Vignette – book review

Vignette by Jane Lopes cover

26 December 2019 Rather late in the day (today, Boxing Day, is a bank holiday in the UK), we're republishing this book review free as it is of one of Tam's favourite books this season. See this guide to our book reviews.

9 December 2019 Top sommelier Jane Lopes writes a book on wine, the life of a sommelier and, surprisingly, love.

Stories of life and wine in 100 bottles 
Jane Lopes 
Published by Hardy Grant Books 
ISBN 9781743795323 

Vignette: Pronunciation: /vɪˈnjɛt/
1 a brief evocative description, account, or episode.
2 a small, graceful literary sketch.
3 a small illustration or portrait photograph which fades into its background without a definite border.
4 a decorative design or small illustration used on the title page of a book or at the beginning or end of a chapter.
5 any small, pleasing picture or view.
1 Portray (someone) in the style of a vignette.
1.1 Finish (a picture) in the style of a vignette by cropping, shaping, softening or shading away the edges of the subject.
Late Middle English: from French, diminutive of vigne 'vine'. Literally, little vine.

This could – so nearly – be the book review for Vignette.

Titles, in the wine-book genre, are invariably prosaic. Functional over beautiful, plain over manifold, obvious over clever. Jane Lopes defies that convention. But then, as I’ve realised reading her book, Jane Lopes defies many conventions.

Most of you will be surprised to realise that you already know a bit about her. She was one of the 23 Master Sommeliers stripped of their title in the appallingly managed scandal in October 2018. She has (courageously, in my opinion) refused to re-sit the exam, maintaining that the process of investigation and subsequent decision of the Court of Master Sommeliers was deeply flawed. (Controversially, she took a lawyer into her hearing.)

Born in Napa, armed with a degree in Renaissance literature from the University of Chicago, Lopes took a gap-year job in a wine shop and 10 years later she was on the other side of the world, wine director for Australia’s best restaurant, Attica. A year after that she passed her Master Sommelier exam. In between she’d worked at Nashville’s edgy The Catbird Seat and Eleven Madison Park in New York, widely acclaimed as one of the world’s best restaurants.

Jane Lopes author sommelier

So, you think: here is another top sommelier writing another very good book about great wines to drink before you die – the ‘100 bottles’ mentioned in the title says it all.

But it doesn’t. Between the covers lies one of the most spellbinding wine books I have ever read.

Lopes describes it as ‘part memoir and part wine book’. Of the 100 bottles she writes, ‘by no means are these choices designed to be “the best” or “my favourites” … but rather a list of 100 bottles to live with, learn from, and find your truth in. It’s the starting point, not the ending point. The list is designed to give a holistic view of the world of wine: if you were to drink each bottle on the list, you would have a nearly complete education on the flavors, weights, textures, and emotions that exist in a bottle of wine.’

It’s a gloriously eclectic list which includes, in true Jane Lopes style, beer, spirits, amaro and liqueurs. Yes, it starts with champagne (Krug Grande Cuvée) and there is predictability in Ch d’Yquem and Vincent Dauvissat, Les Clos Chablis Grand Cru. But she also recommends a Cava, a £12 Chianti, and a £13 Lambrusco. Many suggestions come in under £30 a bottle.

The bottles, however, are not the story. They are the inks into which she dips her pen and sketches her vignettes.

And this is where it gets complicated – in a wonderful, dioramic, lenticular way.

At its most basic, Vignette is 100 great beverages to learn from and enjoy.

Tying these bottles together is the story of Jane Lopes’ road to becoming a Master Sommelier. Interesting enough, but frankly made more gripping in the light of the MS exam debacle in 2018.

Woven into these two is the richly coloured third thread: Vignette educates. It brims with a sweeping breadth of information that yet manages to deliver depth in small but intense and exquisitely designed sketches, graphs, maps, tables, games and diagrams which, appropriately for a vignette, fit the definition of a ‘small illustration used at the … end of a chapter’. Lopes delivers knowledge in the way that the best teachers do: provoking you to think differently, to look at things in unexpected ways, to have fun.

The fourth thread, dark against the golden success and glamorous wines of sommeliers at the top of their game, is confessional. With brutally raw honesty, Lopes puts herself under scrutiny and talks about her battles with mental health; her addiction to benzodiazepines; the physical impact of gruelling hours and alcohol-fuelled work, study and play; the high cost (financial and otherwise) of the MS studies.

And there is a fifth thread. Running silver through the shadows and the glory. This is a love story. A real love story, with all the mess and misunderstanding, stalling and slip-ups and tears and glory that entails. It’s a love story between two people (yes, dear reader, she married him), it’s a love story to wine, it’s a love story to life, to triumph in adversity, and a love story to the small, meaningful things.

Lopes has cleverly used wine to write the stories of her life and the stories of her life to teach about wine.

When she bombs her final mock-exam tasting scenario, calling Condrieu as Hunter Semillon, her chapter is on Rhône Valley whites – her chosen wines are Chapoutier’s Chante-Alouette Hermitage Blanc, George Vernay’s Coteau de Vernon Condrieu and Ch Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. She finished that chapter with a table on the white grapes of the Rhône, their characteristics, where they’re found and a premium and value example of each.

Botrytis is explained via her cat, Bo (short for, you guessed it…) in a series of print-worthy feline sketches. Alto Adige whites bookend the chapter on the unglamorous reality of wine trips, and her gift here is the Italian whites that pair with difficult foods – the most useful wine–food pairing table I have in my possession. When she loses someone she loves to alcoholism, the chapter is on vodka.

She classifies Napa reds along the lines of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, based on price and reputation; draws a family tree for American whiskey; creates a colour graphics chart for the styles of modern and traditional Barolo based on axes of maceration and oak, and maps key producers onto it.

All of this could not have been done without illustrator Robin Cowcher. His beautiful, brilliantly clever, light-touch, precisely careless artwork is so alive and buzzing with energy that it glows. It’s gleeful when it needs to be. But there are also times when it reflects Lopes’s sadness and desperation, when it looks as through the paint is bleeding, as if the colours have been blotched with drunken tears.

Robin Cowcher's sketch of Napa in Vignette

This was a risky book to write. There is always a fine line between raw and vulnerable, and maudlin and self-indulgent. This is magnified when your job is high profile and strangers will meet you who will now know that there were days you were so anxious and Klonopin-addled that you couldn’t get out of bed. That level of honesty, mixed freely with alcohol, acclaimed restaurants, a pre-eminent and revered institution and well-known sommeliers, could so easily backfire. (Perhaps it even has, in some circles.)

But I think Jane Lopes has pulled it off. There is no self-pity, no self-victimisation, no martyrdom. She’s not trying to be a hero, warn others off or provide a life lesson. She writes with dispassionate, rational clarity, often with a kind of wry, dry, black humour. She pokes fun at herself. There is not a shred of arrogance. She looks for the beauty in the dark, for the moments of redemption. She relishes irony and moves forward with iron discipline. She writes with humility and grace and a real love for what she does. She has the mind of an academic, a teacher, a poet.

I loved this book, with its hidden depths and surprising turns, sense of fun and deep poignancy, its daring creativity, defiance and lucent insight. The Court of Master Sommeliers may well have rejected one of their finest, but she outshines their shadow.

And if you ever read a tasting note of mine that says, ‘it’s like eating lemon pearls folded into crème brûlée’, then you know I’ve stolen that line from Jane Lopes.