'Book Reviews'

Book Review – Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible (2nd Edition)

Karen MacNeil Wine Bible 2nd Ed

Amazon describes this book as “The #1 Best Seller” in their Wine Collecting category.

Do I really need to say more? What can I add that the intelligence of the collective community hasn’t already said by voting with their credit cards?  Just my opinion, I guess.

Which one might see as sycophanitc burbling.  You see, this book is utterly charming.  Informative but not pedantic.  Fun and enjoyable to read.  It is not the ONLY wine reference book you need, but it is certainly the first one to buy – the cornerstone for any wine library.

My only gripe is minor – some topics can be a tad difficult to find, as the book is organized by country/region and (at least in the advance copy I received) has no index. This makes researching a grape variety very difficult to do if using the paper version of the book, which lacks the convenience of electronic search capabilities.  BUT, for those buying a paper version, I recommend the hard cover as you’ll use it often and your increasingly well-thumbed softcover version will need to be replaced all too soon.

Karen MacNeilBut the biggest surprise to me was Karen’s warmth and lightness of tone.  Her obvious enthusiasm is shared with brevity and the perfect ratio of images to text, and does so without ever tiptoeing into the “look how smart I am” territory.  

You see, I’ve never taken a class from Karen, but I’ve met her several times and have one of her wine education video series, and she strikes me as one who is (hmmm, how do I put this?) “very precise”.  Like someone whose parking meter change is organized by coin size.  Whose floor-to-ceiling library is organized alphabetically.  Whose clothes somehow are never marred by coffee consumed from a leaky to-go cup on the way to her office. And whose writing style would lean towards the deeply informative while eschewing the engagingly captivating.  I may or may not be right about the first three, but I am very pleased to be wrong about my last conclusion!

You’ll enjoy this book, over and over again!
Dave the Wine Merchant

Save 50% – Pre-Order the new book from Wine Folly

WineFollyBookAmong the many producers of wine info-graphics, WineFolly is the consistent winner in terms of creativity and the visual display of information.  And now the minds behind these reliable graphics are coming out with a new book, available for under $12 when you pre-order on Amazon (sorry, U.S. only).

Check it out here – http://bit.ly/WineFollyBookOffer

I’ve not yet seen the book, but perusing the preview on Amazon provides a good indication that it will be a useful and reliable guide to wine and the grapes that produce them.  Wine Folly seems to have brought to wine literature what DK Publishing brought to tourism guides.


Book Reviews: “Proof” & “Dial M for Merlot”

I must be the most frustrating book reviewer in the world.  When I agree to review a book relevant to food and wine enthusiasts, the publicist sends me a promotional copy.  And then… they wait.  Sometimes for quite a while. Because I have two habits that virtually guarantee my review will miss the critical 6-8 week period following release:

  1. I read the entire book .  Most reviewers see this behavior as inefficient. Farcical, even. But a fair review requires an understanding of the book’s gestalt, not just a skim of a few pages.  Besides, if I struggle to finish the book in a timely manner it usually means other readers will too.
  2. I don’t enjoy publishing bad reviews.  I know how difficult it is to craft a compelling story and tell it in an engaging manner. But a desire to caution readers from investing time and money on a book they may not enjoy eventually means the review gets publish.

I apologize to the publicists for being so late to the party.

Dial M for Merlot, by Howard K

20141207_161416This is the first effort from author “Howard K”, who spins an interesting tale.  But sadly, that tale was told via the prose of a novice author employing metaphors so clumsy they were sometimes painful to read. In addition, Mr. K uses a rather liberal hand in sprinkling gratuitous sex throughout his story, with female characters that seem to have sprung from one of Ian Fleming’s old James Bond series – fun, pretty baubles to adorn a male protagonist.

And finally, Mr. K requires the reader to suspend belief and accept the absurdity that a virgin computer nerd / Star Trek enthusiast without any interest in fine wine or food, can transmogrify into an expert wine taster and womanizer within a few short months.

That said, by making his protagonist a wine novice, Howard K has a convenient reason for diving into some substantial details about wine, and doing so without ever making his story seem like a dry reference piece.  It is a great conceit for leading the general public to a greater appreciation of this ancient and noble beverage.  In addition, he has woven a story of intrigue, in fact one that I think could be easily adapted to the big screen.   The story line is engaging despite the author’s shortcomings as a writer, which improve over the course of the book.  Quite dramatically, in fact.  

