Book reviews 2020 – USA

Wines of Southwest USA cover

2 February 2023 This week’s podcast featuring winemaker/rock star Maynard James Keenan had us digging through our archives to see what more we could find out about Arizona wine. Tam’s review of The Wines of the Southwest USA (below) is a terrific place to start.

25 December 2020 A Christmas treat: a look behind the scenes at the White House and a bit of escapist wine tourism. See this guide to all of this season's book reviews.

The Wines of Southwest USA
A guide to New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Colorado
Jessica Dupuy
Infinite Ideas
ISBN 9781913022112

The latest release in the Classic Wine Library series is set in a part of the world that few of us associate with wine. Jessica Dupuy is a food and wine journalist, cookbook writer and certified sommelier who hails from Austin, Texas, loves fly-fishing and spent two summers as a horse wrangler on a Colorado ranch (I had to add that in – it sounds just way too cool for a wine writer!). She’s been writing about Texas wine for the last 13 years but, even so, she admits that ‘taking on the project to share the story of wine in a quadrant of America that is most associated with cacti, cattle and cowboys was a bit daunting. It’s a task I met with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I was ecstatic to have an opportunity to share with readers a corner of the country that I’ve called home for my entire life … However, the task also initially filled me with dread.’

I was a little surprised by that comment, but reading on, it started to make sense. ‘The Southwest United States covers a massive area’, she explains. ‘Texas alone is larger than France by about 20,000 square miles (51,800 sq km).’ Add in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, and we’re looking at an area that, if you took a European equivalent, would spread from Porto to Munich. That’s quite a bit of mileage.

Dupuy starts with New Mexico, where the first Vitis vinifera vines were planted in the US, pre-dating California by more than 100 years. Records dating back to 1629 show that Franciscan friars had planted vineyards for sacramental wine. In 1766 (three years before the first Mission vines were planted in California), a Spanish engineer described the wines he encountered in New Mexico as being ‘in no way inferior to those of Spain’. Surprisingly, in 1804, wine was one of the top three exports from New Mexico. By 1880 the state was the fifth highest wine producer in the US. It’s fittingly symmetrical to note that the modern wine industry in New Mexico has also been established by European immigrants, although this time from Italy, France and Germany rather than Spain.

Texas was also ahead of California with vinifera plantings, although at that time it was part of Mexico and under Spanish rule. Winemaking never became a major activity, however, and Prohibition had a significant and long-lasting impact, meaning that Texas was a mostly dry state for decades. It took horticulturists and university professors to revive winegrowing in Texas and today the state has about 350 wineries making Texas wine (there are more registered wineries, but they’re working with imported fruit) and 2,428 ha (6,000 acres) under vines.

Part three of the book, on Arizona, was the biggest revelation for me – in a book full of revelations. (Mind you, Arizona seems to be prone to delivering surprises, if the 2020 election results are anything to go by.) The Arizona wine industry grew 1,940% from 2003 to 2017, and Dupuy writes in her opening lines that Arizona ‘will soon emerge as the shining star of the Southwest’. She quotes Doug Frost MW MS as saying, ‘In Arizona, there’s just so much great wine. If I were going to pick one state in the Southwest that really has its act together in terms of making great wine across the industry, it would be Arizona.’ It was the first state in the Southwest to register an AVA (Sonoita) and if today there are about 115 wineries, at the current rate of growth, who knows how many there will be in 10 years’ time…

The Arizona wine industry Dupuy describes is cohesive and well-organised with a well-structured support system, from the Arizona Wine Growers Association to regional organisations. The top producers have formed the Arizona Vignerons Alliance, similar to the VDP, to promote quality wines. For a small fee any Arizona producer can submit their wines to a panel (made up of industry professionals without any direct connection to Arizona wine) and if the wines are 100% Vitis vinifera, 100% Arizona-grown, 100% Arizona-produced, have no sensory flaws and are good enough to be recommended by the panel to consumers, they receive an Arizona Vignerons Alliance seal. More than a third of Arizona producers have opted to participate.

Colorado stands apart from the other three states in terms of climate and geography. While New Mexico, Texas and Arizona battle with heat and humidity, Colorado is defined by mountains and some staggering elevations. In Colorado, the air is so dry that noses bleed, but winters are so cold that vines die. The entire state is more than 1,000 m (3,281 ft) above sea level – its lowest point is 1,005 m elevation. West Elks AVA is one of the highest wine regions in the world outside Argentina and there is a Riesling vineyard planted in the Four Corners region which is at 2,134 m (just under 7,000 ft). In the rest of the Southwest they’re turning to Rhône, Spanish and southern Italian varieties, in Colorado they’re making Riesling, Gewurz and Pinot Noir.

