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Book Reviews

The 24-Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson

May 9, 2016
The 24-Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson is a great guide for those learning about wine.

Can you become a wine expert in just one day? Well, if anyone could help you do that, it would be Jancis Robinson, arguably the greatest wine writer of our time. Her numerous books on wine have helped many a wine student (yours truly included) get through wine classes and learn the nuances of real wine appreciation.

Given that, I was excited to read Robinson’s latest, “The 24-Hour Wine Expert,” her take on the “get up-to-speed-quick” genre that’s all the rage in wine books these days. But here’s the thing, you can’t become a wine expert in one day. That said, a solid 24 hours straight of study and tasting, including reading this book cover-to-cover and taking on all of the suggested tasting exercises, that would get you up to passable wine lover status. It’s a feat achievable primarily because this book is full of really good information that will take you beyond introductory knowledge.

I’ve read a few intro to wine books in my time, including Robinson’s excellent “How to Taste” and this new book is actually a pretty good companion piece to that great primer for wine newbies. “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” has lots of basic info, yes, but it’s got a lot of unique things too—Robinson’s favourite Champagne growers, wine region cheat sheets that go far beyond the basics, a list of adventurous wines to try—this is an intro book that a wine nerd like me loved even though I’ve moved beyond the basics.

Compared to Robinson’s textbooks (which I confess I use for décor as well as reference), this is a wee little book that will fit into purse or pocket. A pretty good selling point if you want to take it to class with you for reference. But the substance is what charmed me here—I felt like I was taking a class with Robinson and even when she was telling me what glassware to use (a staple in any wine book), it felt genuine and fresh.

A very worthwhile (and quick) wine read.

*While I received a review copy of this book, the opinions are very much my own.

Book Reviews

American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites, and One Man’s Blues

April 11, 2016
Dan Dunn's American Wino is at times both hillarious and heartbreaking.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Dan Dunn’s latest book, American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues. His first foray into the world of wine sounded promising, but could Dunn, whose focus has always been on spirits, deliver a well-rounded wine book about driving from coast to coast to learn everything there is to know about American wine? Could he go from wine novice to know-it-all over the span of this book? Well, not quite, but that’s also what makes this book all sorts of awesome.

While still reeling from the death of his brother and the break-up of his relationship, Dunn packs up his car and starts his odyssey across America. It’s one of those books that follows someone on a personal journey after a huge life event (think Eat, Pray, Love without as much eating or praying and a lot more wine). The first chapter, which has Dunn chatting extensively with his deceased brother, had me thinking this book could go either way.

Dan Dunn's American Wino is a perfect cottage read.

Enjoying American Wino during a winter cottage visit.

Thankfully, Dunn is funny as hell. So funny, that I was laughing out loud as I read this during a recent trip to the cottage, stopping to read passages out loud to Shawn as he drove. I can’t say I always enjoyed Dunn’s humour (he slides into frat boy territory a time of two), but this is a book that could be super depressing given the premise, and it’s not.

And props to Dunn for trying wine all across the U.S. – stopping in states that are clearly not well-suited to wine and giving it a go. He doesn’t like all of the wine he tries, but he does walk away with a huge respect for the maverick winemakers who are trying to make wine in areas that offer less than stellar conditions. And he finds great wines in places you’d expect (California, Oregon, New York) and others less expected (Arizona, Texas).

The stories of these winery visits were what most interested me, but I couldn’t help enjoying his sidebars too—a rant about hipster sommeliers, wine definitions that are not quite accurate, wine pairings for REM albums—there’s some pretty funny stuff here. American Wino is a sad story wrapped up in a very funny road trip tale that has you laughing all the way up to the heartbreaking moments. And it’s those moments that give this book, well, heart. The book would probably have been just as funny without the introspection and revelations about Dunn’s personal journey, but I don’t think it would have been half as good a read.

By the end of the book, I admit to being a tad worried about how much Dunn drinks (in particular given the family history he shares), but maybe that’s taking things a bit too seriously. This isn’t really a book that’s meant to teach someone about wine (although there are some very interesting factoids about lesser known American wine regions), but it’s definitely one I think wine-lovers will enjoy. This funny, heartbreaking wine-soaked road trip is definitely worth riding shotgun on.

I received an advance review copy of this book. Opinions are my own.

Book Reviews, Craft Beers and Brews

The Best Beer in the World: One Man’s Global Search for the Perfect Pint

March 29, 2016
Mark Dredge's The Best Beer in the World Book showcases the best beer from around the world.

Today, I’m happy to hand the blog over to my husband, Shawn Davidson, who was kind enough to review The Best Beer in the World by Mark Dredge for me. A newly minted beer student, Shawn is the perfect person to tackle this review (and he’ll be handling even more craft brew coverage moving forward).

The Best Beer in the World by Mark Dredge appeared in our mailbox at just the right time for me, as I‘m currently looking into making a career transition into the beer industry. I found this book to be a good way to begin my formal education, as I started reading it just before starting my first beer course at a local college.

The Best Beer in the World is full of educational and historical facts, lots of great tasting notes and descriptions of the adventures (including a couple quite drunken ones) that Dredge has taken around the world while looking to discover his favorite beer. I found the chapter on Belgian brewing particularly interesting and coincidentally read it two days before Belgian brewing history was covered in my class. The chapter helped me gain a small understanding of Belgian brewing and I felt a lot more informed while in class. One fact this book and my class truly drove home is that one chapter in a book or a three hour class will only give you a very small understanding of Belgian brewing history. It’s an extensive topic that I look forward to learning much more about.