Which gives me hope that Howard K’s next book will be even better.  

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Proof – The Science of Booze – Adam Rogers


Rogers’s book is just the opposite.  An experience writer (for Wired Magazine), he sprinkles his dry humor throughout this dry subject, well researched and supported with a 19-page notes section.  A book about booze being dry?  Well, yes and no.  The subject is near and dear to the heart of any fan of wine/beer/cocktails, but READING about yeast/distillation/fermentation and hangovers is about as engaging as reading a manual on good sex.  It’s more enjoyable to put down the book and actually partake.

That said, those willing to read through the tough parts will find many valuable nuggets as they mine this book for fun and useful information. The well-researched chapters don’t really flow in a cohesive narrative, but that also makes them easy to serve as stand-alone topics.  I confess to not reading this book in sequence, as my interest in yeast or sugar are not as great as those of Aging, Smell & Taste, or Body & Brain, each of which I found to be useful chapters.  I’ve taken notes for future classes and presentation from each of these chapters.  Valuable nuggets abound for those willing to do a little hard rock mining.

All in all, this is a book for which any enthusiast of wine/beer/spirits will gladly make room on their bookshelf.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Cheers! Dave

Book Review : “Provence, Food & Wine, the Art of Living”

Cover Photo: Provence Food & Wine

Authors: François Millo, Viktorija Todorovska

When I visit a new vacation spot, particularly one as captivating as Provence, I come home laden with gifts and souvenirs that remind me of my time away.  My favorite ones are long-lasting and usable on a regular basis.

For example, I once stayed at a hotel where the in-room toothpaste was flavored with grapefruit.  Though odd at first, I soon began looking forward to it.  So on my way to the airport I stopped by a Drug Store and bought two or three tubes of the stuff.  For months I was reminded of France at least twice a day!

If you like this idea, but aren’t sure you want Grapefruit-flavored dentifrice, you’ll find that a good regional cook book is an excellent alternative. It can provide a lifetime of experiences that will pull you back into vacation mode from the time you begin shopping for ingredients until you finish drying the last dish.  

But finding a good one can be a challenge – even if the translation is adequate, old-world cooks often under-communicate techniques that they’re taught shortly after suckling but are unfamiliar to those outside the region.  And books by New World authors often miss the authenticity you fell in love with in situ.

Provence Food & Wine - ImagesEnter Millo and Todorovska, the authors of “Provence Food & Wine, the Art of Living”.  Born and raised in Provence, Millo is a talented photographer (not surprisingly, the photos in this book are captivating) and enthusiastic advocate of his region.  His partner in this project is a Chicago-based cookbook author, food and wine educator, and owner of the food, wine and travel company www.oliviacooking.com.  Together, they’ve put together a book that is part travel brochure, part history book, part photo book and part cookbook.  All-in-all, it’s a nice way to spend an evening or two.

The recipes offer some easy dishes ideal for light mid-week meals as well as some more complex meals that are a better fit for a weekend, if your schedule looks anything like ours.  But over-all, this is the best collection of regional dishes I’ve seen in my two decades of casual searching for such things, and for this I thank the authors. 

Provence Food & Wine - Wine ImagesAs for the wine, the book comes with a helpful map of the Provence AOCs, and covers each one in enough detail to belie Todorovska’s wine educator chops.  But the authors primary passion is clearly Provençal Rosé.  And who can blame them?!  These wines are dry, perfect for a hot summer day and, due to their good acidity and mid-weight body, pair beautifully with a huge range of dishes.  Plus, they’ve been enjoying ~40% YOY sales growth over the past few years.  So yes, they are very worthy of emphasis.  If you were in pursuit of the coarse, spicy reds from this region, you’ll find they’ve gotten rather short shrift, however.

In summary, this book is not for everyone, but if you love Provence, if you love the food and wine of the region, and you want to bring them into your home on a regular basis, I don’t think you’ll ever be disappointed that you separated with the reasonable $20 fee – available at Surrey Books.


Dave the Wine Merchant

P.S. No compensation was received in exchange for this review.  A complimentary copy of the book was provided by the publisher for my consideration, but the choice to review it was entirely mine.