This book made me realise how little I knew of the Southwest in general, but in particular how ignorant I was when it came to wine in that part of the world. Nothing prior to this would have induced me to pick up a bottle of wine from any of these four states, let alone put the wine in my mouth. I had zero desire to visit any of those four states for the purposes of a wine trip. Now I’m wondering when COVID restrictions will be over so I can get out there and discover a whole new world.

I had no idea that one of the top US sparkling wine brands is not only made in New Mexico but was established by the Gruet family of Champagne G Gruet et Fils. A trip to New Mexico resulted in the purchase of a small vineyard and their son Laurent moved over to make sparkling wine and is still the winemaker today. Hervé Lescombes is a sixth-generation winemaker from Burgundy (Domaine de Perignon) who came to New Mexico and started a wine estate that is now run by his sons, Emmanuel and Florent. Luna Rossa was established by Friuli winemaker Paolo d’Andrea who was hired in the 1980s to teach the local workforce how to prune. He married a local and never went back. He’s introduced Italian varieties such as Ribolla Gialla, Dolcetto and Barbera to the region.

The role of a Texan in conquering phylloxera makes another interesting story. The first trials with American rootstock failed because American vines were adapted to soils very different to those of the French wine regions. Eventually, Professor Pierre Viala, sent to the US to find suitable rootstocks and failing to find anything, reached out to grape horticulturist Thomas Munson. Munson had done extensive research on native varieties and soils, and he pointed Viala in the direction of the poor limestone soils of Hill Country of central Texas where there were some native vine varieties that Munson believed might have potential. One of these was Vitis berlandieri, which forms the parent of so many important rootstocks used today. Texas rootstocks saved the day, and Munson, a Texan, was only the second non-Frenchman to be made a Chevalier du Mérite.

I learnt about Chiricahua people, pueblos, the White Sands National Park (the largest gypsum dune field in the world) and cotton root rot. I also learnt a new word: physiographic. And that ‘of the eight major physiographic regions in the United States, five of them are found in Texas’. I learnt about caliche soils and Blanc du Bois (a crossing made by a Texan professor in Florida!).

Dupuy also tells many wonderful stories about the lively characters who have, and are, shaping these wine regions. There’s Ed Auler of Fall Creek Vineyards in Texas who was born into a cattle-ranching family and went to France in 1973 to learn about French cattle breeds. He and his wife Susan joke that they spent three days learning about cattle and three weeks learning about wine. They came back and planted grapes. In 1983, Wine & Spirits magazine said theirs was the best Chenin Blanc in the country. Today they produce 50,000 cases a year, have a Chilean ex Concha y Toro winemaker (recommended to them by Paul Hobbs) and are tireless ambassadors for the Texas wine industry. Texas also boasts Pedernales Cellars, established by two NASA scientists who worked on the Apollo II mission, and The Infinite Monkey Theorem – the first American wine producer to have silk-screened labels and the second to package their wine in cans, long before it was cool.

In Arizona, Dupuy describes a wine industry defined by collaboration, warmth, humility and community, and yet it is made up of rock stars, sommeliers and filmmakers. Literally. Noted sommelier and restaurateur Pavle Milic, whose iconic FnB restaurant played such an important role in putting Arizona wines on the map, bought a vineyard, planted Rhône varieties and is making his own wine. (Dupuy also tells the fascinating story of this award-winning restaurant in the book.) Filmmaker Sam Pillsbury is making nationally recognised, low-intervention wines from his organic vineyard. Maynard James Keenan of alt-rock band Tool is owner and winemaker of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards and champion of the Arizona wine industry.

Then there is Kent Callaghan, whom she describes as a cornerstone of the wine industry. He not only makes ‘some of the most compelling wines in the state’ but is and has been mentor, advisor and guiding light to dozens for 30 years. Todd Bostock started with a home wine kit in 2001 and learnt to make wine from UC Davis VHS cassette tapes. The first Arizona wine he tried was Dos Cabezas Sauvignon Blanc. He volunteered as an assistant winemaker at Dos Cabezas and today owns it. As for Chateau Tumbleweed, The Oddity Wine Collective and Sand-eckoner, the names are so compelling that even if Dupuy hadn’t recommended their wines, I’d want to taste them.

