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Book Reviews

Nose: A Novel

June 20, 2016
A review of Nose, a novel by James Conaway

I recently finished another novel set in the wine world, as I play catch-up on my backlog of wine reading. Nose is a novel by wine critic James Conaway that has been sitting on my shelf for about a year. It tells the story of a mystery wine that blows away a pompous, old school wine critic and leads him on a quest to find out who made this incredible wine.

The story starts out with wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones, but CJ is far from the only character whose perspective is shared—there’s Les, a young journalist turned wine obsessive and makeshift PI, Claire, CJ’s long-suffering wife, Sara, a medical technician and the daughter of a California wine scion struggling under debt, Cotton, an environmentally conscious winemaker devastated by the loss of his great love and seething over the role of Sara’s father in that tragedy and Sam, the owner of Glass Works, the wine bar where everything comes together at some point or another.

All these characters (and a few others of less import) weave in and out of the narrative, as we piece together the complex story of this wine and the people in its orbit. There’s also Nose, the gossipy wine blog that bedevils CJ (an old school wine critic annoyed by a blogger – that would never happen, right?), as his own publication struggles.

There’s a lot going on in this book. I might argue that there’s actually way too much going on, since I often found myself losing the plot threads. But I would say the biggest flaw with this book is that you stay with the characters for such a short time that you don’t really understand (or even like) them. Les seems like the central character, and is something of an anti-hero, but I found myself mostly confused and annoyed by his behaviour. C.J. flits back and forth between pompous fop and misunderstood genius and Claire, who is the most likable character in the beginning, drifts off in a very weird direction by the end.

The mystery of the wine isn’t terribly mysterious (it’s fairly obvious where this part of the plot is going from early on), but there were a few surprising twists and turns along the way. Conaway clearly knows and understands the California wine industry and I suspect some of the characters are based on the people he’s met along the way. Unlike real life, though, sometimes it’s better to try and tell the story from fewer perspectives to have the most impact.

I have a few more Conaway books on my list for 2016 and I’m excited to see how I feel about his non-fiction. Novels are a personal thing, so I’d be interested in hearing from others who have read Nose and their thoughts on the book! Share your reviews of Nose in the comments or on social.

Book Reviews

Gin Glorious Gin

May 30, 2016
Gin Glorious Gin book

It’s hard not to be horrified by some of the history chronicled in Gin Glorious Gin—the story of gin in London through the ages—children drinking pints of straight gin, drunken revelers so sauced they have to crash in the helpful piles of straw bars provided in the 1700s, or gin cut with such lovely items as turpentine. But this book is far from dour, author Olivia Williams has written a rousing history that starts off with the first references to gin in London and moves through to modern times.

Gin Glorious Gin bookI found myself reading passages out loud to Shawn on a recent drive to Niagara—completely entranced by the little old ladies who, drunk on gin, were a constant source of frustration to London police in the 1800s. It seems that the spirit made their behaviour less than exemplary, but somewhat amusing when viewed through a modern lens.

There’s a cautionary tale here to be sure. While Britain managed to make it through history without prohibition, they learned the hard way that unlimited access to alcohol—gin for the most part—was a recipe for disaster. The drunken madness that reigned in the 1700s until almost the First World War left a dark legacy. But, like most of the developed world, England started to regulate and manage alcohol consumption and it levelled off to where it is today. People discovered vodka and wine, leaving gin to flounder in the post-1960s.

For me, that was where the magic of this book started to wane a bit. The history of gin in London was just so vibrant and horrifying in pre-WWI that the post-war calm and cocktail craze seems practically quaint. The history of producers is interesting, though, and the notes about famous gin drinkers like author Kingsley Amis made for great additions. It was also neat to learn about the cocktails created for Royal weddings and that time the Queen’s butler had to break the rules to bring her preferred gin to an event.

I also enjoyed the final chapter, where Williams sets out distilling methods, explains the botanicals most commonly used in production and outlines where to drink the best gin cocktails in London. There’s some great info in this section that I was able to reference in my recent Introduction to Spirits course.

For those who are interested in the history of spirits, this book will make a fabulous addition to your library. While focusing solely on London was a bold choice, it turns out there’s more than enough from the city to make for a substantial read. Just be prepared to cringe and recoil in horror while reading about the excess and awfulness of alcohol consumption in the London’s early years.

And if you’re craving a gin cocktail now, I can recommend a few from Dillon’s Distillery in Niagara, Ontario. Shawn and I are big fans of the strawberry gin and are looking forward to cracking our bottle soon. Strawberry gin is best drunk on its own to fully appreciate the delicate flavours, but Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin 22 is a great base for cocktails, like the Blue Spruce or The Gin 22.

Do you have a favourite gin? Share it in the comments below or on social!

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.