Book Review: “Buy The Right Wine Every Time”

A helpful guide to global brands

Tom Stevenson, a prolific wine writer and respected authority on the subject (including The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia!), is known for tomes whose pages are mostly flipped by those training to be wine experts.  But he’s taken a different tack with his latest book – ‘Buy The Right Wine Every Time‘ (Released on March 4th, 2014).

He’s written this book for those new to wine. I wish I’d had access to such a book when I was a newbie, some 35 years ago. It appeals to anyone who needs some wine competency but doesn’t have the time or inclination to pursue it as a hobby.  I don’t know such people, but I hear they exist in large numbers and that some of them are actually quite pleasant to be around.

Tom doesn’t waste any ink introducing the conceit for his book. In just a few pages he introduces his reader to the book’s intent and organization.  Then he dives in.  The first 25 pages show his top recommendations by ~30 types of wine, using a simple ranking and 1, 2 or 3 dollar-sign indicator for rough pricing guidance.  His top tier ($$$) indicates a cost above $25 (retail price, not restaurant), which may seem a rather low ceiling to fine wine buffs, but in reality such wines make up less than 4% of wine sold in the U.S.  

Tom’s quick ranking-by-type then yields to the bulk of the book, which describes each wine in greater detail (and with extremely helpful label images – no mean feat when writing about hundreds of wines). Though the book will be a handy guide for those browsing through a wine shop, it’s just a bit too big and bulky to bring into a restaurant setting (unless available for mobile e-readers, which I don’t see anywhere – just yet).

Photo, Tom Stevenson

Author, Tom Stevenson

Be sure not to miss the back section of the book, wherein Tom provides his ’20 most useful wine tips’. He’s not kidding, these are useful tips. If you’re new to wine, learn these 20 tips and you’ll know more about wine than most people ever will. (Cautionary note: Don’t be too eager to show off your new-found skills. The world of wine is a never-ending warren of curiosity, with new questions that arise at every turn. A single lifetime is insufficient to learn all the twists and turns. And believe me, if you have a healthy dose of insatiable curiosity, you’ll find Tom’s 20 tips as nothing more than a good start. Good on ya!)

As for the hundreds of wines in the book, they tend to be global brands – those that are easiest to find in your local store. Which makes sense for guide book – what use would it be if you could never find the wines it describes? However, I’ve chosen a different wine life. To me, the most amazing and enjoyable part of the mondo vino is the small producer who’s ignored the siren call of ‘biggering’ production in favor of crafting a wine that makes a unique statement. Wine as art vs wine as widget. Such wines have little mass appeal and instead develop cult-like followings among a small but devout niche of wine lovers. If you worship at that alter, this book will not scratch your itch.

But then, that was not its intent. And in fairness, it provides a useful launch pad for those who think they may become interested in such endeavors. I recommend it for what it is – a useful guide for those new to wine and for those seeking some quick competency without investing much time or money to get there.  


Dave the Wine Merchant

Book Review: The Vintage Caper, Peter Mayle

Click to Buy

My wife and I enjoy our family time, but it leaves few opportunities for adult conversations.  We sometimes make up for this by reading to each other, each of us alternating chapters, from a book of mutual interest.  We don’t do this often, but it was something we did on our honeymoon, where we were joined by Ruth Reichl (brought to life through her book, Garlic & Saphires…)  and we’ve enjoyed it ever since.

When Peter Mayle’s latest book – The Vintage Caper – arrived in the mail, my wife said “I was just about to buy that for you!”  I’m an unabashed (i.e., slightly jealous) fan of Peter Mayle’s writing as well as his life in France. His descriptions of French wine, food and culture are masterful works born of his keen observations and engaging storytelling ability. An imaginative reader can easily picture Mayle telling his story with a twinkle of delight in his eye.

Click to see all Mayle's works.

Sadly, the same is not true of his fictional works.  I’ve read four of them over the years (yes, you’d think I’d learn by now) and none capture the same zest as his delightful observational works.  His fictional stories are formulaic and unnatural, as if he finds writing such things dreary work.  My wife described his view of women as “a little backwards”, though I tend to excuse him his shortcomings, as his world view was set by his coming of age in the world of 1960’s advertising (I easily imagine him as a copywriter from Mad Men).