Colorado is also full of colourful characters. There’s Kaibab Sauvage whose parents named him after Kaibab Limestone (a geological formation that forms the rim of the Grand Canyon). He has started making Sauvage Spectrum sparkling wines. Jack Rabbit Hill Farm is where ex California tech-industry Lance Hanson runs the state’s only certified biodynamic winery with his wife Anna, as well as growing medicinal herbs and farming cattle and sheep. How about John Sutcliffe, a Welsh cowboy. No jokes. After working on his family’s racing stud farm in Wales, playing competitive polo and running New York restaurants, he moved to Colorado to work on a ranch. Then he bought his own ranch, planted vines ‘as a landscaping aesthetic’ and now makes wines that are sold at high-end restaurants.

It was not an easy task that Jessica Dupuy had, but she’s pulled it off. For these four very different states, she’s done a massive amount of research – the book is packed with detail for each state, on history, climate, geography, soils, grape varieties, strengths and challenges, culture, producers and wines. She’s even included recommendations on where to stay, where to eat and what to see. Some of the restaurants she describes sound mouth-watering! Her producer profiles have a genuine warmth to them. She has managed to capture and communicate the beauty and the spirit of these rugged desert states without romanticising them, giving us a three-dimensional view. I, for one, am richer for it.


Wine and the White House book cover

Wine and the White House
A history
Frederick J Ryan
The White House Historical Association
ISBN 9781950273072

The first photograph in this book is nothing less than that of a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1955, signed to the author by Ronald Reagan. ‘Brace yourself’, I thought, ‘you’re in for some serious name-dropping…’. Ryan’s introduction on the facing page, however, is by complete contrast funny and self-deprecating. His interest in wine started because of a dating disaster. Determined to impress the fellow undergraduate at the smart restaurant he’d taken her to, he ordered a wine that he thought he could pronounce without making a fool of himself. Ignoring the sommelier’s attempts to direct him to another wine on the list, he realised with horror when the wine was poured that it was a Sauternes – not the ideal accompaniment to their roast beef. The date was not a success. His wine tastes at the time, he admits, leaned towards Mateus Rosé ‘on special occasions’. There was a lot to learn.

Frederick J Ryan is the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. He was a White House aide in the Ronald Reagan years and Reagan’s post-presidential chief of staff. He is also the current chair of the board of directors of The White House Historical Association. ‘Over the years’, he writes, ‘I’ve had the opportunity to explore both wine and White House history in great depth … In pursuing both of these avocations, I’ve come to observe that oenophiles and people fascinated by the White House actually have a lot in common. At their core, both groups are people who love learning about the past and connecting that history to the present … both camps are known for their strength of feeling; neither wine enthusiasts nor followers of White House history are passive consumers.’

With this, Ryan introduces Wine and the White House, a large and very heavy hardback, as glossy as its subject(s). It is lavishly, generously illustrated with bold, full-colour photographs and reprints of sketches on every single page, and I was fully prepared for this to be a simple flick-through-in-30-minutes review. Instead, three hours later, my husband had to drag me up to bed and I was only halfway through. I got up at 6 am on a Saturday morning to finish it…

To summarise, Ryan has written seven chapters, the first of which is an account of every president since George Washington in 1789 and his relationship with wine. In the ensuing chapters, he writes about how wine is selected, stored and served in the White House, the relationships between the White House and wine producers all round the world, the White House collection of stemware and drinking accessories, and presidential toasts. The last two chapters are menu cards and a catalogue of wines served at state dinners from Eisenhower in 1953 to Trump in 2019.

When I put it that way, it doesn’t sound particularly interesting. But I found it to be a compelling read. It helps that Ryan has an immediately engaging way of writing, but he is also succinct. What I hadn’t expected was quite how interesting this story is. It’s as much a history of the USA as it is of presidents and wine. It is a story of personalities and politics, fashion and feuds, egos and diplomacy, money and power and passion.

Starting with ‘Madeira Man’ George Washington, who drank three or four glasses of the stuff every evening, it would be no surprise to anyone that Ryan dubs Thomas Jefferson, ‘The Founding Father of American wine appreciation’. Dinners under Jefferson were said to be lavish affairs with guests encouraged to help themselves to the wine bottles and decanters placed strategically near them. He also drank and stocked the cellars with an astonishing diversity of wine, whites and reds, dry and sweet, from Portugal, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Hungary. During his eight years in the White House, he bought more than 20,000 bottles of wine!