This is a book I will keep handy for its insight on many of the world’s great beers and especially as a guide to assist in my travels. Dredge went to several destinations I hope to visit and several that I have visited and will again. For example, I’ll be in Amsterdam for the third time this summer and the book’s “City Guide” will definitely enhance my beer experience and provide some new experiences. I visit Germany every year; but this summer will be my first time driving through southern Germany and visiting Munich. Dredge’s section on Munich made me look even more forward to visiting and the book’s “City Guide” will certainly come in very handy with our planning.

Dredge is very knowledgeable about beer history, brewing and tasting. Several times I was fascinated that his tasting notes could be as in depth on his twelfth or fifteenth beer of the day as with his first or second. I guess, as with wine, it comes with experience but unlike wine there seems to be much less spitting in the world of beer!

As well as being very informative and educational, this book was a lot of fun to read. You get a real sense of the adventure Dredge was on as you read about the places visited and the beers tasted. Of course, with the amount of beer consumed in order to write this book there were some epic hangovers—and  he didn’t shy away from describing a couple. One in particular sounded absolutely horrifying considering the environment he was in and the amount he described consuming the day before. But he had a job to do and got right back to the task at hand.

Does Dredge choose a “best beer in the world” or even a personal favorite? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find that out! He shows passion and respect for all kinds of beer while writing and you definitely get a sense that I.P.A’s and pilsners are right at the top of his list. He gets quite in depth with lagers (quite the write-up on Budweiser!), and many craft beers and definitely shows appreciation for the English ales of his home country.

Dredge really drives home the fact that great beer is not simply what’s in the glass. It’s so much more than that. The people you’re with, the history and being where the beer is made all factor in. Everything from what’s going on in your life at the time to the weather can be huge factors in deciding what a great beer is or if it’s one of your favorites. This was a concept I could relate to and agree with. Dredge goes on to describe a “holiday” beer that is truly one of his favorites, even though most locals think it’s terrible and hate it with a passion!

The biggest and perhaps only change I would make here is adding more Canadian content. He mentioned Montreal, which was great (no mention of Unibroue?), but he spent a lot of time spent on the U.S. West Coast without a visit to Vancouver for its many brewpubs and microbreweries. A very small complaint and I hope he has the chance to visit some of the Canadian craft brewers for a future edition of this book.

Overall a great read that I would recommend to anyone from total beer enthusiasts to those looking for a fun introduction to beer.

What do YOU think is the best beer in the world? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

*I received a review copy of this book, but all opinions are my own.

Book Reviews

A Vineyard in Napa – Celebrating the History of Shafer Vineyards

March 2, 2016
A Vineyard in Napa book by Doug Shafer

One of my goals for 2016 is to read more of the wine books I own, thus the increase in book reviews on the site. For me, these books are a huge part of my wine education and I’m happy I made the commitment to get through even more of them. Plus, I’m excited to share them with you!

A Vineyard in Napa by Doug Shafer with Andy Demsky has sat on my shelf far too long and I’m so glad to have finally read it. At its core, this is the story of how the Shafer family – led by Doug’s father John – left Chicago in the 1970s to follow John’s winemaking dream. Beyond that, it’s also the story of how Napa developed into the wine region it is today. This book gives a behind the scenes look at how the winemakers in the Valley came together in the early years to create their own governing body and to designate their AVAs. This book is chock full of interesting California wine history that extends well beyond the Shafer family.

That said, the Shafer family played a pivotal role in shaping that history, in particular in the creation of the Stags Leap AVA and all the drama that came with that process. Reading this, I was fascinated to see how all the biggest producers in the area, as well as some of the lesser known vintners, came together (and sometimes tore each other’s ideas apart) to create a place that is now renowned for the quality of its wines.

When people write off Ontario’s emerging regions I may just have to refer them to this book. I think people forget how regions like Napa got their start. Winemakers did not suddenly appear there with cellars full of Screaming Eagle and Opus One, they had to learn the quirks of the region year by year and they made more than their share of errors in the process. All regions start with one person deciding to grow grapes and make wine, then they have the ability to blossom into something extraordinary if the conditions and community are just right.

Shafer Vineyards wines are now outside my budget, but in the 1970s they worried that $11 might be too much to charge. And given the many foibles they had as they developed their winemaking acumen (mudslides, a vintage reeking of sulphur, MIA winemakers), it may have been. But the story here is all about how the family pulled together and overcame any issues, supporting each other as they learned just how the winemaking business worked. And in doing so, they have remained a successful family-owned and operated winery—one that’s making wine which is consistently rated as some of the top in the world.

Not all their early challenges were from inexperience—wild fires, a local outbreak of phylloxera, recessions and more all came into play to make the Shafer story one that will be eye-opening for anyone who has thought about winemaking through a romantic lens. It is not easy to create a winemaking dynasty and it is even more difficult to do it with your family. In this case, the winery has brought the family even closer together, but Shafer writes openly about how he almost didn’t make the leap to becoming his father’s winemaker because he worried about the strain it would put on the family.

While this book was published in 2012, it still really holds up. The history of Napa winemaking is fascinating and the honesty with which Shafer talks about his early days of winemaking is impressive. A must-read for those who are interested in winemaking history and the development of California wine.

What’s your favourite book about winemaking? Share it in the comments or on social.