By contrast, he seems to find writing about life in France a more joyful way to spend his day.  I can hardly blame him, frankly.  Any Francophile or food lover is well rewarded by a full collection of these delightful books.

His non-fiction track record continues with his latest mystery, The vintage Caper.  With its dual setting in L.A. and Marseilles and its story of thievery in one of the world’s best cellars (ripped from the headlines, as they say), we REALLY wanted to enjoy this book.  Instead we found it only partly engaging.

Wine fans will appreciate his description of the wines and cellars as well as some choice cafe settings – the accuracy of his painstakingly researched wine notes is unsurpassed.  But the characters themselves were thinly developed and barely believable.

If you’re thinking of shelling out a few hard-earned shekels for “Vintage Capers” I encourage you to click instead on Mayle’s image, above – that will take you to a complete listing of his works.  Try instead any of his non-fiction stories about life in Provence, and your rare and treasured hours reserved for reading will be much more enjoyably spent.

Happy Reading!

Wine Book Review – In Search of Bacchus, George Taber

In Search of Bacchus When Simon and Schuster’s publicist asked if I’d review George Taber’s latest book, I didn’t hesitate.   I’d enjoyed his previous books “To Cork or Not to Cork” and “The Judgment of Paris” and a new book from the retired journalist, wine collector and author was likely to provide hours of enjoyment.

But his new book arrived at a bad time.  I was in the middle of a wine club shipment and all my spare reading time was already divided between two biographies – one on Robert Parker and an out-of-print book on James Beard.  These were forced to the back of my night stand with only a minor amount of fisticuffs and complaints, the books embodying the self-promoting characteristics of their respective subjects.  And then I dove into “In Search of Bacchus“, and it was like taking a mental vacation to 12 of the best wine regions in the world.

This book is partly a travelogue written during his visits to a dozen of the world’s premium wine-growing regions.  The reader is introduced to each new region with a relatively brief (~25 pages) overview of regional winemaking history and the three or four wineries most critical to its current level of success. Each region could easily justify a book unto itself, perhaps even several several volumes, but “In Search of Bacchus” is a useful introduction to each growing region.  A temptation to travel.

These introductory sections are written in Taber’s identifiable style – high-toned, well-researched and erudite – reflecting his chops honed during his years as a journalist (and a well-schooled wine enthusiast).  I found each of these sections quite useful, packed with useful bits of insight and information.  As you complete each chapter, you’ll swear you’ve found the location for your next wine pilgrimage (honey we’ve got to go to this one, no wait, THIS one!  no, no…)

Following each detailed section is a brief story about Taber’s experience at one of the wineries mentioned.  While the entire book is written in the first person, this is where the reader feels as if he/she is actually looking over Taber’s shoulder.  It is less fact-driven, more intimate, and only slightly frustrating in that many of the experiences Taber relates are not available to the average wine tourist without his insider connections.

Picking Nits
I’m a fan of Taber’s work.  But I do find his style a bit dry.  Never does he squeal with delight, moan in the pain of a hangover, or admit to a lusty thought or other human foible.  With his apparent writing skills, I’m sure Taber could craft an ode to make a lover swoon.  But he doesn’t reveal that side of himself here, and while I appreciate his dispassionate professionalism, I’d also welcome a glimpse behind the Taber curtain from time to time.   Otherwise, he might as well be writing about economics instead of the greatest, most sensual beverage on earth.  I mean, the Romans also called Bacchus “The Liberator”, a God who could free one from one’s normal self through madness, ecstasy or wine!

In person, Taber strikes me as someone you’d enjoy sitting next to at a long dinner – interesting, unassuming, and friendly.  See for yourself:

Wine & Tourism – Finding the Right Balance
One of the issues surrounding wine tourism is the issue of access.  Taber doesn’t shy away from the fact that some wineries actively discourage tourists (well, mostly in Bordeaux, not surprisingly) while others put wine on the back burner with massive, tightly-packed tasting rooms, huge (and barely-trained) pouring staffs, and more souvenirs and paraphernalia than wine.   Such differences exist between individual wineries more than between wine regions, with both extremes even found in tourist-hungry Napa.  This book quietly raises the issue, and the wise wine pilgrim can then rely on the internet to develop an itinerary that suits their particular style.

