In this week’s column, I recommend a few books the wine lover on your holiday gift list might appreciate. Here are a couple more:
Ever wonder how your wine got to taste the way it does? If you realize that wine is more than just fermented grape juice, or if you’ve ever toyed with the idea of trying to make wine yourself, then “The Vintner’s Apprentice: An Insider’s Guide to the Art and Craft of Wine Making, Taught by the Masters”(Quarry, 2011, $25) by Eric Miller is for you.
Miller is the owner and winemaker at Chaddsford Winery in Pennsylvania; he could write an authoritative book like this based on his three decades of experience alone. Instead, he peppers the book with interviews with luminaries such as vineyard consultant Lucie Morton and winemakers Eileen Crane of Domaine Carneros and Peter Gago of Penfolds. With their insight, and terrific photographs, Miller guides us through the cycle of wine production, beginning with selecting the proper vineyard site, pruning and trellising the vines, and continuing through fermentation, aging and bottling — everything except marketing.
This is neither textbook nor memoir, though Miller and his interview subjects give a sense of what a winemaker’s life is like (hard work, mostly). Miller explains many of the technological tools available to the winemaker, and while he isn’t at all polemic about some of the controversial ones, he clearly favors many of the modern advances in enology. In discussing the use of commercial or native yeasts, for example, he clearly favors the former and the control they give the winemaker.
In that sense, Miller would clearly disagree with Alice Feiring, author of “Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally” (Da Capo, 2011, $24). Feiring is the unofficial spokesperson for the “natural wine” movement that has gained popularity among consumers tired of the same-old same-old wines produced by “industrial” viticulture and enology. There’s no agreed-upon definition of “natural wine,” and Feiring struggles to define it to herself and her readers. Simply put, a natural wine is made without synthetic pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard, and without commercial yeasts in the winery.
Beyond that, the lines become blurry, especially on the essential question of added sulfites, a sulfur-containing preservative commonly used at bottling to stabilize wine. Natural wine purists argue that sulfur is not needed if a wine is properly made, that it disguises the wine’s flavor and causes headaches for the drinker. Feiring clearly agrees with the purist viewpoint, though she’s tolerant at least of vintners who prefer not to risk their wines going funky in the bottle. Feiring does her readers a disservice by emphasizing the rather high amount of sulfites that governments allow in wine without acknowledging that most winemakers use much less. And she makes some questionable claims, such as natural wines don’t cause hangovers.
Yet Feiring writes engagingly about her own attempt to make a natural wine, in California of all places — a region she seems to fear after publishing a critical article in the Los Angeles Times. And she takes us to the natural wine meccas of Beaujolais and the Loire Valley in France, with a detour to find “real wine” in Spain and a quest to suss out the origins of the natural wine movement. She doesn’t really find an answer — her idolized winemakers turn out to be rather cagey about their techniques.
I wish “Naked Wine” had more of the sharpness Feiring displayed in her earlier book, “The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization” (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). She’s more cautious here, though her talent for setting a scene and ripping off a yarn is as evident as ever. She provides a list of her favorite natural wine producers, so we can put her arguments to the test. And she tantalizes with a list of additives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows in wine, although she only touches tangentially on this subject. Her next book, perhaps?