Thursday, February 28, 2008

Red, White And Drunk All Over

"I think many of us have a secret cellar in our minds where we collect our empty bottles filled with memories."
(Natalie MacLean, p.3)

A quote that resonated with me, that made me ponder it and nod in agreement. And also a quote that hooked me on the book that contained it. A book I quickly and ravenously devoured.

Red, White And Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass by Natalie MacLean (Bloomsbury USA 2006) was reprinted last fall in a trade paperback ($14.95). It contains about 304 pages and includes an Introduction, ten chapters, and an Afterword. The book is an interesting, fun, educational and easy read.

I am going to provide snapshots of the various chapters, including numerous interesting quotes, and then summarize my overall thoughts on the book.

The quote at the top of the page is from the Introduction. And it intrigued me sufficiently that I wanted to read further. The Introduction includes a bit of a biography of Natalie, of how she got into wine. Her first good wine was a brunello at an Italian restaurant. She also describes some of her wine education, mentioning how the Internet, including blogs, has made it easier than ever to learn about wine.

She even dares to discuss what is often not discussed, alcohol. Natalie mentions she enjoys the buzz from the alcohol and that much wine writing seems to ignore the alcohol.

"We don't focus on the grape here," he explains. "Pinot Noir is merely a translation of the soil. That grape was first selected thousands of years ago by the Romans because it gives the purest expression of what Burgundy means. Pinot Noir is a sponge: it absorbs the influences of the soil, the weather, and the barrel. The fruit doesn't get in the way of the place."
(Aubert de Villaine, the vintner at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, p.19)

Chapter One: The Good Earth
What an intriguing way to view Pinot Noir. It definitely is the view of someone who treasures terroir. And maybe such a viewpoint may separate the French region of Burgundy from some other producers of Pinot Noir around the world.

In this chapter, Natalie visits the Burgundy region and speaks with a couple producers, including Aubert de Villaine, the vintner at the famous Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Natalie provides some history of the region as well as information about its wines. There is a discussion of technology and winemaking, as well as biodynamics. A fascinating chapter which kept my interest.

"In fact, zinfandel has been called the world's most misunderstood grape."
(MacLean, p.49)

Chapter Two: Harvesting Dreams
From France we now journey to California to explore Zinfandel, especially the Seghesio Family Vineyards. There is some history of Zinfandel and the Seghesio family. What helped the Zinfandel industry, and hurt it as well, was the creation of White Zinfandel. A 2005 study found that 35% of US wine consumers drink White Zin. So it certainly remains extremely popular. Natalie also discusses how old Zin vines are diminishing and that is raising the cost of good Zin.

"He describes himself as 'a champion of ugly-duckling grapes whose existence is threatened by the dominant chardocentric paradigm."
(MacLean p.58)

Natalie also visits Bonny Doon Vineyards and speaks with its president, Randall Grahm, a rather unique individual. This is a humorous section as Randall is quite the character.

"Champagne may be a celebratory drink, but it's also an intimate ritual that transports you into a private world."
(MacLean, p.93)

Chapter Three: The Merry Widows of Mousse
We now return to France to explore the sparkling world of Champagne, especially how several French widows took control over Champagne houses when their husbands died. "Veuve," such as in Veuve Clicquot means "widow." The chapter discusses much about Champagne, from its history to its making, including how it fits into our culture. There are also some mentions of sparkling wines from other regions. Amidst all the information, there are plenty of interesting anecdotes as well.

"Where Parker sees himself as a crusader on behalf of beleagured consumers, Robinson views her role more as an educator and entertainer."
(MacLean, p.134)

Chapter Four: Purple Prose with a Bite
Natalie now tackles a comparison of two top and very different wine writers, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson. She gives some background details on both and delineates the differences in their styles and approach to wine. She also discusses the power of Parker's opinions. The discussion extends to wine rating systems in general, including how Natalie eventually decided to provide ratings for her readers.

I was especially struck by Natalie's comments on wine tasting, how context is very important. If you go to a large tasting, have a couple dozen sips of various wines, you are not really tasting the wine as you would normally. For example, you are not savoring the wine with dinner. Thus, the wine may not taste the same with dinner as it did at the large tasting. Makes you think about how large tastings could potentially be improved, maybe by adding complimentary foods to the wines.

As for my fellow wine bloggers, what do you see as your role? Are you more of a crusader like Parker, or more of an educator/entertainer like Robinson? For myself, I would have to say I fall more into the Robinson role.

"It's also a West Coast thing: our customers are willing to experiment with New World Wines, while the East Coast tends to be more Eurocentric."
(Chuck Hayward, owner of The Jug Shop, p.139)

Chapter Five: A Tale of Two Wine Stores
Consider the above quote. How accurate do you think it is? Do East Coast bloggers prefer more European wines? Do West Coast bloggers prefer more New World wines? For myself, I don't think it is the case. I own more California wines than any other region, though I own many Spanish wines as well. I have a more cosmopolitan palate, enjoying wines from all over the world. To me, that is part of the fun, experimenting with wine from all regions.

In this chapter, Natalie explores two wine shops in the San Francisco area, Chuck Hayward of The Jug Shop and Kermit Lynch in Berkeley. There is a discussion on why Australian wines sell so well, including Yellow Tail. Strong branding is one of the reason. It then moves on to why French wines seem to be losing ground to New World wines.

