Reading Between The Wine Books

October 27, 2010

As I have mentioned to most folks and in recent posts, it was a hell of a busy summer…some of it unavoidable, some of it self inflicted, and in any case it really bit into the summer reading list, much of which is now moving into a winter slot.  Once buttoning the house up, and wine racking is done, most of those unattended volumes will get some eyeball time. Now, the summer was not so busy that I was not able to keep up on the periodicals, and consume a trio of books, that each warranted additional perusal and examination.

Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

Reading between the Wines

I also just heard Terry Theise interviewed on NPR’s “The Splendid Table” via our own VT Public Radio.
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reading_between_the_wines Reading between the Wines
Terry Theise

This book came onto my radar at an extremely opportune time, as just a couple of weeks after receiving my copy, a trade tasting with Terry Theise was scheduled at the Pitcher Inn, Warren VT, hosted by the good folks at Vermont Wine Merchants, and specifically by Colleen Pitcher who manages the German, Austrian, and Grower Champagne portion of the portfolio.  That vinous responsibility puts Colleen in close relationship with Mr. Theise, who is arguably one of the more genius importers of wine from those particular regional categories.  It was probably about five years ago, when I realized that I was seeing Terry’s name frequently on the back of bottles I was interested in, and that without statistical analysis, I was associating that name ( when the wine was purchased) with fantastic quality.  More importantly,  the association was with wines of truly original character.

Truly original character is a phrase that could be used to describe Mr. Theise himself.  Based on his catalog writings and now this little book, he comes across as an extremely bright, curious, humorous, humane and sensitive person.  My opportunity to attend a small intimate tasting with him bore out my notions about what kind of a person he is…and I have to believe that these personal qualities play an integral part in his work to deliver small production, high quality wine to the rest of us. This volume is compact in size, on the surface is a really pleasurable read, and could even be consumed in less than a few hours…but in all honesty that would be the equivalent of guzzling down a bottle of Donnhof Estate Riesling  in just a couple of minutes.  Sure it might be enjoyable and leave a nice afterglow, but all of the subtlety would be missed.  Please decant this book and take your time with it…plan to read it more than once.  Becoming open and connected to the subtle beauties of wine, and of life, are important points of this work.

Although the book may seem to meander within its structure, I personally see it as a spherical piece where no matter the topic at hand ( his own personal history with wine, his sensibilities about how to qualify wine, or his stories about the vineyards and their guardians), the communication orbits around a core belief that a healthy relationship to wine can take us both outside of our comfort zones, deeper within our sense of what we know, and even illuminate our relationship with ourselves.  This book is a meditation, maybe even a prayer to Bacchus.  Use this book as a heartfelt guide to moving beyond a reductionist approach to “wine appreciation”, and to put point scores in their appropriate place of limited consumer usefulness.  If we really want to “get into” wine, there are words of wisdom here that that point us towards a more holistic approach, in the same way that the zen teacher’s finger points us at the moon.  The finger is important but it leads us to something else, that in turn shines by light from an unapparent source.

The tasting was built around wines from producers that had been mentioned in the book, and while Terry did relay some additional information about the sources, there was no push to make associations between the wines and the particulars in the pages.  He left enough space for people to discover connections for themselves. I wonder what it will be like for folks who picked up a book that day, and will take in the stories post-tasting.

Having read the book, I was already heavily under the spell of suggestion created by Terry’s clear love for the people he works with, and in turn the love those cellar masters have for their lands and the wines they produce. Humans are a malleable lot, and it is well documented, how suggestion can deeply influence perception (especially with wine)…and in this case, maybe I was right over the edge, but the wines were all special and uniquely delicious.    Ones that, in my personal opinion, stood apart, for no other reason than they struck an invisible chord, were:

Berger Blauer Zweigelt 2009 Kremstal Austria (1Liter) - this is a house favorite of ours, and we’ve posted about it beforeCheerful, pleasant, “frisky” Flexible serving temp - cool brings out the fruit, room temp brings forward bacon and spice. An unfailingly good wine. (appx $14)

Heidi Schrock Gelber Muskateller 2009, Neusiedlersee-Hugelland Austria Freak vintage, this is usually finished with residual sugar and blended for the Muscat, but Heidi let this go untamed and finish itself. Not likely to be repeated, a unique wine from this producer…limited quantities. Divine rich sweet floral nose, verbena, chamomile. Aroma belies the clear dry minerality, and austere fruit, and a rock dust finish…a wonderful juxtaposition of nose and tongue. Beautiful on its own, but it screams out for something to eat alongside…and I have to believe it would shape shift with each course. (appx $25…and a steal at that!)

Alfred Merkelbach Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spatlese 2009 Mosel - Dreamy Dreamy nose of late summer flowers, jasmine, and the peelings of apples and pears.  This is a ++++ aroma. Smooth, sweet tart, continuous pure pleasure. Vivid acidity rides on top of a mineral backbone that almost shines metallic as it slowly dissolves under the tongue, until you take another sip.  This wine is nearly transcendent, and is almost an anachronism in this time, and should be understood before it’s kind is extinct. (appx $21 !)

