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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.

Book Reviews

Wine Folly – The Essential Guide to Wine

February 18, 2016
Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine book

One of my favourite presenters at the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference was Madeline Puckette, better known to wine lovers as the blogger behind Wine Folly. I was very familiar with Madeline’s work because her blog style, which merges her graphic design skill with wine facts, has taken the blogosphere by storm. It was a great go-to when I was taking wine classes (I even had instructors suggest it) and I found the format of using graphics to illustrate both simple and complex wine concepts really engaging and easy-to-understand.

Her presentation at the conference endeared me to her even more—she was funny, enthusiastic and honest. I took away so much information and left the session feeling excited to get back to blogging. I also couldn’t wait to pick up a copy of her new book, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine (co-written with Justin Hammack), which I bought soon after its release and recently read cover-to-cover.

The book itself is more of a reference guide, using the Wine Folly format of explaining wine concepts with a few words and some well-designed graphics. Having studied wine for several years, there wasn’t anything new or revelatory in this book, but I’m clearly not the intended audience. This is a book for newbies, for those who want a general understanding of wine and to feel confident at a tasting. And in that area, it does its job well.

The book breaks down wine info and gives you all the basics: what glasses to use, storage temperatures, how to taste, the hallmark grapes of some major wine styles and an overview of wine regions. It’s helpful and easy to follow. I can see picking it up when I want a quick reference for a factoid and for someone new to wine this would be really helpful.

Because this isn’t a deep dive into wine, there were omissions I was disappointed about (Canadian wine is nowhere to be seen, for example), but I think that came about because the book wanted to keep things simple and stick to the biggest grapes in the largest-producing regions. Given the intended audience, that made a lot of sense.

Throughout my read, I kept thinking how helpful this book would be for anyone who had just discovered wine or someone who was a more visual learner. I know that the wine production methods (though somewhat simplified) made a lot more sense in Madeline’s graphics than they did when my instructor went through them in my first wine class. I remember going home and looking for a video because, while I got the theory, I really needed to see the process to truly understand it. This book would have been a handy guide to have then and I’m sure I’ll recommend it often in the future.

Have you read Wine Folly’s book or visited her blog? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

Book Reviews

Vintage – A Novel by David Baker

January 21, 2016
Vintage Novel by David Baker

I confess that for the first part of Vintage by David Baker, I really didn’t like Bruno Tannenbaum, the main character in this novel. A washed-up wine writer and food critic who drinks too much, has been kicked out by his wife for his philandering and now lives on his mother’s couch, it was hard to see the good in Bruno. During the first few chapters, his drinking and bad behaviour infuse every ounce of this book. And when, after losing his prestigious newspaper job, he takes on a friend’s assignment to catalogue his wine collection – then goes to help himself to a 1963 Chateau d’Yquem – I actually had to put the book down for a few days. Apparently, I am tortured by the thought of someone opening a vintage d’Yquem for the wrong reasons.

But it turns out this moment is the one that kicks off the real story in the book. Bruno ends up on a wild, wine adventure that takes him all across Europe in search of the story for his next great book. As he researches wine history while looking for a mysterious missing vintage that may have been hidden by the Nazis, Bruno drinks too much great wine, eats too much fabulous food and uses his odd charm to make friends and ferret out clues.

Bruno’s quest is a dangerous one—he’s not the only person pursing this wine and some of the others are not afraid to use force to get it—but for Bruno it is clearly a turning point in his life. He wants to be a better father, possibly a better husband (his love life remains a bit of a muddle), and he desperately wants to regain his stature as a great writer. His research trip is clearly also about pulling together the broken pieces of his life and figuring out what still fits.

So in the end, I came to enjoy Bruno much more than I did at the start. He wormed his way into my heart in the same way he charmed so many on his trip through Europe. While I certainly didn’t approve of (or often understand) his choices, I could relate to the internal crisis he was facing and how he was looking for redemption.

While this is a work of fiction, lovers of fine wine and food and European wine history will want to check out Vintage. David Baker, who made the documentary American Wine Story, has a passion for wine and food that emerges on every page. Each chapter of Vintage starts with an excerpt from Bruno’s fictional wine and food writing that celebrates the ability of cuisine to bring people together, to heal the soul and to transform lives. These short vignettes help you better understand Bruno the character, but I think they also tell you a bit about the author and why he is so passionate about these things too.

Vintage is a fun and quick read (especially if you don’t have to take a break after the d’Yquem like I did), It’s perfect for your next vacation read (in particular if you’re spending it in a wine region) or just as a lazy weekend page-turner.

Have you read Vintage? Do you have a favourite wine-based novel? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

Love wine-related fiction? Me too! Check out my review of Cathy Ace’s The Corpse with the Golden Nose (set in B.C. wine country) to learn about another great read.

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

Book Reviews

The Wild Vine – Book Review

January 26, 2015

It’s no secret that I am slightly obsessed with wine books. In 2014, I read some pretty fabulous ones – The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Wine & War being two major standouts. Another favourite was The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine and I thought it deserved a special shout-out, as I have encountered far fewer people who have read it. That needs to change.

Evan Dawson, one of my favourite wine writers (and the author of the amazing Summer in a Glass), suggested The Wild Vine to me on Twitter when I asked for recommendations for what to read next.  I had recently purchased the book and figured if Evan suggested it, it must be good. Not surprisingly, he was right!

The Wild Vine is the story of the Norton grape, the first wine grape successfully cultivated and grown in the United States. Most wine grapes are of European origin and many believed that U.S. grapes – let alone one from Missouri – would never be suitable for winemaking. An intrepid medical doctor with a major grape fixation proved them wrong.

If you had told me the history of a grape I’d never heard of would turn out to be a page-turner, I’d have scoffed. But after a bit of a slow start (common in wine books), I was completely sucked in to the story of how this grape went from skeptical responses to years of glory and then on to relative obscurity.

Author Todd Kliman has meticulously researched the Norton and you can tell he was completely drawn into this unusual tale. While the backstory about winemaker Jenny McCloud wasn’t as interesting to me as the history, I was impressed with her passion for the grape and her decision to continue to grow Norton grapes and make wine from it. Wine is full of stories of those who persevered when they were told something wasn’t possible (just talk to the original winemakers from
Prince Edward County or read Geoff Heinricks excellent A Fool and Forty Acres for a few examples). This is a case where an obsession with Norton is seen as a bit of folly, but applauded just the same.

The Norton touches on so many things – Thomas Jefferson, German history, winemaking in the U.S., prohibition and more – I walked away from the book knowing so many new things about American history and wanting desperately to try some Norton. So far I haven’t had any luck tracking down a bottle, but that just means Shawn and I need to add a few more states to our travel wish list.

I highly recommend The Wild Vine and look forward to hearing your opinion on the book. Already read it? Feel free to leave your thoughts (or links to your reviews) in the comments.