Buying “In Search of Bacchus”
Despite these nits, with its release date so close to the holidays it seems obvious that “In Search of Bacchus” will be one of the biggest wine books of this holiday season, and I can’t think of another new wine book I’d rather read. Those interested in buying a copy for their favorite wine-lover can simply click here (also available as an eBook, though in Epub format only.  I make no commission on sales of this book).

And now that I’ve completed the book and am nearing completion of this review, my books on Parker and Beard are over on my nightstand, fighting to see which gets read tonight.  It appears to be a pretty good fight.

Dave the Wine Merchant

A Passion for Pinot – Book Release Party at DeLoach Vineyards

For your favorite Pinotphile...            

I was tired and well behind schedule when my electronic calendar informed me it was time to head to Sonoma.  The nag.  

It seemed like weeks since I’d returned my RSVP for the release party for the new book “A Passion for Pinot.”  At the time the event sounded most promising, and I recalled the invitation mentioning something about several interesting wines being poured.   But at the time I wasn’t swamped trying to get ready for this week’s wine club shipment.  “To attend, or to tend to to-dos?”  That was the question.

I attended.  And I’m glad I did.

The beautiful Guest House at DeLoach Vineyards

The beautiful Guest House at DeLoach Vineyards

I had to make a rather inglorious and early departure, embarrassingly conspicuous in the roomful of rapt attendees (right) at DeLoach Vineyards.  But upon returning home I enjoyed this most pleasant event all over again as I perused its pages.   “A Passion For Pinot” is  a compelling combination of  photographs from all over the world of Pinot (Mondo Pinot?) and enjoyable, informative but most accessible text.  

Between these two influences, the book is a black hole that absorbs your attention and curiosity until suddenly you realize you’re late for dinner.

This text is from the pen (well, keyboard, most likely) of knowledgeable wine writer Jordan Mackay, who also moderated the fire-side chat for the panel of winegrowers at the launch event (below).  

Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield), Adam Lee (Siduri) and author Jordan MacKay

Brian Maloney (DeLoach), Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield), Adam Lee (Siduri) and author Jordan MacKay

It’s photographic credits go to a duo of talented photographers, Andrea Johnson and Robert Holmes.  Both were in attendance, and seem as beautiful as their photographs.

But it would be a waste and a shame to relegate this work to a seldom-read, only-occasionally-thumbed, coffee table book.  The prose is too informative, and far too readable, to be left untouched by human eye.

The launch party was held in the classic wine-country setting of DeLoach Vineyards, hosted by the ebullient owner, Jean-Charles Boisset, and his charming French accent.  President of Boisset Family Estates, Jean-Charles had dedicated his family’s business to sustainable, organic and bio-dynamic practices.  And the results are impressive, judging by the delightful wines they chose to serve – The 2007 Green Valley Pinot and the 2007 Masut Vineyard Pinot (available here).

Mike Browne of Kosta Browne Winery

Mike Browne of Kosta Browne Winery

The Panelists poured and discussed a total of 8 different pinots:

  1. Mike Browne of Kosta Browne Winery (photo at right) poured his  2007 Pinot from Koplen Vineyard, Russian River Valley and his 2007 Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.  Mike’s wines have often been big, alcoholic and well extracted.  When asked about the March 11 NYT article by Eric Asimov “Finessed and Light: California Pinot Noirs With a Manifesto”   Mike indicated he thought Eric was a few years behind the curve, and that the movement had started some time ago.  But he also indicat3ed that some vintages simply gave themselves to big, ripe and alcoholic wines, and that he plans to continue making wines that reflect what nature provides.
  2. Dan Goldfield of Dutton-Goldfield Winery poured his 2007 Pinot from Dutton Ranch, Freestone Hill Vineyard and his 2007 Devil’s Gulch Vineyard, (Marin County).  Dan told the story of how he first came to know the fruit from Devil’s Gulch Vineyard – it’s owner, Mark Pasternak, approached him with an offer of free grapes in exchange for putting the vineyard on the map.  Looks as if both parties benefited from Dan’s bold move, as the vineyard is becoming obscure no more, prized by many for its characteristics similar to the more famous Sonoma Coast AVA. 
  3. Adam Lee of Siduri Wines, poured his 2007 Pinot from Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley and his 2006 Arbre Vert from Willamette Valley.  Tasted next to their California brethren, this wine was an archetype of Oregon.  Adam indicated this was his exact intent – he specifically sought an Oregon vineyard that would provide a true essence of Oregon, thus providing his pinot-philic followers an interesting contrast in styles.
  4. Brian Maloney of DeLoach Vineayrds poured their 2007 pinot from Green Valley (Russian Rvery Valley) and their 2007 Masut Vineyard from Redwood Valley.  This latter wine was an interesting myth buster, as it belied my prejudice that Redwood Valley was kinder to thick-skinned grapes like Petite Sirah or Zinfandel.  Providing an interesting lesson in terroir, the Masut Vineyard is just north of Ukiah and Laughlin, in a region sufficiently cool to produce this complex and interesting pinot.

