GEORGE M. TABER
In Search of Bacchus:
Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine
Tourism. Scribner, New York, 2009, 320 pp.
Reviewer: Orley Ashenfelter
George Taber’s professional wine book writing career started with the smash hit tale of French vs. California wine tasting in his Judgment of Paris (think movie—as in the Alan Rickman vehicle Bottleshock). His second book, To Cork or Not to Cork, tracked the controversy in the wine world over the best closure for a bottle of wine (think Popular Science magazine). Taber’s latest book, In Search of Bacchus, is about wine tourism (think “looking for wine in all the wrong places”!) and it is a lovely read for anyone who enjoys travel writing, and especially anyone who also enjoys a glass of wine.
Taber starts his tour by reminding us that wine tourism has a long history. Englishman John Locke learned about the wines of France when he traveled there as part of his medical treatments in Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson toured and wrote extensively about the wines of France and Germany during his diplomatic stay in Europe. Even Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent his honeymoon in Napa after traveling to San Francisco to marry an American divorcee he had met during his bohemian life in Paris, took copious notes about viticulture. The notes formed the basis for his Silverado Squatters, which contains a chapter about Napa’s wines and winemakers.
The structure of Taber’s book involves first his very business-like report on the details of 12 of the world’s far flung wine producing regions, followed by a personal vignette of Taber actually engaging in some tourism in each of these places. These vignettes can be charming, and they also sometimes reveal more about Taber’s reaction to his touring experience and the wines he encounters than the drier discussions that precede them. When Taber visits Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand, home of the world’s greatest risk managers, and some pretty good pinot noir too, what does he do? He takes the road to AJ Hackett’s Bungy Jump and makes the plunge with, in some of the best writing in the book, a quite endearing description of just what it all feels like. Taber covers some more well trodden areas too, with sometimes revealing results. In the Napa Valley, for example, he encounters the fantastical Darioush Winery, modeled after a Persian palace, and remarks that it looks “as out of place in Napa as a log cabin might look in the middle of Iran.” And when he visits the fabled region of Bordeaux, with its focus on high prices, collectability, and limited access to tourists, what enjoyable vignette does Taber describe? You guessed it, a week long escorted bike tour through the friendly wineries and vineyards of Burgundy!
Taber travels to virtually all the continents in his wine touring including, in a description that may be the most heart felt and charming writing in this book, a visit to the country of Georgia at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. As the buried wine storage pot, called a kveris, is opened and the toasts begin during an extended luncheon in the cellars, it is pretty clear that Taber has learned something about this exotic place and its wines, but also that he is having a lot of fun too.
For anyone who has followed Taber’s wine journalism career, it is fascinating to watch how he takes a relatively mundane topic related to wine and forms it into a readable, coherent whole. Admittedly, this was easier to do with Judgment of Paris, where he had the benefit of being the only journalist actually present for the historic 1976 wine tasting. But it was certainly harder when writing a book about corks, as it seems to me it must have been in writing about wine tourism. At this point I think Taber deserves the crown as the undisputedly finest American wine writer currently at work. The books are well written, topical, and interesting—making them a refreshing change from the laundry list of scores, points, or useless flowery wine descriptions that constitutes most American wine writing. And what is more, the books sell!
Are there any lessons for aspiring wine writers in Taber’s success? I think there are three. First, basic writing skills are critical. Second, real research that requires time and effort is critical. Finally, a writer needs a hook, a gimmick that will bring the appeal of a book to a broader audience. Some of Taber’s books are stronger in this regard than others, but all of them represent a conscious effort to grab a reader’s attention. I certainly look forward to the next one.