Wine books
Reports 20 August 2020

The best wine books to read this summer (part two)

In the second part of our wine-reading round-up we navigate fortified wines and strong opinions, via Burgundy, Germany and New York

Words by Adam Lechmere and Guy Woodward

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The second part of our great summer reading round-up (click here for part one) sees us review Victoria James’ hard-hitting memoir, Jamie Goode’s philosophical musings, Jon Wyand’s vineyard vistas and Anne Krebiehl MW on her native Germany…

 

The Goode Guide to Wine by Jamie Goode

$18.95/£15.99; University of California Press; hard cover or e-book

“Who will have the last word on wine, if not Jamie Goode?” asks the publisher of Goode’s latest missive. Who indeed – for if anyone was going to produce a wine “manifesto”, as this is billed, it would be that most prolific of provocateurs, Goode.

This eminently readable book comes in a series of easily digestible chapters – 55 in total – each riffing on a topic that has got under Goode’s famously thin skin. He starts on uncontroversial, sage ground – terroir exists, and soils matter. Thereafter, there is a certain stream-of-consciousness feel to the topics that he covers – from the danger of big retailers controlling the market, to the evil of over-ripeness – always in the manner of a vexed, slightly tortured soul.

Jamie Goode: "Never less than engaging"

“Tasting notes are horrible and I hate them. Yet I have to write them,” he opines. He hates scores, he confides, but uses them, “because everyone else does”. The takedown of scoring systems that follows is as valid as it is acutely-observed – though not as acute as his hilarious assassination of a typical wine magazine profile. It’s not always clear who Goode is speaking to, however – there are several excerpts on how wine should be marketed, for example, that feel more relevant for a trade audience than for consumers. And he happily talks about readers buying cases of Bordeaux en primeur, but then feels the need to add an aside to explain the 1855 classification. Likewise, he assumes readers are familiar with the charms of Fitou – but outlines that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is in Burgundy and the source of ‘one of the world’s most prized and expensive wines’. A chapter on microbes might push the patience of most consumers – or, as Goode describes them, “normal people” – but then again, Goode has a PhD in plant science, as he outlines on page two of the preface and at regular intervals thereafter, and presumably wants to put it to good use.

Ultimately, however, it’s never less than engaging, entertaining and – yes – thought-provoking, not least the fascinating philosophical chapter – reproduced here – on why wine is a ‘virtuous intoxicant’ and whether we would be so fascinated with it if it didn’t get us drunk. “Jamie Goode has a distinct philosophy when it comes to wine,” says the blurb, “and he knows you may disagree; if you do, that means it’s working.” As to exactly what is working, that’s less clear. (GW)
Best for: Those who love a Twitter argument

The Wines of Germany by Anne Krebiehl MW

£30; Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library

They used to say, about the politics of Northern Ireland, “If you think you understand it, you probably don’t.” You could say the same of German wine, with its byzantine laws and impenetrable labelling. Thankfully, Anne Krebiehl MW is one of a handful of people qualified to act as a guide to this most fascinating of regions, and she attacks her subject with zeal.

From the no-nonsense black and white maps to the eight-page bibliography and equally thorough index, it is a scholarly, academic work that also manages to be engagingly readable, despite such sentences as: “Most German wine today is made in the two categories of Qualitätswein (formerly Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete or QbA) and Prädikatswein (formerly Qualitätswein mit Prädikat or QmP)”.

Krebiehl, London-based but Baden-born, spends much of her life on the road (“in my trusty Volvo”), crossing and re-crossing the rivers and tramping the vineyards. The main body of the book is a straightforward guide to the regions with a gazetteer of the prominent estates; the author’s dry delivery and obvious love of her homeland lends warmth. “Lovely Lorelei sits on her rock, combing her golden hair and singing,“ we read. “She is so resplendent and spell-binding that poor Rhine skippers perish in the rapids, overcome with ‘wild woe’… the girl always spells ruin, never the men.”