A day well spent, despite the clamor of my calendar.

It's hard work, but somebody's gotta do it

It's hard work, but somebody's gotta do it



Dave the Wine Merchant

Quote of the Day:

A great Burgundain Winegrower once told me, ‘Cristie, women can have babies.  Winegrowers try to replicate the experience by making Pinot Noir‘”

~Cristie Dufault, Sommelier

Book Reviews – "Santa Barbara County Wineries" & "San Luis Obispo Wineries"


Janet Penn Franks, photographer, author, historian and wine lover, has published another great wine book just in time for the holidays.  In her new book, "Santa Barbara County Wineries," Janet profiles 50 of the area’s premier wineries and six wine-tasting venues (including our affiliated wine bar – Tastes of the Valleys in Solvang) offering wines from an additional 26 local wineries.

Janet’s photographs argue for keeping this book close at hand for periodic escapes to the wine country.  But the custom recipes on each winery’s page argue for keeping it in your recipe library.  I’ve opted for the latter, as Janet has also made the photographs from her book available as high-quality wall prints for your escapism needs (see them here).

But that doesn’t help with the third place you’ll want this book – when I’m tasting at Central Coast Wineries I want a copy in my car as well. The book is a valuable resource for trip planning.

Slo_county_wineries_2"Santa Barbara County Wineries" is a partner to Janet’s first wine book – "San Luis Obispo County Wineries" – and each follows the same format, providing readers with:

  • A wine-centric history of each area and of each winery (not surprising, as Janet is a historian by both training and passion!)
  • Details on the AVA (American Viticulture Area)
  • Signature recipes for pairing with wines from each profiled winery
  • Location, tasting-room hours, winemakers’ specialties, and contact information
  • A glossary of wine terms
  • Lodging suggestions

For any fan of the emerging Central Coast wine region, I suggest buying both! $39.95 per book. Purchase Santa Barbara County Wineries here, purchase San Luis Obispo Wineries here.

Janetpennfranks Great gift idea – This brand new book, signed by Janet!


  • Where – Tastes of the Valleys wine bar in Solvang, CA (click for directions)
  • When – Saturday, December 8th, 8:00 – ???
  • Come enjoy some wine while you meet Janet and talk about her wonderful new book. Janet is also an enjoyable authority on Central Coast history.
  • Must be 21 to enter. Wine will be sold by the taste, glass or bottle.

Dtwm_colorHope you can make it!

Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant


Q&A With George Taber

George_m_taberNovember 28, 2007

In the early twilight of a successful journalism career, George Taber turned his talents to furthering the world’s understanding of his primary passion – wine.  And he’s done so with considerable notoriety – in the short span of three years he’s produced two ground-breaking works. 

His first was "The Judgment of Paris," about the famous tasting that put California wines on par with the best of Bordeaux.  As the only journalist to attend the event, his brief account of the event remained under the radar for days after its publication, achieving its deserved recognition days after its publication, when the full impact of the event sunk in.

G_taber_to_cork_or_not_to_corkIn his most recent work, "To Cork or Not to Cork", published just last month, Taber reveals the flaws inherent in the current bevy of options for wine closures – including corks, synthetic corks, composite/agglomerated corks, screwcaps and glass stoppers.  I had difficulty putting this book down, to be honest, as I described in my book review two weeks ago.

