This year’s best wine books, ideal for holiday giving, include three from the Académie du Vin Library and an engaging romp through the wine country of southern Italy.
Hands down the wine book of the year: “In the Vine Country,” by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (a pseudonym of Violet Florence Martin). These Irish cousins from County Cork penned several travel books and articles about Ireland and Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. Summoned to London by the editor of the Lady’s Pictorial magazine, they were given an unwieldy contraption they called “the Kodak” and dispatched to Bordeaux to chronicle the wine harvest. More than a century later, they give us a fascinating glimpse into the world’s most famous wine region at the advent of wine’s modern era. Bordeaux was recovering from the ravages of phylloxera, reestablishing its vineyards with a sense of optimism and exploring modern technology and chemistry to fight traditional vine diseases.
Anyone who has visited Chateau Mouton Rothschild and its neighbor cousin, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, will nod in recognition as the cousins describe their own visits. Eventually, they chafe at the suffocating hospitality of their hosts and escape to meet “real people” — those who tend the vines and enjoy the wine without pomp and circumstance.
Cultural differences add spice to the story. The cousins have an innate Irish dislike of the French, especially the “cloud of garlic” that seems to surround everyone they meet. (This fear of the stinking rose reminded me of my Scots-Irish mother’s cooking.)
But the real jaw-dropping moment comes when the authors leave the “stunted little shrubs” on Bordeaux’s Left Bank of the Médoc for the Right Bank region of Saint-Émilion and its “air of generous luxuriance” and “vineyards of our more poetical visions.” Here they visit a “scientific vineyard” where the “charm of color conferred by the blue-green sulphate of copper that stains all the leaves is a fine confirmation of the theory that the useful is necessarily the beautiful.”
This was during harvest! The authors describe joyful peasants pulling loads of freshly harvested grapes through vine rows painted with this chemical spray that became known as the Bordeaux mixture. It’s still widely used today, though perhaps not so close to harvest. Today, modern viticulture is moving away from reliance on chemical sprays and toward more natural, environmentally friendly practices.
We never see photographs Somerville and Ross took with “the Kodak.” But they have left us, who carry cameras in our pockets, an invaluable snapshot of the beginning of an era now coming to an end.
The Académie du Vin Library’s most ballyhooed new publication this year was “On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo … Wine Tales from the Golden State.” (Subtitles ‘R’ Us!) This is a compilation of essays mostly from British writers, such as Hugh Johnson, Jane Anson, Harry Waugh, Spurrier and others. Some American perspective is provided by Elin McCoy, Elaine Chukan Brown, Esther Mobley, Jon Bonné and Norm Roby. Winemakers Warren Winiarski, Paul Draper and Randall Grahm also contribute chapters. This is a book for novices and geeks interested in the significance of California through America’s wine history, from the swashbuckling era of Agoston Haraszthy through modern Napa’s cult cabernets and today’s despair over wildfires and drought.
“Oz Clarke On Wine: Your Global Wine Companion” is part memoir, part travelogue, part wine primer by a former Shakespearean actor turned wine writer. Oz Clarke takes us on a world tour, romping through grape varieties and wine regions. His prose has an oratorical flair, like a vinous soliloquy summoning us to enjoy the pleasures of the grape. Reading Clarke may be the closest we’ll come to sharing a glass of sack with the Bard himself.
Finally, Robert V. Camuto, a prolific wine and travel writer for Wine Spectator magazine and other publications, including The Washington Post, gives us a delicious pre-pandemic travelogue through southern Italy in “South of Somewhere: Wine, Food and the Soul of Italy.” Camuto isn’t breaking new ground here — in fact, he’s following the same playbook as Somerville and Ross a century earlier. He gives us an engaging snapshot of a region chafing at its inferior stature compared with northern Italy. We meet ambitious younger generations clashing with their parents over values, both cultural and viticultural. The winemakers and their families Camuto introduces us to are not unlike those Somerville and Ross met more than a century ago. And they’re not unlike us, though they may eat better. Both books invite us to travel — one through time, the other to a rugged land of spicy salumi, down-to-earth folk and honest wines.
Darn it — where’s my passport?
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