Book reviews 2015 – wine wars and word craft


21 January 2016 Tam's book reviews were so good that we wanted to share more of them with everyone. Hence this republication as part of our Throwback Thursday series. 

31 December 2015 For links to all of Tam's reviews of wine books published in 2015, see this guide

Tangled Vines 
Frances Dinkelspiel 
Greed, murder, obsession, and an arsonist in the vineyards of California 
St Martin's Press 
£18.20, $26.99 

$250 million worth of wine goes up in flames, along with livelihoods, histories, futures, legacies and businesses. Even the most hardened teetotaller would wince. Any wine lover, reading the roll call of names, would feel that stomach-lurch of devastation. I felt Dick Ward's heartache as he described the loss of his Saintsbury wine library, all 25 years of production, bottles that had been waiting to be tasted in a special anniversary celebration just months away. I wanted to weep as Ted Hall stood in the courtroom, barely able to speak for tears as he described the lives that had been ripped apart. Lapham, the attorney investigating the crime, said, 'He [the arsonist] damaged so many lives. We tend to think of winery owners as being rich, fat-cat types, but by and large the people storing wine at this facility were doing so because they didn't have their own storage. They were small, family wineries that couldn't afford these losses.'

Tangled Vines starts with the fascinating story of Mark Anderson, his breathtaking act of arson, and what drove him to it. It also follows the murders of five men in connection with a winemaking ranch back in the 19th century. Hot stuff indeed.

In the introduction, Dinkelspiel describes her personal motive for researching this book: 175 bottles of port and angelica wine made by her great-great-grandfather in 1875 were destroyed in that fire. The introduction finishes thus: 'I found myself on a quest of sorts, to comprehend why someone would knowingly ruin that much wine, and to better understand what it took to make a good bottle of wine ... I began to think that if I really understood ... the history of the land, the stories of the men and women who owned the vineyard, and those who worked to ensure that California wine culture flourished, I would know more about what I had lost'. The book's jacket rightly describes it as a history of the California wine trade.

The book is written, club-sandwich style, with two main stories – past and present – in parallel. It kicks off in 2005 with Anderson and his northern California fire; heads back to 1839 and southern California in part 2; forward to 1999, Sausalito, part 3; back to 1862 part 4; and so on and so forth. The link that ties this past and present together is that collection of 175 bottles.

It certainly gives the reader a fascinating window into the past; the dust and violence of old California stiffens the pages, and the jigsaw pieces she puzzles together of the Wines Central fire are compelling to read. Dinkelspiel has done her investigating with the relentless turning-every-stone discipline of a trained journalist. But I wondered whether Dinkelspiel, while a superb investigative journalist, is an author. Small things that let her down.

The book is loaded with historical detail, to the point where you lose track, gathering a plethora of minor characters and incidents with tenuous ties to either story, which start to become pure obfuscation. More than once I wondered where she was going with something, only to find myself in a cul de sac. I got a strong sense that Dinkelspiel got so caught up in her research that she was loth to leave interesting stories out, even if they weren't relevant. Halfway through the book she suddenly devotes nearly 30 pages to wine crime in general, covering the Bethnal Green wine heist of 2011 and (in great detail) Rudy Kurniawan's much-written-about fraud. I'm sure this research into wine crime helped her to understand the mind of Mark Anderson, but it contributes to the overall superfluity of detail that detracts from and muddies the narrative rather than enriching it. The other distracting factor was the flipping back and forth across time within chapters, even paragraphs, so that you never quite knew whether you were in 1862, 1865, 1871 or 1863.

She describes someone as having a 'teetotaling family' – I'm not sure when teetotal became a verb. On page 207 she writes about Jack Rubyen going to pick up 'bottles of Château Cheval Blanc for a vertical tasting of the prized Bordeaux varietal'. Cheval Blanc, or any Bordeaux for that matter, is hardly a varietal wine. She states at one point that 'There's a pattern to many wine thefts', but I could find no discernible pattern to the description of the three different wine thefts hanging on that statement. There is a lot of repetition to the point where, with a sense of déjà vu, I found myself rifling back through pages to work out whether it was me re-reading the same passage or the same passage repeated in different parts of the book.

There was throughout, I felt, a slight tendency to overplay her family's role in the drama and their direct connection to what happened in that warehouse. At one point, in a voice breathless with drama, she writes, 'Five men died in a battle for control of this house and its surrounding 13,000 acres ... So everything that came from this spot – the renowned wine, the historic home, the history – is drenched in blood ... That violence would extend into the 21st century.' The wine is renowned in only very small circles; it was made over 10 years after the murder and bloodshed; Isaias Hellman (her great-great-grandfather) neither lived at the property in question nor made the wine (although he did own it); the house was a modest one lived in by ordinary people for most of its 110 years before being nearly bulldozed to the ground and then turned into a little local museum in the seventies; and the gap between the Rancho Cucamonga murders and the Wines Central fire was 143 years and 450 miles. Flimsy links drawn, nonetheless, in a persuasively clever way.

Is this a wine history book? A family history book? A personal search for identity? Literary true crime? A biography? It's all of the above, in a way, and yet not quite any of the above. It feels like three books in one, and yet I wouldn't know quite how to cut them apart. It reads like journalism that falters on emotion now and then. And yet, despite all that, I found myself unable to put it down.

