Monday, July 16, 2012

Wine Book Review: "Is This Bottle Corked?"

Review of "Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine" by Kathleen Burk & Michael Bywater

“Wine, more than any other food or drink, is a storyteller…”
As a writer, storyteller and oenophile, I love this analogy. In simple terms it explains why I fell in love with wine and why it has been such a big part of my life ever since.
The book is structured in snippets. From cover-to-cover it’s a bunch of small musings on wine in literature, history and science. Each chapter is a question, which the authors then attempt to answer.
Some snippets are interesting and informational, such as: “Why does Chateau Palmer have an English name?” The section “What can you do with leftover wine?” contains a decent recipe for a red wine sauce to serve with steak. Some other questions border on the ridiculous, such as “Is there wine in Paradise?” and “What links Papuan pigs, peacocks, and Petrus?” The answer is unsatisfactory.
While a bottle of good wine can have a fascinating story to tell, I can’t say the same for co-authors Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater. Like overzealous journalists, these two get carried away, and the story gets lost.
Let me offer a few examples…
In a snippet on cork taint, the authors explain that corked wine smells of “mushrooms” and the “dead leaves of the woodlands.” Not to be nitpicky, but many an aged Burgundy or Northern Rhone syrah show these aromas as part of their natural evolution. If I poured down the drain every wine that smelled of mushrooms or dead leaves, I would’ve missed out on all the great wines of Barolo, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Pauillac, etc. These aromas might not be signs of taint, but signs that the wine has been aged perfectly. To me, cork taint (also known as TCA) smells not of mushrooms and “autumnal woodlands” but moldy cardboard and newspapers that have been left out in the rain for a week. Have you ever been in a basement several days after a flood or water leak, when all the boxes have been soaked and attacked by mold? That’s the aroma of cork taint, and once you smell and recognize it, you’ll never forget it. The aroma of a portobello or shitake is heavenly by comparison.
I don’t want to beat up on the authors too much, but they also remark: “If the sommelier has sniffed the cork after pulling it, he ought to have already spotted [cork taint] for you…” First of all, who said the sommelier had to be a dude? Secondly, cork smells like cork. You detect TCA by smelling the wine in the glass and, if it doesn’t reek enough, by tasting it. TCA has been studied and written about for years (and it’s a common discussion topic for wine nerds like myself), so I really wonder how these two authors could be so clueless about the basics.
The authors spend a while discussing the French term terroir, summing it up as “… all the natural elements of a place. This means that the place matters.” Only a few sentences later they proclaim: “Many growers and winemakers in the New World continue to deny that such a thing exists.” Really? New World growers and winemakers actively state that soil type, microclimate and vineyard aspect have nothing to do with a wine’s essence? I guess that’s why there are no vineyard-designated New World wines, right? (Insert sarcastic emoticon). This is the wine writer’s equivalent of a Fox News anchor prefacing some craziness with “Some people say…” It’s lazy, not to mention an incorrect statement.    
In an essay on the trend of higher alcohol in wine, the authors write: “Now that so much wine has such high levels of alcohol… two people sharing a standard bottle (750ml in volume) could feel unpleasantly inebriated, as well as feeling guilty at exceeding the daily alcohol consumption recommended by doctors.” All I’ve got to say about that is: Ha!
The book does contain some information I didn’t know, or knew at one point and forgot. For example, I learned that the founding fathers cheered the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira. I also learned that “People under a pleasant degree of intoxication make longer eye contact than the virtuously sober.”
Unfortunately, these interesting facts and stories are few and far between. Even for beginners, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book. There are so many more accurate and readable books on wine, Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible”  for example.

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