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wine history

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

Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California

January 6, 2016
Tangled Vines Book

Intertwining the history of her family’s foray into winemaking with the story of a wine lover turned arsonist who destroyed millions of bottles of California wine, makes for a unique telling of two interesting tales. Author Frances Dinkelspiel sets out to explain the inexplicable: why con man Mark Anderson set fire to a California wine storage facility – sending more than four million bottles up in smoke – and how her family’s wine, some of which burned in the fire, came to exist at all.

It was Anderson’s story that truly interested me when I picked up this book. But it alone would have made for a fairly short read. Anderson was an obvious suspect in the fire case and his slippery sense of the truth makes his motivations a bit murky (for the record, he says he didn’t do it, though the facts of the case make that a hard claim to swallow). Weaving in the complex history of the  wine that the author’s family lost in the fire makes for a stronger tale – one that tells a little known story about the birth of California winemaking, the struggles of those who sought to cultivate the land and how wine is often at the centre of great family tales.

The history of Dinkelspiel’s  family wine is a sad one, full of murder and strife, but also one that showcases perseverance and dedication. She follows the history of the families who began winemaking at a vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga, where her great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, made the wine she now wants to understand. These early settlers saw the potential for successful winemaking in the state, but circumstances meant they could never fully bring their vineyard dreams to fruition. While there was early success, the aforementioned murder and strife meant that the estate’s time as a working vineyard was tumultuous and short-lived.

The book isn’t told in chronological order, which I admit was a bit distracting for me. However, I think Dinkelspiel did a good job of taking two very different stories and finding the common threads. I found this to be an enjoyable read and I think it would appeal to others like me who are fascinated by both wine history and wine-related crime.

Have you read Tangled Vines? 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

Dr. Konstantin Frank Biography – A Book Review

December 8, 2015
Finger Lakes Wine and the Legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank by Tom Russ

As part of our 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference welcome package, Shawn and I received copies of Finger Lakes Wine and the Legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank by Tom Russ. This was the perfect gift for me, as I’m always interested in reading about the history of winemaking in the regions we visit. I eagerly dug into this book in the early fall and I wasn’t disappointed.

As you might expect from the title, this book concentrates solely on Dr. Konstantin Frank and his family, who were pioneers in bringing vinifera to the Finger Lakes. Dr. Frank’s legacy in the area is a big one and author Russ lays out all the reasons his acclaim is so deserved. If you’re looking for an overall history of the region’s winemaking, Evan Dawson’s brilliant Summer in a Glass may be a better bet, but this book provides a deep dive into one family’s extensive and lasting contribution to American wine.

Dr. Frank was a German man raised in the Ukraine and forced from his home during the war. A renowned agricultural scientist, he managed to grow vinifera successfully in the Ukraine’s cold climate and had re-built a comfortable life after his original displacement by running a viticultural program. When he learned that he and his family were not safe from the Soviet round-ups of German nationals, he decided he had to once again give up the life he knew. Having already lost several family members, he arranged for a friend in the Soviet army to smuggle his small family out of the Ukraine, before making their way to New York.

There, he struggled to find work (despite speaking numerous languages, English was a challenge for him),
but was determined to use his experience in agricultural science in his new country. He eventually talked the Experimental Station in Geneva into hiring him, where he quickly made waves with his assertion that vinifera could be grown successfully in the Finger Lakes. At the time, French hybrids were the only wine grapes accepted as viable in the area, but based on his experience growing vinifera in the Ukarine, Dr. Frank was adamant that it could be grown in the Finger Lakes.

Over the years, he was able to use his knowledge and experience to prove that he was indeed correct and that vinifera could grow and flourish in the region. His experiments with different grapes and growing conditions helped to inspire and educate other local winemakers and many credit his influence with the fact that vinifera is widely grown in the Finger Lakes today. But the path to this acceptance was a long and bumpy one and it certainly makes for a good read.

Dr. Konstantin Frank 2014 Gruner Veltliner Finger LakesDr. Frank’s dogged determination to see his dream of high-quality vinifera as the only wine grapes grown in the Finger Lakes was, however, not to be. While he railed against hybrids, they still make up a large and successful part of Finger Lakes wine production. But there was much more to Dr. Frank and to his company’s continued success in creating some of the best vinifera wines in New York State.

There’s lots of interesting tidbits about the region’s history in this book and it’s clear that Russ has done extensive research about the family. An enjoyable and informative read that will appeal to any wine history buff.

Have you read this book? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

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.