[ Video footage of tasting will go here once 'edited' ]

I have to be clear that I often find myself in the camp of the nostalgic and the romantic, and my own connections to people in my life are held in high importance.  That said, knowing something of the people who produce the wines that I enjoy, does add another facet to the radiance of these gems.
And I think that is just the point.
In this day and age when we can pass one another huge amounts of  quantifiable ( and possibly useless ) data on a little USB stick, it is comforting to know that a bottle of wine can still pass an unquantifiable and powerful experience from one human soul to another.

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Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages uncorking_the_past
Patrick McGovern

I like to think of Dr. McGovern as the Indiana Jones of fermentation…this second book reinforces my sense of awe as to what lengths and distances this man will cover in order to trace back to the origins of a civilized human pact with a feral but benign yeast. The author’s writing style is firmly academic, and although he tries valiantly to liven up the language, the attempts are charming in their awkwardness, and in no way detract from the enormous weight of research that he has invested.

Even though I read, enjoyed, and recommended he previous work “Ancient Wine” which briefly touched upon other fermentation histories, my mouth was still agape at the increased breadth of the coverage, and the fascinating developmental parallels as well as the perpetual loss and  re-emergence of knowledge that  seems characterize humanity.

This follow up McGovern’s also fascinating book Ancient Wine, takes the professor, and us around the globe filling in the information about the fermentation yeast diaspora that is tangentially dealt with in the context of Ancient Wine.  Once again, the science can get pretty heavy, but it is precisely the scientific rigor that McGovern has invested, that allows us to reap what amounts to otherwise lost knowledge.  The fact that similar fermentation processes, societal functions, and rituals appear in pattern across the civilized ( and less civilized ) world, provides on opportunity for us to see commonality with one another, and with those far into pre-history.

Before you get the sense that this guy is too dry, the academic basis leads to real practical results (unlike much of college)…and the fruits of the research led to the reproduction of ancient beverages with the help of the Dogfish Brewery, using McGovern’s archeo-biological assays as the recipe. Check out this video of folks tasting several of the brews at the Penn Museum.

Humans have been collectively nurturing a functional and spiritual relationship with booze for a long time.  I was struck when harvesting a few weeks ago, and talking with a young person, who thought it was a ‘cool’ thing to do, and when I said, “yes and folks have been doing this for…”,  “hundreds of years!” he said proudly…and I said “yes, more like tens of thousands”. ———————————————————————————————————————-

Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence wine_politicsthe Wines We Drink

Tyler Coleman  “Dr. Vino”


A more recent history of wine which both parallels and juxtaposes the development of the wine industry in both the US and France over the last two centuries.  Where the French appellation system was founded as  way to preserve local quality,  the American AVA was created to further state identity.   The two vineyard paths are divergent, but the modern wine world has much to learn from studying them both.

This book is a couple of years out in the market (just released to paperback), and has been well reviewed, and yet I am surprised when I bring it up in discussions with American wine professionals, and they have not heard of it. I would think it required reading,  so that anyone in the business these days, would better understand the context within which they work. I have been recommending it to wine and vine folks here in VT and upstate NY, precisely because those who would hope to develop a new craft industry here, would be wise to study the successes and pitfalls experienced by far more mature wine growing areas.

Would it surprise you to learn that in 2005, which was arguably one of the best seasons in recent French history, that while top Chatueax pricing continued up from the top trellis wire into the stratosphere,  at the same time vignerons were going out of business in droves, and nearly 1.8 billion liters of wine that could not be sold, was reduced to industrial alcohol?  Would you also be interested to know that it was probably the California Gold Rush was critical factor in the birth and  success of vines in them there hills?  Or that when the railroads opened the gateways back to the east, that a former railroad businessman and politician would sink a fortune into a 3,500 acre vineyard with almost 3 million vines…in an unproven, and ultimately poor site?

These couple of items, are just scratching the surface of the factual mother-lode that Tyler Coleman brings to the table.  I would not say that it is exhaustive or authoritative on any one single topic, but it does cover a whole lot of ground and does so in a clean, well researched, and balanced way.   His work is not opinionated, even when it comes to dealing with controversial topics, and as such the even-handedness serves well as a deep primer…and I’m willing to bet it will cause the reader to want to ask more questions.

This book has a serious index and bibliography…and it should, as it is based on Coleman’s doctoral dissertation at North Western, and its quality certainly earns him the title of  “Dr. Vino”.  Where I have read other books that began as a masters thesis or doc-diss, and the structure has been simply academic, this book is a pleasure to read for it’s narrative qualities, the well polished data, clear and well articulated analysis, and because the good doctor has a voice that provides great decanter side manner.

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