Essential Reads - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Essential Reads

Book Reviews from December 2019

Pour yourself a glass and grab a wine book to pore over as you warm up by the fire this winter! Here are our recommendations from our December issue:

Great Wine Families: A Journey through Europe, by Fiona Morrison, MW

Académie du Vin Library, 2019; $39

Behind many of the greatest wines in the world—wines made by families rather than companies—there are sibling battles and levels of intergenerational strife worthy of a 19th-century novel.

It all comes down to succession: how a family can hold together over the course of generations, continuing to build on the success of their vines and their ancestors. Wine is one of the rare businesses in which this level of international fame and internal family politics plays out over centuries—unless you consider royalty a business. So, it makes for an unusual sociological study and compelling prose.

Fiona Morrison, MW, is in a position to tell that story, as someone who has led many lives in the wine industry. Born into a military and artistic family in England, Morrison started her career in the 1980s, based in Chicago, where she promoted the Italian wines in Tony Terlato’s portfolio. Then, into the 1990s, she marketed Bordeaux, eventually moving there. That’s where she met Jacques Thienpont, himself an heir to a centuries-old negociant business in Belgium, and to Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol (though he’s perhaps best known for initiating the garage-wine concept with Le Pin). The two are now married, with two sons, which places Morrison directly in the middle of one of Bordeaux’s great families of wine. In a sense, the book is something of a personal research project for her. She set out to discover how the members of these legendary families actually get along and how they manage—or don’t manage—to stay together.

Morrison approaches her subjects with the positive energy that has served her well through her career (and her work as a long-time contributor to this magazine), giving credit where it is due. But she is also direct about shortcomings and faults, whether with wines or with people. She draws intimate portraits of ten families, bringing the reader close to the struggles and opportunities of the people behind some of the legendary wines of Europe. More broadly, Morrison provides a study of intergenerational family business through the lens of great wine, a craft taken to the level of ephemeral art by some of those generations. If you ever wonder what it’s like to grow up a Perrin in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a Liger-Belair at La Romanée or a Gaja in Barbaresco, this book will take you there. —Joshua Greene

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs by Ian D’Agata

University of California Press 2019, $50

Ian D’Agata has followed up his indispensable Native Wine Grapes of Italy with another essential for any serious Italian wine lover. In his first book, D’Agata covered the characteristics of 377 native Italian wine grapes, with a brief mention of where those grapes are grown. D’Agata has also organized Terroirs by grape variety, but he covers far fewer, providing brief notes on each grape’s characteristics while greatly expanding the discussion of the places in which they grow. Some entries, like mayolet and fumin, occupy just a couple of pages, but nebbiolo goes on for more than 40 pages in which D’Agata dissects the soil composition of each Barolo and Barbaresco commune as well as lesser-known nebbiolo regions like Valtellina, Carema and Albugnano. The level of detail is mind-boggling, and while some readers may not be captivated by extended discussions of clone numbers or the molecular components of a wine’s aromas, D’Agata’s thorough explanation of place and its impact on wine styles will illuminate the understanding of wine students, wine professionals and wine lovers alike. —Stephanie Johnson

The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, MW

Octopus Publishing/Mitchell Beazley 2019, $64

First published by Hugh Johnson in 1971, The World Atlas of Wine is now in its 8th Edition. Jancis Robinson has joined Johnson as editor and co-authored since the 5th Edition in 2003, and the duo rely on the expertise of 68 local specialists to ensure they’re compiling the most recent and accurate information. In addition to revised and updated text, the newest edition includes 230 maps (20 new, including two soil maps of Marlborough and Beaujolais), with updated minutiae such as notable producers, expanded vineyard areas and climate data. A new summary of key information at the beginning of each section details each region’s vital statistics as well.

