Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st-Century Winery

Does this plot sound familiar?

Wealthy couple who made a fortune in [insert Wall St., real estate, etc.] decides to chase their dreams: buying their own vineyard and winery in Napa. Once there, they bankroll an eponymous Cabernet of the dense and oaky variety, which garners high praise from Robert Parker. This couple revels in the realization of their dream, purchases art, clinks glasses with other wealthy folks and politicians at galas, fundraisers, etc.

Tell that same story again and again and you have a pretty good idea of what's gone on in Napa Valley over the past few decades. Sure there are outliers, upstarts, scrappy winemakers with a pick-up truck and a dream, but the highest pedestals are reserved for the wealthy who swoop in and buy a Napa Cab into existence.

Craig and Kathryn Hall tell their iteration of this story in a new book, "A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st-CenturyWinery." The book, slated for September release, reads like an extended press release.

Kathryn, former U.S. ambassador to Austria, has some family roots in the wine business — her family has a vineyard in Mendocino's Redwood Valley. Craig was a big real estate guru and co-owner of Dallas Cowboys. They seem like perfectly nice people. They seem to love what they do and respect their winemaking team and employees. They are clearly successful businesspeople and have done quite well for their wine brand. Hall wines have received plenty of 95+ point scores from major publications. But these ingredients do not an interesting story make.

The narrative point of view is impossible to nail down because it shifts back and forth with sporadic intensity. The reader get's Craig's first person POV, then Kathryn's, then a kind of omniscient third-person combo-POV which speaks for both of them. These can all be present in a single chapter.

The prose is bland and packed with clichés about shared passions, making wine from the ground up, insisting on quality over quantity, you get the idea.

This isn’t a book for wine nerds. Despite its prominence on the front cover, wine is a secondary character. The protagonist is the business venture, the brand, the “perfect score.” It just so happens that Napa Valley Cabernet acts as the stool on which the protagonist proudly stands.

The book does contain some discussion of the ins and outs of purchasing and running a winery. But if you know anything at all about wine, the tone sounds almost condescending when the authors explain basic aspects of growing grapes and making wine.

A good portion of the book is spent recounting which parties, auctions and charitable events the Halls attend — it’s “as if the Great Gatsby has returned life.” These chapters read more like “Tales of a Rich Napa Socialite,” with far too much focus on name-dropping and glamour.

The story of the titular 100-point wine is somewhat interesting. The team held off picking, making quite a risk to wait through a big storm, then meticulously pocked and sorted the grapes before moving the fruit to the winery. They do deserve congratulations for their hard work and realizing their dream of producing a 2010 vintage Cabernet (not an easy vintage at all). 

But I’m not sure this book has much to offer readers. Too much incoherence, too little grit. Too much navel-gazing, too little wine. Too much focus on scores, not enough focus on... well... everything else.  I was left desiring the art and soul promised in the title.

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