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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Book Review: "To Cork Or Not To Cork" George M. Taber


To Cork or Not To Cork. 
Tradition, romance, science and the battle for the wine bottle.  George M. Taber.  Scribner publishing, October, 2007.

"In the entire world, only a few sounds bring joy to all but the most jaded.  One is the purring of a kitten.  Another is the thwack of a well-pitched baseball hitting a perfectly swung bat.  And a third is the pop of a cork being pulled from a bottle of wine."  George M. Taber, from his book "To Cork Or Not to Cork?"

To his list I would add the sound of George Taber’s prose. 

In recent memory, this is the most enjoyable wine book I’ve read.  There are times, after receiving a book for review, that I have to ponder what to say about it.  Not so with this one.  My reaction was instant.  Maybe I predisposed to like it because Jancis Robinson recommended it.  Maybe I was predisposed because I enjoyed his first book "The Judgment of Paris".  Or maybe because I was consulting at Bonny Doon Vineyard during their switch-over to screw caps in 2002 (so Taber’s recounting of Grahm’s "Funeral for the Cork" on page 157 brought back fond memories!)  But even after airing all my biases in full view, I can still be unabashed in my recommendation.

Taber’s books benefit from an approach to investigative journalism that is so thorough it would make Sherlock Holmes jealous.  But Taber is no Kurlansky, and his novel-esque style manages to be both serious and engaging (see the opening quote, reproduced above, which offers some rare poetry to a wine industry that has been busy for two decades leaking fun like the air through a pin hole.)  As a result, his books are far more difficult to put down (and easier to summarize when on the cocktail circuit!)

This book will appeal not only to wine geeks like me, but to any history buff as well.  And, as this book has JUST been published, it is the perfect holiday gift, as it is less likely to appear in your recipient’s existing book collection.  (Compare prices here)

If you read this book, I ask that you weigh in with your preferred bottle closure.  If you’re like me, you will long for a healthy cork industry so our kids can appreciate the sound and tradition of cork-finished wine bottles.  AND you will shed some prejudices surrounding alternative closures, whether they be screwed, bagged or boxed.

(Click Here if you can’t see the survey in this space)


Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant


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Book Review: First Big Crush. Eric Arnold


FIRST BIG CRUSH  The down and dirty on making great wine… down under.  Buy or compare prices here.

Not since "The Paper Lion" has an embedded journalist produced such keen insights into the machinations of an industry.  Before writing this book, Eric Arnold was a "self-declared wine expert", acquiring his expertise simply by drinking copious amounts of inexpensive wine.  In other words, he was the perfect "common man" when it came to wine.

But all that changed a few years ago.  Arnold suddenly lost his job.  After evaluating his options he decided to travel to New Zealand to gather the inside scoop on wine production.  Why New Zealand?  He’d been there on vacation and loved it, but rationalized (probably accurately) that "The world needs another book on French or California wines about as badly as it needs another Starbucks"  If you’re going to go into ruinous debt while gambling with your career, why not do it in some place you love?

So Arnold got a one-year work visa and began cold-calling New Zealand wineries.  On each call he asked if they’d be interested in hiring an inexperienced worker without wages so he could write a book about his experience.  And by the way, no publisher had taken an option on the book at that time.  Ya gotta love Arnold’s moxie.

Living off his credit cards, Arnold’s hands-on knowledge came quickly, a necessity if he was to survive.  He shares it generously in a tale that is as ribald as it is insightful.  One must wade through a lot of testosterone-laden stories of sophomoric behavior to winnow out useful nuggets.  But they’re in there – go see for yourself.  I particularly appreciated his view on wine critics and their ratings, a most reasoned opinion served without the pedantic virtue that drips from so many wine writers (me included I suspect).

But I do wish Arnold had left some of his more vulgar bits on the editing room floor.  I’m really not all that interested in his sex life, or that of those around him, or about how many times people drank to the point of regurgitation.  But even readers who find such details unnecessary must admit they add a richer hue to Arnold’s experiences than would have been possible otherwise.

I advise you to avoid this book if you wish to preserve a romantic notion that wine is all about picnics amidst beautiful vineyards while watching a perfect sunset illuminate row after row of vines – and you know who you are!  Sometimes its preferable to protect our ideals than to know gnaw down to the bone of gritty truth that lies behind them.

But for anyone who has ever visited the wine country and thought "Honey, I’ll bet we could do that", this book is a must read.  It’s best to know what you’re in for.  Not that making wine is always as its portrayed by Arnold – he was only embedded at a single winery after all, and there are tens of thousands of others with stories of their own.  But Arnold captures the essence and personality of most of these wineries quite well.

A lot has changed for Arnold since leaving New Zealand.  Not only did Simon and Schuster’s Scribner publish this book last month (Sept 2007), he is also working as a news editor for Wine Spectator.  Let’s hope he stays in the field for a while – I think our industry needs his youthful voice.

Overall Rating, 3.5 stars (with another half star for Arnold’s moxie)
(0 – 5 Stars possible)



Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant