The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey through the Wine World
North Point Press (Farrar Straus & Giroux), 2004, 262 pages
Reviewer: Richard E. Quandt
This bibulous travelogue takes us on a delightful journey through some of the most wonderful wine regions, where the author talks to owners and winemakers and assorted random characters in search of spirituous enlightenment. On the way to Sassoferrato, he visits Antonio Terni and begins to discuss one of his recurrent themes, namely that of terroir: does it exist, and what is it? “Later, Chalone winemaker Don Karlsen says, ‘There are only two terroirs in America … The limestone shelf … in Chalone and the soil around Rutherford.’” (p. 94) From Italy, he leaps over to Napa to talk with Robert Mondavi, then on to Sonoma and the Santa Cruz Mountains, popping back to France, to Bordeaux, Languedoc and Rhône, and ending up in Tuscany and finally Puglia. He interweaves learned and fascinating discussions of the history of wine with that of estates and winemakers, while he comments on the copious amounts of food ingested enroute and the prodigious amounts of wine consumed. To wit: “After leaving Terni, I drove down the long aristocratic road to the Numana highway, through the sluggish rain, past burned-out silk factories to the riffy-raffy seaside strip of Numana. I was so tipsy that I missed the turnoff for Sirolo and ended up in a strange no-man’s-land of Lido di Riscoli.” (p. 19)
The range and urbanity of these accounts is amazing and his modesty about what he does or does not understand about wine is most refreshing. In particular, he is, rightly, obsessed with the meaningless prattle that experts engage in when describing wine as in “Dark purple robe, bordered with orange. A direct and seductive nose overflowing with floral notes, gingerbread, cocoa, candied cherries. A mouth which is spherical, sexy, fleshy, with refined wood. Velvety tannins flowing around aromas of fruits and moist earth, astonishing length.” (p. 99). Or, when prompted, “What could I taste in this Zinfandel? The overripe prunes and copious glycerin which I had slyly looked up in the Wine Buyers’ Guide beforehand? Plums and cherries?” (p. 110) I often thought it would be amusing to have a panel of tasters taste the same set of wines and then require them to write down in words what the wines taste like. Would they use the same or similar characterizations of wines (tastes of flint, rock, earth, tobacco, tar, cherries, plums, honey, cocoa, chocolate, rare meat, pig’s blood, citrus, melted asphalt, caramel coated autumn leaves and god knows what else)? He then points out, which sounds to me almost Zen-like, that “the whole principle of wine language [is] to create images of things that didn’t actually exist.” (p. 247)
The author is delightful when he punctures pretensions and has impressive knowledge in ranging from the history of wine to Heidegger and Nietzsche, to Robert Parker and to esoterica such as saving grapes from rabbits by tying tufts of human hair to vines because rabbits hate human hair more than they love grapes, or that the first wine zones in Europe were created by the Duke of Tuscany in 1716 (p. 223), etc. He finds wine experts who say absurdities like, “Burgundies are the greatest wines to drink … . California is a joke by comparison,” (p. 209) although in a recent tasting of ours, $100–$150 California pinot noirs beat Burgundies in the $300–$600 range hands down. (See www.liquidasset.com, Report 75). He notes that there is an undeniable increase in the number of animal images on wine labels and warns that “the quality of a wine is probably inversely proportional to the ferocity of the animal on its label.” (p. 197) While I do not have vast experience in this matter, I note that the unferocious Faithful Hound from the Mulderbosch estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa, is a solid and drinkable wine but does not aspire to greatness (http://www.wine.co.za/Directory/Wine.aspx?WINEID=53).
The book is witty and literate, but not numerate. Just about every numeric datum that I found and checked seems to be wrong. On p. 50, the author refers to a “three-liter magnum” bottle. According to André L. Simon, The Noble Grapes and the Great Wines of France, (Octopus Books, LC Cat. No. 72/86098), a magnum of champagne contains 1.6 liters and a magnum of Bordeaux 1.5 liters, whereas a 3 liter bottle is called a double magnum (Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, Knopf, 1977, ISBN: 0-394-48995-0). In the very interesting discussion of vine spacing in France versus California, it is noted that in France they have 4,046 vines and in California 454 vines per acre. The yield on the widely spaced (unstressed) grapes is 25 lbs per vine versus 8 lbs for the more closely spaced. It is then asserted that for the same outlay of $2 per vine, your outlay would increase fourfold for the more densely packed system, and that your net yield would increase only 20%, neither of which ‘computes.’ At $2/vine, outlays go from 2·454 = 908 in one case and 2·4046 = 8092 in the other, while net yields (assuming that the $2/vine is an annualized cost, although the text does not say so) go from 25·454 − 908 = 10442 in the first case to 8·4046 − 8092 = 24276, more than doubling. One winemaker explains that there are 275 million hectares (under cultivation) in Languedoc. But there are 258.8 hectares per square mile, which means that in Languedoc there must be 1,062,596 square miles under cultivation. But the area of all of France is only 211,372 square miles, which also ‘does not compute.’ But these are minor glitches. The book is not only informative, interesting and rich in the memories of all who have a voice in it, but is also thoroughly pleasurable to read and is highly recommended.
Richard E. Quandt