Free Association - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Free Association

Anthologies are, by their nature, a heterogeneous lot, taking on a multiplicity of angles, topics, tones, voices. A strong editor will keep a tight rein on the more far-flung efforts. Sometimes, the topic itself has enough gravitational pull to make the parts cohere. No one would question the force California exerts on the winescape, as a place, a concept, a fantastical, mythical state of mind. But as a wine center it just might be too much topic to tether to a single slim anthology.

On California was edited by Susan Keevil, and commissioned by the Academié du Vin Library, the venerable organization that Steven Spurrier ran until his death in 2021. This collection of previously published excerpts and original pieces is targeted toward a British reading audience, with roughly half of the articles written by Brits (many of them MWs).

A patchwork portrait of the Golden State, the book is at times entertaining, at times informative, and at times bewildering. There are artifacts—historical pieces from Gerald Asher, Hugh Johnson and Harry Waugh going back to 1972—and up-to-the-minute reports on the impact of the fires and drought in Napa and Sonoma. Kelli White provides a spirited chronicle of the Davis professors who resurrected California’s wine industry after Prohibition, and John Szabo offers an incisive tour of California volcanics. There are essays on landscape, geography, plate tectonics, oceans, louses. (Speaking of louses, there’s an excerpt from Sideways.) Then there are essays on Napa, on Cabernet, on Napa Cabernet, and on a single Napa Cabernet (Screaming Eagle).

I often found myself disoriented by the collection’s rambling progression as I navigated its chapters. Midway through the book, for example, there is an A to Z of California Wine, delivered as a glossary, where you’ll find a random selection of topics—“Opus One,” “White Zinfandel,” “Xylem,” “Nebbiolo,” “Wild West Wine,” “Quakes!” and “Disneyland.” Why these were chosen, and how they fit together, remains an utter mystery. It’s an analogue for the book’s scattershot approach, where ‘why is this here?’ is part of the reading experience.

On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo; Wine Tales from the Golden State, Edited by Susan Keevil; Academie du Vin Library (2021), 270 pages, $45

Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.

This story appears in the print issue of Summer 2022.
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