.”

McInerney’s narrative is fun and interesting and he has had the wisdom to write short pieces for each subject, coming up with titles that make one feel like jumping into the reading. Enmeshed in the narrative, cultural and historical references add a layer of erudition, showing a writer who has read deep and wide. McInerney also has a knack for capturing people’s looks and personalities and his descriptions make the characters he meets come alive from the paper. After reading this book, you will not think of wine personalities the way you did before. Michel Chapoutier, for instance, one of the most successful winemakers from the Rhone, shows his intense humour, borderline with crassness but stopping shy of it. “The brain is a pleasure killer” he says, in the introduction. Later he is quoted saying “drinking filtered wine is like having sex with a condom” and then “you don’t need to be a gynecologist to have sex, in reference to the widely spread, obsessive need to “analyze” wine and find all kinds of aromas and flavors in it, instead of just enjoying it fully.

Like in Mr. Chapoutier’s case, McInerney brings out the quirky side of wine makers, negociants, writers and critics, a side often not even imagined. And he does it with freshness and humor. There is little room for hard black & white criticism in McInerney’s writing, something that should be essential in any good writer, especially when the subject at hand is wine.

The book starts with “Foreplay”, a metaphor for the fact that one starts a party drinking whites. A collection of eight pieces that take us from the slopes of tiny Condrieu (McInerney’s confessed favorite white) to the intricacies of German enological hieroglyphics, read labels. This first set, dedicated to whites, is like that kind of wine, bright and fresh. It sheds light on some wines that should deserve more attention: white Bordeaux, Soave, Tocai Friulano.

The second set “All Wine Wishes It Could Be Red” is loaded with knowledge and entertainment. I enjoyed “The Roasted Slope of the Rhone” (where he renders a colorful depiction of Marcel Guigal) and “An Extreme, Emotional Wine: Amarone” particularly. His articles in this section cover the world of wine at large: Malbec, Chilean reds, Cahors and the Cult Cabs of Santa Barbara, among others.

It would be tempting to go into the details of each selection but that would be rather time consuming and really, the scope and depth of each short piece is of such richness that it is better to let the reader jump from characters like Rioja’s eccentric Remírez de Ganuza to Jacques Lardiere (“The Mad Scientist of Jadot”) and the likes of Jancis Robinson, among others. His “How to Impress your Sommelier” selection is delightfully insightful, providing an insider’s look at Rioja, Austrian Riesling and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

For a seafood lover like myself, I loved the “Fish Stories from Le Bernardin” as well as the “Provencal Pink” article. These two and others are part of chapter six, “Matches Made in Heaven”. “Bin Ends”, the title for chapter eight, brings the uber interesting “Strictly Kosher” (it made me smile quite often too) and his “Baby Jesus in Velvet Pants” touched a personal note, as I spent a good hour chatting with Burgundy’s own Luc Bouchard from Bouchard Pere et Fils at a downtown Vancouver restaurant last November.

The last chapter, “Bubbles and Spirits” is equally rich and inspiring, somehow transferring to the reading the joyful mood that one gets after one or two sips of sparkling wine. The pieces on Armagnac, Champagne, Chartreuse and Absinthe (“The Wild Green Fairy”) set the tone for his epilogue (“What I Drank on my Forty-Eighth Birthday”), a candid account which made me a bit jealous. Who, after all, gets to write a letter to Jancis Robinson telling her about one’s birthday knowing that she will read it? And who gets to open a Magnum of 1990 Dom Perignon for the occasion? Not to mention the 99 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Hauserer Riesling or the Martinelli Jackass Hill ’96 monster Zinfandel. These closing lines  reminded me that I should start planning my own 48th with the best wines I can get my hands on. One can only dream…

From the physical point of view, this book also scores high. The cover is definitely low key but deeply wine themed (although I would’ve done without the unnecessary Robert Parker’s three-line comment on the front). Good choice of color scheme here (so many people seem to be color blind these days). The table of contents, to the point and simple. I loved the choice of paper both in appearance and texture. Nice at touch: strong yet somehow sophisticated. Or at least the kind you’d expect when the subject at hand  is wine. Lovely font too and quite smart to have a note about it on the last page. The bibliography list –on the previous page- also comes handy.