There are so many amusing little snippets. James Madison said, ‘If you drink too much [champagne], it will make you hop like the cork.’ John Quincy Adams was an insufferable wine snob but Andrew Jackson’s state events ended in drunken brawls. William Henry Harrison was a teetotaller who dropped dead 32 days into the presidency and James Polk served rosé champagne, sherry, hock, madeira, port and Sauternes all at the same time to his guests, the glasses, according to one diner, forming ‘a rainbow round each plate’. Ulysses Grant was profligate – the champagne bill for one of his dinners was $1,800 ($35,230 in 2020 dollars) – and Theodore Roosevelt filed suit against a small Michigan newspaper who accused him of getting drunk (the editor lost the case).

It is a great irony that Woodrow Wilson enjoyed wine, as it was under his watch that Prohibition arrived. He got special permission from the Prohibition commissioner to move his personal wine collection from the White House when he left office, because it was at that time illegal to transport alcohol. Even more ironic, and ethically questionable, is that during the dark days of Prohibition, which destroyed so many livelihoods, President Harding served alcohol thriftlessly at the White House.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who first introduced the notion of serving only American wines at state dinners, but one guest was not impressed: ‘the champagne was undrinkable’, he complained bitterly. Winston Churchill, however, got around her rules. White House butler Alonzo Fields reports that he was served a tumbler of sherry for breakfast, scotch and soda for lunch, champagne for dinner, brandy after dinner, then more scotch and soda…

‘Pulling a Nixon’ came from Nixon’s practice of having a specially designated wine waiter pour him first-growth bordeaux while the rest of his guests were served more ordinary wines. At John F Kennedy’s dinners, the champagne flowed ‘like the Potomac in flood, the President himself was opening bottle after bottle in a manner that sent the foam flying over the furniture’.

Clinton was the first to employ a wine professional on the staff. Daniel Shanks continued to serve under several administrations and he contributes a chapter to the book, giving his insights into his job over the years, from the diplomacy required, to religious sensitivities, sourcing and food pairing. It was Shanks who persuaded the White House to offer the option of red wine during receptions – previously banned because of the risk of spills and stains on priceless furniture. ‘We quickly found that the damage was minimal.’ He comments that although two of the presidents he served were teetotal and two drank sparingly, ‘the first ladies I served enjoyed wine with meals, often preferring wines with character and depth’. Go girls!

There is a full transcript of Jefferson’s 1793 letter to wine merchant Henry Sheaff, who’d asked for advice on quality, sources and prices of top European wines. It is absolutely fascinating. It was, even back then, difficult to get your hands on ‘Chateau-Margau, Tour de Degur, Hautbrion, and de la Fite’ – not only were they expensive, but Jefferson was convinced that the French négociants relied on American ignorance and after getting them to pay a whacking great ‘3 livres a bottle’, then sent out inferior wine re-packaged as the top stuff. He strongly recommends ‘Johansberg’ over Hock and a Brownberg Moselle.

Going all the way up to the very latest presidents, we're told that Obama was proudly a beer man who brewed his own White House Honey Brown Ale. It was Michelle Obama who was the oenophile, even hosting wine tastings at the White House for her close friends. Obama was, however, the first president to serve a Chinese rice wine – at a state dinner in honour of President Xi Jinping.

The irony that teetotal Trump is the first US president to own an operating commercial winery is not lost on anyone, but it was interesting to find out that Melania Trump enjoys wine and has a pretty discerning palate. Ryan also notes that she has consistently served wines that showcase the best of America, while managing to skilfully balance France's heritage and America's vinicultural success.

Jefferson built a specially designated wine cellar, ‘sixteen feet under ground’, which was cooled by giant blocks of ice, but I was quite shocked to find out that for the last 70-odd years the White House has nothing more than a modest storage space next to the kitchen, big enough for 300 bottles. I hope it’s temperature controlled nowadays. Ryan didn’t say.

It’s evident from the photos and Ryan’s account of glassware that some beautiful antique pieces now form the White House collection (he notes that the glassware was chosen for aesthetics and fashion over functionality), but modern presidents rely on catering services as there hasn’t been a State Service glassware purchase since the Kennedys bought a machine-blown set at $11.60 a dozen in 1961. Jancis, there’s a sales opportunity right there!

