Saturday, May 12, 2018

Books and Wine

Under the careful supervision of my father, I began drinking wine with meals at the age of five. Although mixed with water, it was unmistakably wine and we would discuss the taste and bouquet while my father would explain where and how it was made. At the same age, with the warm encouragement of my mother, I began a lifelong love affair with books.

My earliest memories involve Christopher Robin, with Pooh and Tigger and then Rat and Mole from the Wind in the Willows. Weekends were spent lying on the floor in the local library, lost in the worlds of Kipling and Dickens and, above all, my beloved John Buchan. Another early memory concerns Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and asking my mother to explain, ''But did thee feel the earth move?''

Shakespeare, of course, became an early love of mine, and I still thrill to hear Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV , Part 2 boldly proclaiming the joys and wonders of a glass, or two, of Sherry. Likewise, in Richard III, I still feel a chill when the two murderers arrive at the Tower of London with orders to drown the Duke of Clarence in a barrel of wine. When the unsuspecting Duke asks the men for a glass of wine, the second murderer calms him with a reassuring, “You shall have wine enough my lord, anon.”

And it is not just the English who associate wine with books. The twelfth century Persian poet, Omar Kayan, famously wrote:
                A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
                A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
                Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
                Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Indeed, as the writer Julian Street famously argued in his posthumous book, Table Topics: "Blot out every book in which wine is praised and you blot out the world’s great literature, from the Bible and Shakespeare to the latest best-seller. Blot out the wine-drinkers of the world and you blot out history, including saints, philosophers, statesmen, soldiers, scientists, and artists."

But of course it is the French, with their unparalleled tradition of winemaking and their glorious history of great writing which, since Rabelais, has always combined that love of books with the mastery of the grape. This combination was enough for me to leave England at an early age and move into the French countryside of southwest France where my wife and I spent the next few years raising children, drinking Bordeaux wines, and immersing ourselves in every writer from Balzac and Flaubert to Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Ironically, my favorite French writer preferred beer to wine and would even phone the Ritz hotel at any hour of the day or night to order a cold bottle to be delivered to his apartment. Nonetheless, Marcel Proust still wrote a wonderful description of his young hero drinking seven or eight glasses of Port wine to give himself courage to invite a young lady for an amorous assignation. By the time he had drunk enough to make his proposal, the young lady declined. Possibly because he had consumed too much Port wine, or because she had not consumed any.

If Marcel Proust was a wine, I think he would be a Gewurztraminer from Alsace. Despite the wine’s underlying acidity, its sharpness and acuity is hidden behind a rich, floral bouquet that charms with a mellifluous harmony that simply overwhelms the senses. In the same way, Proust, the writer, hides his sharp and extremely comic insights into human nature behind a screen of poetically seductive images. The first taste from a glass of Gewurztraminer or a random passage read from In Search of Lost Time leaves us standing alone in ecstasy, inhaling through the rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs.

Over the years, as I have become more familiar with my favorite authors and have become better acquainted with a wide selection of different grapes, I often find myself pairing wines with writers. In Chapter Six – Varietals, I have therefore described several different grapes in terms of novelists who share similar characteristics with the wine. A literary wine pairing.

Sixty-five years after my first glass, I have become ever more set in my ways, and now I am never happier than with a glass of wine in one hand and a good book in the other.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


  • Colman, Tyler: Wine Politics, University of California Press, 2010.    From the heavier taxes on wines from the Dordogne River than those from Bordeaux, or the tariffs the English charged on French rather than Portuguese wines during the middle ages to the post-Prohibition, three tier distribution laws which still continue in 21st century America – politics has a powerful effect on what we are able to drink and what it tastes like. Tyler Colman exposes the politics behind the labels.

  • Lukacs, Paul: Inventing Wine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.   I originally was going to list this book in the ‘history of wine’ section because it traces the history of wine from its Middle-Eastern origins to its growing popularity in 21st century America. But it’s much more than a history book since Paul Lukacs’s real focus is on the combination of economic and social forces that affect how and what we drink.

  • Steinberger, Michael: The Wine Savant, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.    This is very much a book of the moment; Steinberger discusses and analyses all the many issues and questions facing a wine drinker in 21st century America. The difference between a 95 and a 94-point wine, the current relationship between Bordeaux and Burgundy, the fashion for organic and biodynamic wines.

  • Veseth, Mike: Wine Wars, Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.    Mike Veseth has the unique gift of being able to write about dry, academic subjects in a way that makes for gripping and exciting reading. This book explains how all the competing economic forces that churn within today’s wine industry, affect what we are able to put in our glass. In his own words, this book discusses “The curse of the Blue Nun; the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists.”

  • Wallace, Benjamin: The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Three Rivers Press, 2009.   Starting with the 1985 sale of a bottle of Chateau Lafitte once owned by Thomas Jefferson, for $156,000 – this amazing book introduces us to the surreal world of billionaire wine collectors and people who only drink wine bottled before the phylloxera scourge of the 1860s. Superb nonfiction that feels like fiction.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Favorite Wine Books [3]


  Campbell, Christy: The Botanist and the Vintner, Algonquin Books, 2006.
1871 was an extremely bad year for France. France lost the Franco Prussian War, Emperor Napoleon III was exiled, Paris was taken over by the Communards – but worst of all, all the vineyards in France began to die and no wine was produced in France for another 30 years. This delightful book describes the scourge of Phylloxera and how France eventually recovered.

 Dovaz, Michel, and Michel Guillard: Bordeaux: Legendary Wines, Assouline, 2014.
This lavishly illustrated and luxurious book is slightly cheaper than most of the legendary wines which it so lovingly describes. And certainly, once opened, it will last much longer than all of them – once opened.

 Kliman, Todd: The Wild Vine, Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2010.
For those oenophiles interested in the early and unsuccessful attempts to produce wine in the young United States, this book explores the fascinating story of the Norton Grape.

 Pitte, Jean-Robert: Bordeaux/Burgundy, University of California Press, 2012.
It is an endless debate, never to be settled, which is best – the wines of Bordeaux or those of Burgundy? This delightful book offers no conclusion but explores all delicious aspects of the question.

 Potter, Maximillian: Shadows in the Vineyard, Twelve, 2014.
Based on the original article in Vanity Fair magazine, this ‘crime thriller’ of a book describes the criminal attack on one of the world’s most prestigious vineyards – Romanée-Conti. In telling his story, he also examines all the unique features of this famous wine region.

 Taber, George: Judgment of Paris, Scribner, 2006.
In addition to containing marvelously comprehensive descriptions of European and Californian winemakers’ art and passion, it is also contains the only eye-witness account of the famous wine-tasting afternoon in Paris in 1976 which dramatically changed the world of wine forever and ever.