After that review, Mr. Taber and I made contact via email, and he readily agreed to an online Q&A session.  Here’s what he had to say:

DC: Your book would not have been written were it not for the fact that, several decades ago, an increasing % of corks began fouling the wines they were charged with preserving. Can you tell us about the most recent wine wine you opened that was ruined by a tainted cork?

GMT:  The problem was worse a few years ago, but a few years ago the cork manufacturers admitted it had a problem and started doing something about it.  As I wrote in the book, the cork problem dramatically increased in the 1980s for the reasons I explained. Then for about 20 years the cork industry had its head in the sand and didn’t admit it even had a problem.

About 1998 the industry finally admitted it had a serious problem and started to address it with heavy investment in new manufacturing equipment and research into the cause of the problem.  It takes time for any change — positive or negative — to be felt with cork because of the long time it takes to grow cork and then for wines to age in the bottle before opening.  But in the last few years there are signs of somewhat less cork taint at places like the big London wine show where they keep good statistics on the number of corked bottles. 

That having been said, my most recent example of a bad bottle was only last week. As part of my book promotion, I have been showing audiences the difference between the same wines with corks and those with screwcaps. I’ve found a couple of examples of exactly the same wine with the two closures. I was at a book store outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina doing a signing and showing one of those wines. It is a 2003 Domaine Laroche Chablis from the St. Martin vineyard. I have done this taste-off at least a half dozen times.  But this time the bottle with a cork was clearly oxidized.  That had never happened before in the tests, but there was no doubt about it.  Everyone could taste the difference between the two wines. 

Random oxidation is not the same as a corked wine, but the cause is still a faulty cork. Many people might not have recognized it if the wines hadn’t been tried side by side.  Some winemakers told me they thought random oxidation is actually a bigger problem than cork taint.

DC:  I’m not surprised – I hate oxidized wines.  It is apparent that researching your book took you to the far corners of the world to meet some of the wine world’s luminaries.  What was the most interesting story you can tell us – one that didn’t make it into the book, perhaps?

GMT: I tried to use all the material in the book, but sometimes an interview just doesn’t make the cut. One was an interview with Simon Barlow, the owner of Rustenberg, a top South African producer. His experience was similar to so many others. He had a high number of bottles being returned because of corking, so he went to his cork supplier who blew him off, saying that the problem was caused by his bad winemaking procedures. He couldn’t get even a decent hearing from the supplier, which was typical of the reaction until fairly recently.

So Simon decided to test plastic corks on his second label, Brampton. But consumers had serious problems with plastic corks.  People were sending him bottles with cork screws stuck in the plastic corks.  That’s a common problem with plastic.  So he sent his winemaker to New Zealand to study screwcaps, and the person came back with the recommendation that they try screwcaps on the second label, and they are fairly happy with the experience.

Barlow, though, is reluctant to put his top Rustenberg wines in screwcaps because he doesn’t think consumers are ready for them and he also doesn’t think screwcaps are the final word in the debate. So he continues to look for the best closures and experiment. In a lot of ways he represents a vast number of winemakers around the world who are looking for the perfect closure but still haven’t found it.

DC: Yes, the eternal quest goes on.  And on.  After writing this book, you must be one of the world’s more knowledgeable people on wine closures. If you could dictate just one closure to be used for all wines, what would it be?  And would your ruling change if it applied only to wines above $25?

GMT: I don’t think the perfect closure has yet been found. They all have their advantages and they disadvantages. There might be one in five or ten years, but there’s not one today. I think winemakers should be tailoring their closure to the wines they want to produce.  And I don’t think it’s merely a question of a price point like $25.  A cheap wine with a bad closure is still a bad wine. 

I think in the short run you’re going to see more and more light, fruity whites like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc with screwcaps, and it’s not surprising because those are the wines that show cork failures most readily.  Red wines, especially ones that are meant to be aged, are likely to continue to carry a cork. Many winemakers are reluctant to split their production lines like that because it implies that the wines with screwcaps are low quality.  I wish they could get over that and select the closure best suited to the wine.

