Friday, December 16, 2011

Two Books on Wine

I recently completed reading a couple of books and decided to post my thoughts on each.

The first is Thomas Pinney's A History of Wine In America - From Prohibition to the Present. This is a massive (532 page) scholarly (136 pages are footnotes and source citations) work, and is directed at those whose interest goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of wine itself. Pinney presents a high level view (as in, you're in the International Space Station and equipped with a 60 power telescope) of the American wine industry from the onset of Prohibition up to 2005 (the book's publication date). It's pages are replete with statistics, details of legislation and enforcement, descriptions of industry association efforts, corporate activities, and marketing trends, and those hoping for information about the early histories of their favorite California, Oregon and Washington wineries will be sorely disappointed. Illustrative of this is that because, prior to 1965, the majority of wine produced in the USA was inexpensive sweet wine, the existence of a handful of wineries making quality table wine is mentioned only in casual passing.

So it's not a book for the neophyte wine lover, or even for people who consider themselves knowledgeable on the subject but whose interests lie in the production, procurement and enjoyment of contemporary wines. Instead, this is a book for those oenophiles who have an independent love of history, and is thus able to satisfy both passions. I'm in that category, and am hoping to read Pinney's previous work, A History of Wine In America - From the Beginnings to Prohibition (pub 1989) (rumor has it that there's a copy under the Christmas tree). In fact, my only criticism of the book is that it devotes too much space (two chapters) to contemporary wine production efforts in states east of the Rockies (where the winters are too cold or the summers too wet to grow Vitis vinifera, the only species that can produce truly excellent wine), and not enough to Washington and Oregon (13 and 10 pages respectively). I'm sure this is due to an effort to be as encompassing and comprehensive as possible, but it just seems wrong to devote page space to wine production in Iowa at the expense of a proper treatment of a region (the Willamette Valley) that is producing Pinot Noir that's the peer of anything coming out of Burgundy. I don't think that this is a case of bias on my part; I suspect anyone who loves good wine would feel the same way...even if they live in Iowa.

In an entirely different genre is Natalie MacLean's red, white and drunk all over (2006). This book is written in a humorous, self-effacing style, and keeps the wine geek jargon to a minimum. It's easy and fun to read, not the least bit intimidating, and a good choice for someone just getting into wine. Those with more extensive knowledge will also find interesting content, such as Ms. MacLean's visits and interviews with winemakers (both Old World and New), critics, and other industry professionals. While reading her account of her evolution from neophyte to expert, I frequently found myself reminiscing about my own journey along that same path, and I expect others who've been into wine for a while will have a similar experience.

Toward the end of the book Ms. MacLean puts in a plug for her web site, At that time it was free, but nowadays it's $25 per year to get "full" access. I decided to signup for it, mostly to see how it compared in value to Robert Parker's site (, $100 per year). As it turns out, for one quarter the cost, MacLean's site offers considerably less than one quarter the content, but I suppose it's a good alternative for those who aren't quite ready to pony up the cash for the Parker site. One thing that limits the usefulness of MacLean's site is that she lives in Canada (Toronto I believe) and the selection and prices in the state stores (operated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) vary from those here in the USA, particularly for those of us on the west coast.

Nonetheless I highly recommend the book, particularly for beginners. It's educational without being snooty, and lacks the stigma associated with Wine for Dummies or The Idiot's Guide to Wine. It being now five years after publication, you can get it for only $9.58 from Amazon, and at that price it's a bargain.

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