The two most notable additions to the Introduction are two spreads.  “The Changing Climate” includes a graph of average temperatures in the growing season for a global selection of regions dating back to 1901 as well a plot of the harvest start dates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The graphics reflect the uncomfortably warming realities facing the wine world. “The Bottom Line” examines rising prices in fine-wine-trading indices and the price of first-growth Bordeaux represented by half a day’s work. It also looks at global vineyard land prices.

The Atlas is published in print and electronically, available on iPad featuring note-taking capabilities and searchable, scrollable maps. —Corey Warren

99 Bottles A Black Sheep’s Guide to Life-Changing Wines by Andre Hueston Mack

Abrams Image, 2019; $25

It takes some guts for an acclaimed sommelier to admit he started out on Olde English 800, but André Hueston Mack has never lacked for confidence. He can’t afford to: He’s an African-American man working in the overwhelmingly white business of wine. And as sophisticated as we’d like to believe that world is, a quick dip into this Mack’s book shows how foolish that thought is.

99 Bottles is Mack’s recounting of the high points—and the low points—of his wine career so far, of the bottles that have taken him from driving around San Antonio drinking malt liquor to running a wine bar in Brooklyn and an Oregon winery, Maison Noir. Most of the book is enthusiastically positive; Mack’s love for wine comes through as he recounts his lightbulb moments, whether they came with well-known bottles like Voss Sauvignon Blanc; esoterica like Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli; or unicorn wines, like 1983 Château Margaux. He thrills in how wine has provided the social connective tissue in his life, introducing him to winemakers like Kim Crawford, the first winemaker he ever lunched with, or to his now-wife, Phoebe Damrosch, then a server who tagged along on a tasting of Patricia Green’s pinots. And Mack loves a good wine pairing, whether it’s 1985 J.J. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese with French fries or Raymond Lafon Sauternes with foie gras.

He lightens things up with “playing cards” for each wine, offering pointers intended to be more amusing than useful. (“Pairs well with nude sketching in art class” he writes for the 1978 Mouton Rothschild.) But then there are the glimpses of the darker side of the show—the world in which waiters poured bottles of Stonestreet Merlot into potted plants in order to pad their checks; and cops pocket traffic tickets in exchange for dinner reservations; where skin color leads waiters to pre-charge a gratuity on the check and tasting rooms to shut their doors. While working at The French Laundry and Per Se, Mack has been mistaken for everything from the one other dark-skinned person on staff to a pimp and a drug dealer. It’s in these entries that he does his best writing. The drinks Mack profiles in 99 Bottles may not strike a chord with every reader, but they are compelling stories of the power of wine. —Tara Q. Thomas

Natural Wine for the People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It, by Alice Feiring

Ten Speed Press 2019; $19

Bright pink brushstrokes against a somber navy background announce Alice Feiring’s intentions on the front cover of Natural Wine for the People. She is here to bring some color to the drab world of wine, and to explain her subtitled directives—What natural wine is, where to find it, how to love it. Feiring’s experience in this field is second to none, and her cool-science-teacher vibe makes the technical parts of the book feel fun—aided in no small part by Nishant Chosky’s bold illustrations, which have a playfulness and flair reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s art.

Feiring defines natural wine in the negative: No additives, and no machinery. Both of these words might benefit from further definition; at one point, the use of a hose to remove excess CO2 before bottling crosses her “machinery” line. Feiring could also put forth a more nuanced argument explaining why new oak is an unnatural additive while Georgian clay qvevi are not.

Maybe it’s the unconditional love of a parent for their child that makes Feiring appear dogmatic at times, having seen the natural wine movement from infancy to a worldwide phenomenon. The movement has always tried to preserve some of that earthly soul of vineyards that agribusiness tried so hard to bury under another layer of nitrogen fertilizer, and it deserves attention and celebration for that fact alone, before the grapes even leave the vine. Even if Feiring can’t convince you completely on her definition of natural wine, this book will give you a clear picture of how and where in the world to find producers of soulful, traditional and low-intervention wines. —C.W.

This story appears in the print issue of December 2019.
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