Anne Krebiehl MW: "Her dry delivery, and obvious love of her homeland, lends her book warmth"

The front sections are studded with interesting detail, such as the coinciding of the Medieval Warm Period (approximately 950–1250) with the great expansion of the monasteries, and the proliferation of their vineyards. Krebiehl is also adept at explaining how the quality – and reputation – of German wine suffered not only from endless bureaucratic fiddling but from processes such as the perfectly legal gallization – enriching musts with sugar solution – which already had a bad reputation in 1875. The end result was 1980s horrors like Blue Nun, which treated “non-wine drinking cultures to a semblance of continental sophistication” but wrecked Germany’s image for decades, a curse which it is only just exorcising.

“I hope I have done Germany justice,” Krebiehl writes in her introduction. Her book is published as a new generation of wine lovers comes of age, millennials who know nothing of flabby sweet concoctions but are ready to give Riesling and German wine its due respect. They’d do well to have this excellent, useful book on their shelves. (AL)
Best for: The complete wine lover

Strong, Sweet & Dry by Becky Sue Epstein

£25; Reaktion Press

“Rich wines, generous wines, strong wines”, is Becky Sue Epstein’s characterisation of those aromatic and potent concoctions – from vermouth to Port, Madeira to vin doux naturel – that have been with us for centuries but are still so commonly misunderstood. Epstein, a wine commentator of huge experience, pulls on a robust pair of cracked leather hiking boots and strides gamely into this great historical sweep.

As a guide she’s engaging, if somewhat prolix, and obviously not sure if her audience is experienced or wet behind the ears. So we learn that Andalucia is “where sherry comes from”, and are treated to snatches of doggerel worthy of Dr Seuss – “And so we have port, named for the Portuguese port it was shipped from”. She frequently skewers us with microscopic detail, such as a paragraph on the etymological history of the Martini company name, its US and Italian roots. But once you cut through the tangled vegetation, the view is worth it.

Becky Sue Epstein "strides gamely into this great historical sweep"

I liked hearing about the Cinzano family, “confectioners to the royal court of Savoy” (and the originators of the phrase “chin-chin”). Epstein is good on history – of the 700-year-old origins of vin doux naturel, or the story of the 13th-century Aragonese physician-theologian Arnaud de Villaneuve, who was one of the first to fortify wine with spirits for medicinal reasons (“his most notable patients did recover”). There’s an interesting chapter on the obscure and delicious fortified wines of the world, like Sardinia’s Vernaccia di Oristano, or the Tunisian Moscato di Pantelleria, a version of which is produced by Sicily’s Donnafugata “under the romantic label Ben Ryé, which means ‘Son of the Wind’”.

This is in many ways a fascinating book, so it’s a pity it seems to have been produced in a 1950s time-warp. Chapters are simply presented as indigestible blocks of text often with page-long paragraphs; illustrations are few. There’s little sign of real editorial scrutiny at all: more diligence wouldn’t have allowed the word “wine” or “wines” to be repeated 15 times in the first 15 lines, to take just one example. But while this isn’t a breezy read, with a bit of digging you’ll find all you need to know about an increasingly fashionable family of wines. (AL)
Best for: The committed student

Wine Girl by Victoria James

£16.99; Ecco

Of all the books reviewed here, this is by far the breeziest read. That’s not to say it’s an easy read  – some of the episodes recounted are shocking in their emotional – and even physical – brutality, not least the opening chapter. But unlike many wine writers, James crafts an engaging, fast-paced narrative: accessible for anyone seeking a good read; meaningful – and disarming – for wine nerds.

It helps, of course, that she’s recounting such an engaging tale, namely the prejudice and sexism she had to navigate as ‘the youngest sommelier in the country and the most foolish’. It’s a neat line – and taps into her rapid rise in a profession for which she was neither prepared nor qualified. We can’t be sure, of course, that she was the youngest sommelier in the US, and on several occasions there is a nagging feeling that some of the stories have benefitted from a little embellishment. But taken at face value, it’s a compelling, affecting journey in which you can’t help but become emotionally involved.

