Monday, December 30, 2013

Vineyard Tales: Notes on a Well-Aged Wine Book

Don't worry, a lot of '90s wine labels are just as bad.
Good wine books, like good wine, should hold up over time. I’m happy to report that this 1996 vintage from Gerald Asher called Vineyard Tales: Reflections on Wine has held up quite well.

I think I found this book at a library sale earlier this year. It’s old and the cover is horribly 90s. But in an era where immediacy is often valued more than quality, Asher’s writing has a sense of wisdom and endurance.

Much of this book is drawn on Asher’s work for Gourmet Magazine, where he worked as wine editor for some 30 years. Born in the UK, Asher spent his wine editing years split between Paris and San Francisco, and he has respect for Old World and New World wines alike. He also has an insatiable desire for adventure, a quality that is critical in the interesting wine writer. Asher has a keen eye for history, and you can tell from his fact-intensive writing that he gets a kick out of researching the history of particular vineyards, wine regions, winegrowing families and grape varieties.

Asher loves stories as much as he loves wine, and it’s this passion for both wine and storytelling that make this book such a rewarding read: “In every glass of wine, I have found, there is such a story; and in every story worth hearing, there is wine,” he writes in the introduction. “In these pages I will tell you some of my favorites.”

Some parts of the book are obviously outdated. For example, Quilceda Creek is no longer “one of America’s best but perhaps least-known Cabernet Sauvignons.” The 65,000 acres of Chardonnay vines in California that Asher writes about has grown to 95,000 in 2012, according to the Wine Institute. And Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards has gone from musing about wine in his old-timey newsletter to tweeting like a madman.

But wine is thousands of years old, and we can learn a lot by looking into the recent past. Some of the historical sources cited in this book are so relevant to our current era that it’s kind of weird. For example, Asher quotes from an 1859 book by Jean-Jacques Lausseure, who writes: “The majority of consumers has been persuaded that these wines should be strong and alcoholic; that’s why, under the name of Burgundy, one can get only some dense, heavy liquid. Most of the English, without bothering to find out how any particular French wine should be, insist that it have body, lots of taste, and be thick.”

Vineyard Tales comprises a bunch of individual essays, each focused on a specific region, grape or theme. I can’t summarize them all, but here are some excerpts that resonated with me…

“We get from a glass of wine what we ourselves put into it.” Is this a lame quote or a truism? Perhaps both? “But the pleasure in any wine is subjective: we each bring something to what is there in the glass and interpret the result differently.”
Asher on wine and food pairing: “I have endured my share of awful food and miserable wines, but I have yet to be confronted with truly well prepared food and delicious wine in a combination so bizarre that either or both were actually ruined. Wine and food can be mutually enhancing but they have a natural affinity in any case and are tolerant of each other to a broad degree.”

“Yet seeking a perfect fit of wine and food risks becoming one more complication thrown in the path of those who simply want to enjoy a bottle of wine.”

On conscientious winemaking: “From the start they understood that making wine was the last stage of growing it, one in which every effort had to be made, every care had to be taken, not to undo in a day what nature had achieved in a season.”

On the ability of Champagne to increase the net happiness of all involved: “With a flute of Champagne in hand, the young feel wisely witty and the old feel young; everyone is better looking.”

“… one glass of Champagne will raise the morale and two will fuse the most ill-assorted group into a dinner party.”

Asher discusses how each individual interprets a wine’s aromas in a different way, based upon their own perception and experience. He calls this phenomenon “a uniquely personal mnemonic echo.” What an awesome phrase. Riffing on this theme, he writes about smelling an aged Ribera del Duero: “Smell bypasses the rational intellectual processes and goes straight to our core of emotion, memory and nervous reflex. That’s why the pleasure we get from a mature fine wine can be quite intense yet conceptually vague at the same time.”

Asher’s a Brit with a high level of respect for Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italian wines, but I appreciate the level of attention he gives to California wine history and culture. This book includes some stories of the early days of Ridge, the Zinfandel exploits of Joseph Swan in the late 60s and 70s, how Joel Peterson of Ravenswood made his first Zinfandel with Swan’s equipment. He even refers to Ravenswood’s Dickerson and Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandels as “among the finest wines regardless of varietal produced in California.”

On praise for Burgundy: “A great bottle of Burgundy is one of the strongest arguments we have in favor of wine.”

On “difficult” young wines: “Difficult wines improve with the years about as often as difficult people do. It’s a drum I bang frequently, but I must say again that only a wine balanced and agreeable when young is likely to be balanced and agreeable as it ages.”

On organizing a wine tasting with multiple bottles, trying to plan how one bottle could affect perception of the other: “our perception of any wine is always affected by others. If one is very tannic, another will seem less so, allowing us to notice in the latter a quality we might otherwise have missed… With this in mind, we begin to understand how we can use one wine to enhance another by emphasizing its advantages. The key to a full appreciation of any wine is to choose a suitable foil.”

Asher, like any wine evangelist, is prone to overexcitement at times. Everyone who writes about wine, myself included, gets caught up in the magic of a region or a producer or a vintage, and Asher’s no exception. Here he is swooning over the wine lands of northern Portugal: “There are vines everywhere in northern Portugal. From a few miles south of the Douro north to the valley of the Minho the river that forms the northern frontier with Spain every hill and valley, town and village, Baroque church, Rococo palace, cottage, wood, garden, plot of maize, and potato field is draped with, enclosed by, wrapped in or smothered beneath vines that hang, festoon, and overflow in a way that would make Virgil, Martial, Catullus, yes, even Pliny and the rest of the gang were they ever to return feel absolutely at home.” I’ve never been to northern Portugal, but when I finally visit I’m sure I’ll get equally gushy and long-winded.

We kick off 2014 in the midst of the golden age of wine writing. There are thousands of wine blogs and websites and apps and podcasts and videos that provide the nerd with information on just about anything related to wine. I’m proud to be a part, however small, of an exciting and dynamic online wine community. But, just like pulling the cork from a well-aged Chateauneuf, sometimes the old helps us gain perspective on the new. In that sense, Vineyard Tales was a delightful and invigorating read. I’d recommend it to nerds and novices alike.

Next on the reading list: the much more recent A Vineyard in My Glass.

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