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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
14 May 2004
 

One sign of how wine is now firmly embedded in our culture
rather than being seen as an exotic ferment of interest only
to an effete elite is that there is a new generation of books
about it. These are not guides to buying or making it but
discursive tales which are only tangentially about wine and
which can just as easily be savoured by teetotallers as by
wine fanatics.

We have, perhaps inevitably, the relocation genre, tales of
how wine neophytes turned themselves into successful
vignerons. Patricia Atkinson of Clos d'Yvigne's The Ripening
Sun
has been joined by the likes of Patrick Moon's account of
the Languedoc's wine revolution in Virgile's Vineyard and, out
next month, Tony Rocca of Collelungo's Catching Fireflies. But
this is by now well-trod literary territory.

More significant in terms of what they say about wine's place
in modern society are two new American books, of which
Lawrence Osborne's The Accidental Connoisseur is possibly the
most entertaining book about wine ever written.

What I cannot quite imagine is how he described the book he
was intending to write to his publishers before committing
what is, after all, the most nebulous of ideas to paper.
"Well, see, I don't know much about wine but I'm going to go
visit a few wine producers in California, France and Italy to
find out about taste - okay?"

Perhaps he waited until he had a sample chapter or two to
show, for no sensible publisher could resist the trenchant
prose and determined mischief in this self-styled goof's guide
to wine (subtitle: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine
World).

Although he was born in England and brought up on nothing
grander than Sainsbury's Beaujolais, Osborne is now a New
York-based author whose previous subjects have included Paris,
Asperger Syndrome and A Brief History of Sexual Pessimism. He
is clearly not nearly as naive about wine as he would have us
believe.

This is a joyful book in which, unfettered by the need to
pronounce as a wine critic (nor, it would seem, by any notion
of drink-driving laws), he just drinks the stuff, with gusto
and curiosity. His favourite wine of all, after ha has been
entertained at the near-impenetrable likes of Château
Lafite, Opus One and the Palazzo Antinori, turns out to be a
bottle of inconsequential local white drunk, alone, on a
Puglian beach. I think we know that feeling.

But he also drinks in the words and mannerisms of the famous
and not-so-famous of the wine world whom he meets en route.
Thanks to a wickedly observant eye and a particularly acute
ear, or perhaps uncharacteristically disciplined tape
recording, we can relish encounters with princes, rogues,
crazed technocrats and even Maurice Delgado, a French wine
tourist in California's rain-sodden Russian River Valley in
need of company other than his photocopied tasting notes from
L'Express while his wife is struck down by a stomach bug.

Osborne and Delgado discuss whether the Rochioli Pinot Noir
has, as asserted in L'Express, a 'spherical, sexy mouth'.

'"Well Laurent, I see your point. Yes, I'm prepared to assert
there are floral notes. But it's a little flat after
all, isn't it? I didn't say that I found it sexy."

"A sexy wine?"

"Oh I've had a sexy wine or two. The wife and I like a sexy
wine on Saturday night. Especially on vacation. But this is
not a sexy wine, is it?"

"If wine is like sex," I said, "this is yoga."

"Yoga?" He swirled and sniffed. "I'm not sure I get you there.
You mean athletic?"

"Virtuous. Unsexy."

He suddenly laughed viciously. "Ah, you mean American!"'

The supposed Americanisation of European wine is a persistent
theme in both books, although the English-born Osborne is wise
enough to have any concerns about this voiced by others. There
are the anti-Bush ('"c'est pas Tony Blair!"') rantings
of Aimé Guibert of the (consistently mis-spelt) Mas de
Daumas Gassac, and non-conformist American wine merchant Neal
Rosenthal on what he sees as a dangerous trend towards
"childish" wine: '"Everything is acceleration. We're in an age
where people are like mad children. Is complexity too
difficult now? Or are we all children?"'

Fellow American resident Englishman, the urbane Gerald Asher,
is clearly rather a hero for Osborne who, when writing yet
again about tasting, reports that Asher 'seems to be
suggesting that place itself is twofold: on the one hand it is
terroir: on the other it is what is going on around you as you
are drinking. The first is geological, the second
psychological. And taste was presumably a high-wire act
balancing itself precariously between the two.'

The second was definitely in the ascendant on that Puglian
beach, but also when Osborne was tasting a strange Vin Santo
with Stefano Grillo of the Umbrian producer La Palazzola with
his louche-sounding friend 'an English sculptor named Johnny
Madge'. Osborne observes that the wine 'was gloriously
unironic. It smelled like an old church suffused with incense
or your father's library nutty with old tobacco. I couldn't
resist blurting this out.

'Grilli cocked his head sideways as if considering the idea,
then said "Why not? Why not your father's library?"

"Your father's library?" Johnny looked at me. "Did your father
have a library?"

It was a good question. He did not.

"No?" Grilli said. "Then how can it smell like your father's
library?"

I said I didn't know, but that it nevertheless smelled like my
father's library, if my father had had a library.'

I know that feeling too. 

So acute are the personal portraits that the father of modern
California wine Robert Mondavi must be regretting agreeing to
see, nay lavishly entertain, Osborne. American wine guru
Robert Parker must be relieved that he did not even respond to
Osborne's initial overtures. Osborne has quite enough fun with
him without even a confirmed sighting.

Quite different in tone is William Echikson's Noble Rot - A
Bordeaux Wine Revolution
. As one might expect of the Brussels
bureau chief for Dow Jones newswires, this is a dutifully
journalistic account of one of the most obvious stories in
wine of recent years, the rivalry between the old and new
guards in the world's most significant fine wine region.
Echikson is unquestioningly reverential towards Parker,
inevitably a key figure in the current battle between
classicism and modernism in Bordeaux wine styles.

Where Osborne's book is multi-coloured and multi-layered, rich
with cultural allusion, Echikson's is black and white.

Old money? Boo.

New BMWs (and there are seem to be lots of them in this book)?
Hooray!

The British? Boo.

Alain Raynaud of Ch Quinault L'Enclos (who lent Echikson and
family a house while he was researching this book)? Hooray!

Everyone with a history is a 'mandarin'. And so on.

I would recommend Noble Rot to any close follower of the
Bordeaux wine scene for what is revealed, sometimes perhaps
unwittingly, about the long-standing alliances and motivations
among some of the characters in this occasionally unedifying
story.

And I would recommend The Accidental Connoisseur to anyone who
will forgive the odd mis-spelling in order to savour a
rollicking ride through wine country.


The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne, North Point
Press (US)
Noble Rot by William Echikson, W W Norton (US)
The Ripening Sun by Patricia Atkinson, Century (UK)
Virgile's Vineyard by Patrick Moon, John Murray (UK)
Catching Fireflies by Tony Rocca, Century (UK)

Kent Lewis, Washington DC adds:

 I can recommend The Vintner's Luck by NZ author Elizabeth Knox.  A lovely book for anyone, whether interested in wine or not.  It made a great read while travelling in NZ, but our non-wine friends here in the US have enjoyed it equally.

me:

I read that too and, while I admired it and was very grateful for any normal book with the word 'vintner' in the title, I found it illustrated how little imagination I have - or rather how relatively intolerent of fantasy I am. My fault not E Knox's.