Details of her growing up and adolescence could have been irrelevant and indulgent, but in James’ knowing voice, they serve as shrewdly observed context – her first stints selling lemonade from a street stall; her father’s drinking problem. Her college years see her descend into a spiral of drink and drugs, at one point bringing back ecstasy from Mexico to sell (“a useful insight into pricing and budgeting”) then losing her licence for drink-driving.

Given this context, a job as a bartender would seem an ill-advised move, but her teenage job waiting tables in a diner where a cranky, canny colleague taught her the value of observing and flattering customers serves her well. She recalls and describes individual patrons in nostalgic detail, highlighting an element of sommelerie that is often overlooked – service.

Victoria James: "likeable, ambitious, hard-working and realistic"

As a sommelier, she succeeds – like the book – largely because of this personal approach, but also because she is likeable, ambitious, hard-working and realistic – amusingly and unpretentiously so when it comes to wine. She is not a natural, and doesn’t wax lyrical about how she was seduced by the ethereal elegance of a Gevrey-Chambertin. Instead she sees the métier as a challenge, an opportunity, and only then becomes fascinated by its breadth and rigour.

She is never wide-eyed about it though – she remains an outsider: prescient on the conservatism of the Court of Master Sommeliers; trenchant on the alpha-male tendencies of sommelier contests. Meanwhile raw details of sexual assault and prejudice provide a sobering commentary on the darker side of the hospitality world. Yet she persists and when, in the final chapter, she co-launches her own restaurant and nervously waits on the reviews, you desperately want it to thrive. The gushing testimonials in the epilogue are a touch self-congratulatory, but ultimately, as we see James become a mentor for others, it would take a heart of stone to deny that she’s earned them. (GW)
Best for: Would-be sommeliers, fans of people stories, and those who need their prejudices challenged

Four Seasons in Côte Chalonnaise by Jon Wyand

£35; Bamboo edition

Jon Wyand has been photographing the wine world for 40 years, and is known primarily for his vineyard photography. Over the last two decades, he has become a specialist in the bucolic landscapes of Burgundy. But he has also expanded his range to cover more people and moments – as seen in this wonderfully evocative collection.

There are gorgeous vineyard vistas, of course, but the joy comes in the intimate scenes, the small details, the off-guard portraits of Burgundy’s unpretentious vignerons and village life. As well as winery labour, Wyand captures religious festivals, local fêtes and everyday routine, observed with originality and no little humour.

The joy of Wyand's book lies in the off-guard portraits of Burgundy’s unpretentious vignerons and village life

Page upon page of cleverly constructed shots are occasionally interrupted by text from writer Emmanuel Mère which, in its clinical, relentlessly factual make-up, is out of kilter with the atmospheric visuals. “Established in 1990, the regional appellation indicating the geographical origins of Côte Chalonnaise recognises the character of 44 different towns and villages located in northern Saône-et-Loire,” he writes. Talk about a mood-killer…

Such a rundown of appellation rules and history detracts from the escapism of the photos, rooting you back in a series of facts that can easily be found elsewhere. Much more valuable – and enjoyable – would have been interviews with Wyand on his impressions of the places he visited, his thoughts on favourite subjects, and how shooting differs across the seasons. Likewise, the shots could have benefitted from more descriptive captions detailing who or where each shot was taken, rather than just “Mercurey” or “Russilly”; even the occasional more expansive efforts – “Time Passing” or “Menage à trois” – are rather cursory.

Ultimately, though, this is all about bringing the spirit of the Côte Chalonnaise to the coffee table. And the Côte Chalonnaise spirit exists: the saintly Aubert de Villaine says so. “Here, winemakers have faith in the potential of their climats,” says the storied Domaine de la Romanée-Conti guardian in a testimonial. “Jon has perfectly captured this ‘spirit’ in faces, landscapes and through pure moments of silence which express truth much better than a writer’s words.” Amen to that. (GW)
Best for: Romantics and aesthetes

For part one of our book reviews, click here.

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