Reading wine books is like drinking in bed; all the pleasure with none of the danger. As a voracious reader who rarely goes to bed without cracking a book, I usually go for fiction, but my exception is with wine books. Historical, contemporary, humorous, as well as memoir; they all work as long as grapes are in the mix.
Here are the best wine books I read this year.
The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It
Tilar J. Mazzeo
One of the great things wine books can do is provide a lens through which to view history. The story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin provides a niche view of Napoleonic France, where as a young, early 19th century widow, Barbe-Nicole inherits a Champagne house at a time when it is unfashionable to be a businesswoman. She perseveres by inventing the riddling rack, which held the bottles at an upside down angle to force the dead yeast cells into the bottle’s neck, making yeast disgorgement cleaner. The Veuve goes on to popularize the wine label and she develops hers with that iconic clementine yellow, which is now trademarked. All this, while entertaining Napoleon and Josephine at the estate.
Well researched and presented, The Widow Clicquot is a crisp and refreshing read about how a businesswoman of 200 years ago shaped the product we enjoy today.
At the center of this story are the Thomas Jefferson bottles from Bordeaux, identifiable by tiny engravings of “TJ” in the bottles. As one of the founding foodies, Jefferson was so concerned about the integrity of the red wine he had shipped from France that he made the producers put the wine in individual bottles, sealed with the relatively new cork invention, instead of the easily-compromised casks of the day. Before the Veuve pioneered wine labels.
Fast forward to 1985 and a bottle of TJ’s Ch. Lafite Bordeaux 1787 is sold for $156,000 to a Forbes, which sparks a worldwide investigation into the bottle’s authenticity involving seller Hardy Rodenstock, famed wine auctioneer Michael Broadbent, as well as billionaire Bill Koch who’s sons Charles and David are currently using their inherited wealth to warp the American political process. The way he behaves, you can’t help but root against Koch.
Technical minutia can be skipped over to chew on delicious discriptions of fabulous events thrown by the super rich, who consume 100 year-old bottles of red wine like yesterday’s vintage.
If you tout Zinfandel as the American wine grape, The Wild Vine will shut you up. In the 1820‘s, just before Zinfandel came to California and as ‘ol TJ was winding down his vineyards near Monticello, the Norton grape was developed by Dr. Daniel Norton in Richmond, Virginia. Notable for its inky color, Norton thrived and produced a drinkable, dry red wine for the masses – finally.
During the Civil War, Norton moved to Missouri where German immigrants made an award-winning wine in 1873. During World War II and Prohibition, production of Norton died out, both in Virginia and Missouri. It was resuscitated in the 1980’s by Dennis Horton (making Horton Norton) and by Jenni McCloud of Chrysalis Vineyards. McCloud’s story is told in depth since she controls the largest block of Norton grapes, but also because she began her winemaking as a man. The wine’s emersion from obscurity into the spotlight provides a poignant metaphor to her journey as a new woman.
The Wild Vine is very satisfying, uplifting read with strong notes of earthiness.
Think your family is dysfunctional? Read this book and you’ll feel as well integrated as the Huxtables.
Robert Mondavi was 94 when he died in 2008, a year after this book was released, and it probably killed him to read it. Meticulously researched by Wall Street Journal writer, Julia Flynn Siler, many of the stories are familiar from newspapers of the past 30-40 years, but that history is embellished with 500 hours of interviews. All is laid bare: the maternal betrayals, and brotherly hate, the adultery, the greed and the suicide attempts. The Mondavis become like an old red wine tainted with brettamyaces.
As wildly successful at the Mondavi’s were and as much of an industry mover as Robert was, after reading The House of Mondavi, one is left with a feeling of grudging sympathy for these rich people who put egos and ambition ahead of family.
Riding her theme of wine exploration, Torontonian Natalie MacLean follows up her first book, Red and White and Drunk All Over with more searches for great wines around the world.
MacLean has an amazingly authentic style of writing that makes us feel we are with her on these excursions, finding the wineries, touring the vineyards, dining with the winemakers, drinking their white or red wine, and blushing at some of their cheeky remarks. Her discriptions are so vivid, you can practically smell the wine’s aromas.
Ever curious and inquisitive toward her subjects, she is an authoritative educator to her readers, alternately learning and explaining. The bargains she mentions in the title, however, are more elusive than the top-of-the-line vintages she discusses in the text, and are mostly relegated to the endnotes of each chapter. Still, if Unquenchable is part of a trilogy, I’ll be curious to know where MacLean’s wine travels will take her next. Okanagan Valley, perhaps?
If you have a suggestions for your favorite wine books, please lay them on me as I will never, ever stop reading books and this is the reason:
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