English for wine professionals and wine lovers
Mike Mazey et al
MKM Language School
€55, $60, £40

When Mike Mazey, Adelaide oenology graduate and Australian winemaker, headed out to the Czech Republic in 2004 to do a stint in Moravia, no one spoke English. His crucial and constant companion was therefore interpreter Petr Očenášek. On the back of that trip, Mazey made the somewhat startling decision to pack up his winemaking life in Australia and move to the Czech Republic to start teaching English. Which he has done for the last 10 years. But he missed the wine industry...

Pavlína Megová owns a prestigious language school (MKM) in the Czech Republic. She's mad about food and wine. She and Mazey started a language course on 'Wine English'. The WineWords project was her idea.

Vladimír Moškvan was headmaster of 'one of the most innovative primary schools in the Czech Republic'. His current job is tourism director for a high-profile winery, part of which includes training staff on international exposure. Petr Očenášek moved on from interpreting to become a very successful wine broker of local and international wines.

This eclectic team, together with eight MWs and 10 producers, has produced an extraordinary book. When the title WineWords first appeared in the list of books I was to review, I narrowly assumed that it was to do with the language of wine as used by wine writers or critics. The book arrived, large and heavy, and I was a bit bewildered when I started to page through it. 'Mouth Puckering Pronunciation' was the first subtitle that caught my eye, followed by 'Vocabulary Vats', and then, 'A Hint of Grammar'. Huh?

Then, as I should have done from the start, I read the introduction. This is a book, written entirely in English, aimed at people for whom English is not a first language. It's for oenologists, viticulturists, vintners, importers, brokers, sommeliers, those in wine marketing, those in enotourism, restaurateurs, wine students and wine enthusiasts. It's for anyone who may need to speak or write in English as a part of their job, be it selling wine to international importers, or showing visitors round a vineyard. And it's for anyone who simply loves wine and would like to travel in different wine regions or make the most of the vast amount of wine information available in English. It doesn't teach about the wine industry. It doesn't teach 'wine'. It teaches you the vocabulary of wine and how to use it.

It's a clever concept. Each section focuses on a different segment of the wine industry. Chapter 1, for example, tackles the language of the vineyard; chapter 2, the language of the winery; chapter 6 looks at wine competitions and judging; 4 is marketing; 8 is 'Healthy, Wealthy & Wise' – health, collecting/storing, and qualifications. Nothing is left out.

The sections are divided into units, each one taking a different aspect of the main topic and examining it in more detail, breaking the knowledge down into bite-sized chunks. A 'Learn' flag indicates a particularly fundamental bit of information, often presented in the style of questions, to challenge the student to think further. A 'Read' flag indicates written text with key wine words in bold blue italic font. These key words are all found in the glossary with their explanations, but the meaning can also be gleaned from the context of the text within which they appear. For example, chapter 1 (viticulture), unit 2 is the growth stages of the vine. The text describes the vine from dormancy to flowering, veraison to leaf fall, with beautifully sketched illustrations, and words such as budbreak, fruit set, ripening, crop and viticulturalist have been highlighted.

The third flag that the student encounters within each unit is 'Watch'. This is a rich collection of over 120 videos, free to watch on YouTube, covering every possible subject from wine competitions to tight vs loose grain of oak (see this fascinating interview with François Frères). Fascinating in themselves simply for the subject matter and interview content, the authors have interviewed first- and second-language English speakers from 16 different countries in order to expose students to different accents. It's details like this that underline the pedigree of this book as a language tool.

Another thoughtful inclusion is a clear visual explanation of differences between British and American English (eg bunch v cluster). The only thing that worried me was where one particular example examined the words variety and varietal, and stated that varietal was the word used by Americans to mean variety. The book does go on to explain the actual difference between the two words, but the American v British usage implies that it's ok to use varietal when you mean variety. I'm afraid it isn't.

Other focal points within each section include: the 'hint of grammar' lesson, designed to deliver a bit of grammar lite that relates to the main topic, and also addresses common mistakes; the 'mouth puckering pronunciation' guide, which deals with accent issues that commonly crop up (eg the German W v the English V, and where wine, winery, one, and terroir are all pronounced with a double-U); 'vocabulary vats', which tackle specific but often confusing words; and the reviews, which set questions and tasks for the learner (answers at the back).

Different aspects are championed (and I assume sponsored) by producers and other wine-related companies, which brings a 'case study' relevance to the text book, but at the same time I feel that the authors have maintained laudable independence.

The book ends with the glossary as well as some very useful tools, such as the explanation of common phrasal verbs ('to round up', 'to drive home', 'to pair with'), spelling out words over the telephone ('A as in apple'), verbs for telephone conversations ('I'm trying to get in touch with Mr Smith'), the correct phraseology for email communication (at this point I'm tempted to pause and ask whether Mr Mazey would consider taking up a job in any one of or all British universities?), and etiquette for making/keeping appointments, tweeting and using other social media.

As I said from the start, it's a unique book occupying a unique sector of the wine-book market. But the potential, if this were to reach a widespread audience, is hugely exciting and could open doors for many. Now the only thing left for Mazey et al to do is write a WineWords book for English speakers to communicate with others in their own languages. I'd buy it.