There aren’t very many things lacking in this read. One of them is an index. The information packed here is dense and loaded with names of appellations, winemakers and the like. It surely would help to have an index when using this book for reference, as I am sure many will do. Summing up, I can see McInerney’s “Hedonist” becoming a classic. Good for him. Highly recommended and now I am to return this copy to the Burnaby Public Library (beautiful building with a view to the North Vancouver’s mountains) and buy my own.

The Battle for Wine and Love, Parker Wins

August 5, 2009

BOOK REVIEW. 2008 by Alice Feiring. Harcourt.BattleForWineAndLove

After reading Alice Feiring’s book the first thing that comes to mind is that she is a journalist, not a writer. Basically what is an account of her own life and dislike of Robert Parker is “decorated” with half a dozen fictional characters that show very poor development. We never get to know enough of them as to justify their presence in the memoir, except as narrative clutches for a limping writer. She uses them when they are convenient to add body to an otherwise dilute section or sometimes are used as hinges to move from one scene to the next.

A big issue with this book is why, instead of writing a solid, serious book –given that she takes Parkerization in earnest- Feiring chooses to “spice it up” with her love life. Unfortunately for her, and for her readers, she fails in both accounts. For seven anodyne chapters Feiring prepares us for the narrative orgasm, her phone interview with Parker. To keep with the sexual metaphor, this would have been one of those occasions when after sex one thinks “I’ve had better”. The account of the interview feels manipulated, lopsided –in her favor- and shallow. One can only think “Robert Parker must be a retard”, which we know he is not. That is a trait to be found in other encounters she describes in her book, especially when she talks to wine people “from the dark side”. She always manages to convey a sense that she totally outsmarts them. However, in most cases –and if the exchanges are as she shows them- she fails to ask the tough questions, to press the weak points, sometimes because “I am shy” or because, as in the case of the phonterview with Parker, because she doesn’t want to ruin her shot at talking to him.

Feiring says very little about love. In fact, I don’t understand why she even uses the word love in the title of her piece. But we can summon a few strokes of what her love life may be like from the way she describes her encounters with men. She is not straightforward. She keeps a grudge but she won’t let it out in the open for discussion. She fails to show the other what she really knows and thinks of them. Who would like a lover like that? Not this man here, for sure. There is one line where she mentions that –during the second phone interview with Parker- she is wearing underwear (suggesting she was not on the first one) doesn’t come as sexy but it rather suggests that when she looks at a mirror, Feiring sees one hot babe. Eee-W! I thought when I read that line. Also, if this man is a person that Feiring dislikes so much, why the innuendo?

Another issue that I found annoying is the tone of the narrative. It is like it wants to be in Sex and the City style. The cloying, annoying, repetitive use of nicks, owl man, big joe, skinny, is over redolent of the super-popular TV show, but they belong there, not in a wine memoir which pretends, after all, to be serious. All in all, the book feels like Feiring couldn’t come up with a solid story line and figured that intertwining her wine stories with her love life was the patched-up solution. It obviously does not work.

In the positive side, she will wake up many people to the fact that wine is not as natural as they may think. That a lot of technology is used in winemaking, some of which may not be agreeable by all. She also gives good insight on the winemaking of Barolo, Rioja and the Rhone. Perhaps that is what Feiring should have used as a core for her book, rather than her insipid references to love and her obsession with Parker. It seems to me that in using the critic as a central theme, Feiring tried to get attention to a book, which without the constant reference to “the emperor of wine”, would have not merited major interest. And by the way, no, Feiring never saved the world from Parkerization. If at all, this attempt comes ten years too late to do anything about it.
To use Parker points, I score this book 81.