DC:  Have wiser words ever been uttered?  Let me ask you about the recent turn in your career.  You enjoyed a successful career as reporter and editor for Time magazine and then launched your own publication in the late 80’s before selling it to "retire".  Your four-paragraph story on the famed “Paris Tasting” of 1976 has been called “the most significant news story ever written about wine.”  But in just the last few years, during what is usually one’s twilight years, you’ve written two very successful (and well researched!) books about the wine industry.  How has this period of your career compared to your earlier period?

GMT: I’ve been very lucky to have ventured into a new career writing books about wine. After selling the publication I founded, I told myself that I wanted to throw all my efforts into the new field with the same focus and intensity that I had devoted to my earlier jobs. Half-way efforts never succeed. Luck can help, and I plead guilty to being lucky, but it also takes hard work to be successful in any endeavor. It’s easier to work hard, though, in a field that is as interesting and exciting as wine. The great economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that if someone didn’t pay him to teach, he would gladly pay someone to let him teach. I feel the same about wine writing.

DC: I love that answer, having similar feelings myself.  I’ve read that you are a wine fan and collector.  Was the jacket photo for your first book taken in your personal cellar?  Tell us about the wines you like to collect and drink.

GMT: The picture in my first book was taken in the cellar of a friend. I had my own wine cellar at the time, but it was a much more modest affair, although it was a very good place for storing wines.  My wife’s uncle and I built it.  I drink wines from all over the world and with all sorts of closures.  I love old Bordeaux as well as versions of those made in California, South Africa and Chile.  My wife likes Pinot Noir more than Bordeaux, so I have to comprise, but that’s not too hard.  I think the fun of wine is that you can always be trying new wines and learning new things.

DC: Amen to that.  Now as I bring our Q&A towards a conclusion, I’m curious to know your response to a fantasy question.  If you could invite any four people (living or dead) to your house for dinner, who would they be and what wine would you serve?

GMT:  It would be an interesting evening.  I’ve spent a long time around economics, so I’d be interested in talking with perhaps the two greatest in that field: Adam Smith, the father of economics who wrote in the 18th century, and John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in the 20th century.  They’re both Englishmen and are both good writers in addition to being giants among economists.  I’d also invite Leonard da Vinci just because of the breadth of his scholarship.  And finally Winston Churchill.  Not sure what it means that I would invite three Englishmen.

One of my favorite wine quotes is from Keynes, who said late in life that he had only one regret — that he hadn’t drunk more Champagne when he was young.  Churchill also loved Champagne [Bollinger, as I recall – DC].  So we’d have to start with Dom Perignon Champagne as a gathering wine.  I love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, so we’d have a Cloudy Bay with the fish course of cod.  For the second course of roast lamb (and in honor of Leonardo) we’d have a great Italian wine like a Il Palazzone Brunello di Montalcino.  The owner of that winery is Dick Parsons, the about-to-be former CEO of Time Warner, who also lives on Block Island as I do. 

Thomas Jefferson died poor because he spent too much money on wines like Chateau d’Yquem.  That would go well with a chocolate soufflé dessert.  Finally, in honor Churchill, who answered critics who said he drank too much by saying that he got more out of alcohol than alcohol ever got out of him, a great vintage port, perhaps a 1945 Quinta do Noval, to go with espresso coffee.

DC:  Damn.  I was hoping to be at the table too!  Incidentally, one of my favorite Churchill quotes was in response to Lady Astor, his political and personal nemesis, who had accused him of being drunk.  His reply went something like "Yes, I am drunk.  But you’re ugly.  And in the morning I’ll be sober, but you’ll still be ugly."

My fantasy guest list contains many of the same names, though Ben Franklin is an addition.  Before we end this, is there anything else you wish I’d asked?  For example, cork taint is not the only wine fault.  What about the others?

GMT:  You’re absolutely right.  Cork is the best known, and if something is wrong with a wine too many people immediately assume it’s because of a bad cork.  A company called Le Nez du Vin puts out a kit called "Les Défauts" on wine faults. In it there are samples of 12 different faults.  Corkiness is only one of them.  I wish consumers — and winemakers — knew more about the other 11 and didn’t blame everything on the cork.

DC:  Thanks for that.  And for your time answering all my questions today!  I wish you continued luck, and hope to see you on your next West Coast tour.

[Interested in the book?  Compare prices on new and used copies here!]

Dave_at_champagne_partyHappy Holidays!

Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant



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