Wine Book Reviews:
On Inexpensive Wines, Must-Try Wines, Politics, Seasons, Corks and Beaujolais
The Wine Trials, Robin Goldstein with Alexis Herschkowitsch (Fearless Critic Media, $14.95)
The Wine Trials is brought to you by the author who fabricated an Italian restaurant in Milan with a wine list “impressive” enough to win a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. In actuality, the “reserve wine list” Goldstein assembled for Osteria L’Intrepido features some of the lowest-rated Italian wines that The Wine Spectator reviewed in the past 20 years. One was described as “…Smells barnyardy and tastes decayed. Not what you’d hope for.…”
Goldstein is not only an iconoclast, he’s also the ultimate anti-snob, a very refreshing attribute for a wine writer. His book The Wine Trials recommends 100 wines that cost less than $15. The wines were rated on a sensible scale of bad, OK, good and great. They were agreed upon by 507 wine experts and everyday wine drinkers who attended 17 blind wine tastings and tried more than 6,000 glasses of wine, ranging in price from $1.50 to $150. The result: 100 widely available, inexpensive wines that most wine drinkers — with the exception of wine experts — preferred to pricier ones.
Reliable everyday wines like Fat Bastard Chardonnay, Parallèle 45 Côtes du Rhône rosé, Terrazas de los Andes Malbec, Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages and Guigal Côtes du Rhône red are recommended in the book. You can build a creditable basic cellar with them and the other recommended wines.
BOTTOM LINE: If inexpensive, good-value wines are what you’re after, this is the book for you.
1,001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die, edited by Neil Beckett (Universe, $36.95)
Here’s a project, a New Year’s resolution perhaps, for the boldest — and richest? — among us: trying more than a thousand wines. Put in perspective, it’s not so bad: The whole tasting can be done in less than three years! The less obsessed can pick and choose. In any event, you’ll learn a lot along the way.
You’ll learn about wines from prestigious regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as wines from surprising places including Croatia, England, India and Uruguay. You’ll encounter expected wines like Burgundy’s famed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s La Tâche as well as lesser known wines like Miljenko Grgic’s 2004 Plavac Mali from Croatia.
The authors sought out wines “of high quality ... and distinctive character.” They include new discoveries as well as classic wines that have been benchmarks for decades. The book is beautifully illustrated and a joy to leaf through. Contributors include 44 mostly well-known international wine experts, including Americans David Schildknecht (who also writes for influential critic Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate) and superstar importer Terry Theise and many top British wine writers, Hugh Johnson and Clive Coates among them.
BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable new addition to the “1001-things-you-must-experience-before-you-die” series.
Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (University of California Press; $27.50)
Like many of us, Tyler Colman, aka Dr. Vino, has two sides: his more lighthearted, blogging self and his more intellectual, scholarly, Dr. Colman self. His first book falls into the second category.
In Wine Politics, which started as his Ph.D. thesis for Northwestern University, Colman examines an area of wine that’s not often visited by the wine press: How those who are usually in the background of the business — distributors, politicians, government agencies, activists and critics — are the forces that to a surprisingly large extent control what we drink. They greatly influence the production, distribution, availability, shipping regulations and sales of wine. As happens so often these days, too much power is in the hands of a few — in this case large corporations, distributor monopolies, an overly influential critic and an overly powerful wine magazine. As usual, this consolidation of power doesn’t benefit consumers.
Colman encourages readers to stop and think about why things are the way they are and how important a role politics plays. “Why is it often easier in America,” he asks, “to buy guns, cigarettes, and pornography than it is to buy serious wine from California? In a word, politics.... Politics determines not only which grapes grow where, what can be written on the label, which wines are exported or imported, which wines are available in local stores, and how much a wine costs, but, perhaps most important, it also affects the quality of the wine in the bottle.”
Political vino-scientist Colman tracks wines from the vineyard to the dinner table. He focuses on French and American wines, especially those from Bordeaux and Napa, the leading producers of the Old and New Worlds. He offers a history of the wine industry in France and the US before Prohibition and the current laws that descended from it. Included are other crises and scandals the industry faced — the temperance movement in the US, oversupply and fraud in France, the phylloxera scourge in both countries. Globalization is covered, as is natural winemaking.
Although Wine Politics is a serious study, it’s not a stuffy one. The book is full of interesting, sometimes startling information: In the US “the top 20 wineries control 80 percent of production; the top fifty control almost 95 percent”; “Four companies control two-thirds of the volume and one-half of the value of wine made in the United States”; Costco and Sam’s Club sell a third of the wine sold in the US; in 2005 Australia’s Yellowtail alone sold 8.6 million cases of wine to the US while total imports from France were 10.5 million cases.
BOTTOM LINE: At last, a topic that has long deserved attention has gotten it, in a well-written book that is as compelling as its subtitle is catchy. It will change the way you think and may even change the way you shop and the wines you buy.