The chapter on presidential toasts was also unexpectedly interesting. There is quite a history there, along with a collection of sometimes very quotable presidential quotes. After a brief toasting ban in 1634 (it was considered to encourage excessive drinking) and by the end of the Revolutionary War, it was traditional for the White House to include 13 toasts for the 13 states. Ceremonial toasts eventually became a bit of an art form, considered best when pithy and warm. I was most amused to read that the unspoken rule of brief toasts was broken by Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, who managed a 20-minute ‘summary of his nation’s foreign policy positions’ and Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josip Broz Tito who spent 40 minutes describing his views on international politics. There is now a three-minute rule imposed by the State Department.

But one of the gems of the book is chapter six: more than 100 menus from state dinners, spanning more than 100 years. It’s just a representative collection, cautions Ryan, but it is a riveting read! Through the pages, one can track changing fashions for food and wine, changing budgets, diplomacy at work, personalities of the presidents. As Ryan comments drily, ‘some of the wines were selected to please the guests and some to please the president’.

‘755 COCKTAILS (LEE DR.RM) 820 DINNER (20)’ were the pencilled scrawls on a 1950 dinner with President Truman at Blair House, held while the White House was being refurbished. After the dessert, at the bottom of the plain, typed menu, next to the typed words, ‘Nuts  Candies  Demi-Tasse  Liqueurs  Cocktails  Canapés’, there is another handwritten note: ‘MEN AT TABLE, LADIES BLAIR REAR. OLD-FASHIONEDS – MARTINIS – TOMATO JUICE’. On a menu where Winston Churchill was a guest, ‘Champagne!’ was written in pencil next to the main course.

More and more American wines appear on the menu cards as time goes by but I see that in 1970, Nixon had Bernkasteler Doktor 1967 for the cold salmon starter, Ch Margaux 1959 for the pigeon main course, and Taittinger Blanc de Blancs 1961 for the cheese and soufflé dessert. Nothing American about those choices!

This is a superb book. It’s a joy to look at, but if you have even a prickle of curiosity about going behind the scenes to see how wine has entwined with American history and politics, and a little insider’s glimpse into the personalities of power, you will be thrilled by this.

Drive Through Napa by Huda et al book cover

Drive Through Napa
Your ultimate companion to Napa Valley’s wine regions
Paul Hodgins, Kathy Lajvardi, Naushad Huda
I Like This Grape
ISBN 9780578451619
£16, $20

Paul = author; Kathy = designer; Naushad = editor. That’s what the very big print on the first page told me. Naushad Huda (husband of Kathy) describes himself as a ‘Product & Brand Strategist’ on LinkedIn and a strategy consultant on I like this grape, a website he founded ‘to innovate and evolve the industry’. Paul Hodgins teaches journalism and has been writing about wine for 15 years. Kathy Lajvardi (wife of Naushad) is an artist and designer who includes Madonna and Beyoncé in her list of past clients.

Apparently, when they started this project, Napa AVAs were ‘surprisingly under-analyzed’. So they resorted to ‘good old journalism’ to write the book. (Difficult, I’d tentatively suggest, to write a good book without ‘good old journalism’, which I take for some kind of shorthand for proper research.) The book is apparently written with millennials in mind, although what that really means, I don’t know – let’s take it that if you’re anywhere between 25 and 40, this book is especially for you. The rest of us should stick to the uncool books.

And it must be said, the design of the book is cool. Lots of white space. Neat, clever graphics. Funky lines and arrows. Basic maps. And Big Print. This is a book of BIG, BIG font. No colour. No pictures. No photos. (Too Gen X?)

It starts with a brief introduction to California and a history and overview of Napa. Then, travelling from south to north, each of the 16 Napa AVAs get a dedicated chapter. The information provided is basic: super-snappy details on climate, elevation, rainfall, soils and grape varieties with a teaspoon of background and history. Some of the AVAs are accompanied by a Q&A interview with a local winemaker/owner. They’ve also included a price-to-rating bar chart taken from Vivino data.

Perhaps it’s because I’m Gen X, but I don’t really get the book. ‘Drive Through’ implies it’s meant to be a guide to visiting the region. Or so I’d have thought. And yet, bar a list of some of the wineries found in each AVA, there is not a single piece of information that makes this usable as a guide. No contact details, no winery websites, no visiting hours. No recommendations for which wineries are worth visiting or which wineries even take visitors. The wineries are not marked on the maps, so the maps are effectively useless – unless, of course, you’re simply driving through and not stopping at all.

The Vivino price-to-rating bar charts are basically meaningless. They show that Vivino users score more expensive wines more highly. That’s hardly a revelation. They don’t tell you anything more than that.

The information is high level, simplistic, easy to absorb. An armchair guide to Napa for beginners where design has triumphed over function.