The chapter then moves on to a discussion of corks vs screwcaps as well as Internet wines sales. There is also a visit to Discovery Wines in New York which has video screens where customers can scan wine bottles and bring up information about the wine. She also provides practical advice on buying wine at a wine store. In addition, Natalie raises the point, made in a 2005 New York Times article that women buy 77% of wine and drink 60% of it. That statistic continues to be supported by more current studies, which I have posted about before.

"Although glasses do influence our experience of wine, what matters more to me are people and places."
(Natalie MacLean, p.183)

Chapter Six: A Glass Act
We begin this chapter with George Riedel and his stemware. Riedel actually has planned the wines for his funeral! Natalie does some tests and does conclude that wine glasses affect taste. But from the quote above, you can see her primary interest and I would certainly agree with her. She also mentions "glass snobbery," commenting on how there are over 103 different Riedel glassses which does seem overkill.

"When we share good wine with good friends, we also share what makes us human: sensual pleasure, conversation, and connection."
(Natalie MacLean, p.195)

What a fine quote about one of the primary pleasures of the wine experience. Natalie provides some advice on holding your own home wine tastings as well as a lesson in how to taste wine. She finishes with a discussion on wine language with her hope that such language brings people together in a shared commonality rather than excludes people unfamiliar with the language. Again, a very valid point.

"Generals may lead with the sword and philosophers with the pen, but dinner party hosts lead with their forks."
(Natalie MacLean, p.213)

Chapter Seven: Partners at the Table
We begin here with dinner parties, move on to cooking with wine and then on to decanting. Then, on to Champagne as an apertif including using a sword to open a Champagne bottle. And yes, Natalie succeeded in opening a bottle with a sword. We move on to toasts and finish with some comments on pairing food and wine. This chapter basically touches on all the main components of a dinner party.

"Today in North America, house wines are often the leftovers from the list; cheap and nasty stuff that you can use in a pinch instead of Liquid Drano."
(Natalie MacLean, p.241)

Chapter Eight: Undercover Sommelier
Natalie spent a night at a French restaurant in Quebec working with a sommelier. She then explains about restaurant wine lists, their pricing and how to assess their usual mark-up. There is also a discussion on house wines as well as tipping for your wine. This chapter has some very practical advice as well as interesting ancedotes.

"In his book, he describes drinking pinot as 'performing a sexual act that involves silk sheets, melted dark chocolate and black cherries, while the mingled scent of cinnamon, coffee and cola wafts through the air."
(Natalie Maclean talking about Jay McInernery, p.264)

Chapter Nine: Big City Bacchus
Now wouldn't the language of that quote make you want to run out and get a bottle of Pinot? Miles from Sideways would definitely agree.

Jay McInerney is a famed novelist and also a wine writer for House & Garden magazine. Some of his columns have been collected in a couple books. Natalie spends some time with him discussing wine. Their discussion includes some practical advice on how to start and stock your wine cellar as well as on attending wine auctions. McInerney is a colorful individual with a real flair for writing.

"The guidelines for pairing wine with difficult food are the same as those for traditional, wine-friendly dishes: harmonize your flavors, textures, and weights."
(Natalie MacLean, p.272)

Chapter Ten: Wine Meets Its Toughest Matches
This is not your ordinary food and wine pairing chapter. Instead, Natalie addressed some of the more difficult dishes to pair. These include: 1) Salads and veggies (Natalie consider veggies the most challenging food to match with wine); 2) spicy dishes; 3) take-out & frozen food; 4) cheese; and 5) chocolate. Definitely a practical chapter with lots of great suggestions. Natalie also has an online food matching tool which you can use to get suggested pairing for almost any food.

This short section mentions the challenge of writing this book, Natalie's newsletter (which I recommend you subscribe to) and that Natalie wants to write more books, to cover other wine topics.

I went into more detail on all of the chapters as I very much enjoyed this book. First, Natalie is an excellent writer, and not just as a wine writer. There is poetry in her language, beautiful and lyrical. So many compelling quotes. It was a real pleasure to read. Second, the book is very interesting. Though it educates, it also tells a good story and you never feel like she is lecturing. If you have insomnia, don't try to use this book to go to sleep. Third, she presents a balanced view on some of the more controversial topics such as biodynamics and Robert Parker. Fourth, she is very thorough, covering many different topics in each chapter. I was amazed about all of the matters she addressed in the book. Fifth, she offers much practical and valuable advice throughout the book. That makes it very useful. Sixth, the book makes you think about a variety of subjects. And all good books should make you think.

Who would benefit from this book? Everyone, of all levels of wine knowledge. There was plenty of new information I found in the book. And it would provide fertile ground for wine bloggers as well, plenty of ideas which could lead to new posts. It is easy to understand so even wine novices would enjoy it. It is a smooth read, not at all like a textbook. This is a book you will return to again and again. To review some of her practical advice or to mine the book for discussion ideas.

I highly recommend this book.


Anonymous said...

I've heard many good things about this book and I'd currently in my "to read" pile. Might be the next one I crack open.

Natalie MacLean said...

Richard, this is wonderful! Thanks so much for this thoughtful and detailed review.

If your visitors are looking for some tips on using the book with their wine group or book club, I've posted some here:

Carol, thanks for considering it ... just let me know if you'd like a signed bookplate.

I look forward to following your blog!


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