Review: A new, small book from Jancis

 

Jancis Robinson, “the most respected wine critic in the world” according to the cover of her new book, goes the route of brevity in this, our Twitter-addled world. “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” was just published by Abrams, a small house publisher specializing in art, photography and fashion. The book itself is small and thin, deliberately designed for easy-breezy reading.

For the beginner crowd—and, Lord knows, we love you, you are the future—“24” is a pretty good read. More experienced winos won’t find anything new in it, but let’s give Jancis credit for reinventing her brand for one, or even two, new generations who may not know of her renown but are about to discover it.

It’s a good, useful book, but I do have some gripes, and that is Jancis’s tendency, like that of so many world-famous wine writers, to stick with the same old famous names, a safely conservative but unsurprising and all-too-predictable practice that is a constant challenge for wine writers to avoid, if for no other reason than to show that they’re not stuck in some dusty old niche. Jancis has a category called “bottles to knock socks off,” presumably showoff wines. These are for your “label drinkers.” They are the classic illustration of the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” People who clamor for these wines have just enough knowledge to pass themselves off as experts, but beyond that, there’s not much going on. Every once in a while they memorize another famous name, because some critic they love said so, and so it goes onto the “socks-knocking” list.

Here are Jancis’s “bottles to knock socks off” from California. These are the only nine California wineries she includes: Arnot Roberts, Au Bon Climat, Corison, DuMol, Frog’s Leap, Littorai, Rhys, Ridge and Spotteswoode. An eclectic list to be sure; one might add others to it. Jancis has also two lists whose relationship offers perhaps a glimpse into her attitude towards Napa Valley: the first, “Twenty heart-stopping (and bank-breaking) wines,” includes nothing from California. The second, “Some overpriced wines,” includes “California’s cult Cabernets.”

“The 24-Hour Wine Expert” is ultimately a useful little book, a sort of stocking-stuffer for a holiday gift for that budding wine aficionado who’s probably younger and just starting out to explore the world’s most fascinating beverage. Experts will glance at it if for no other reason than to check out what Jancis, “the most respected wine critic in the world,” is up to.

Does a grower’s personality enter into the wine?

 

In our ongoing attempt to understand terroir, or cru–the sum total of influences upon the character and quality of a wine—we now come across the statement by Eric Lebel. He is (or was, when Champagne, Uncorked was published, earlier this year), the Chef de Cave, or cellarmaster, at Krug Champagne.

The book’s author, Alan Tardi, interviewed him extensively; Tardi wanted to know in particular what makes for the highest quality in a Champagne. Lebel told him this: “For Krug, it all begins here, in the vineyards…by carefully selecting the specific parcels we want, those that produce high quality, yes, of course, but also high personality. The character of the grapes from the individual parcels, and the characters of the individuals that grow them, are preserved by this approach, and all of them will eventually turn up to play their part in the wine.”

“The characters of the individuals that grow them…in the wine.”  Wow. Really? Krug buys many of its grapes from local growers, some of whom are portrayed in Tardi’s book: Gerard Moreau, taciturn, “solid, like the earth.” Robert Blanc, “gregarious, extraverted, the complete opposite of Gerard Moreau,” and others. Each sells fruit to Lebel, “and this is a big part of where complexity comes from,” Lebel tells Tardi; “this mix of personalities contributes as much to the [Krug] Grande Cuvée as the meteorological events of the season or the terroir where the grapes are grown.”

When I read these words I had to put down the book, rub my eyes and think. Grower personality as important as weather and soil? Sacre bleu! It’s not just that each grower takes a different approach to his viticulture; in fact, it’s not even clear that they do. By and large, growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne is all about beating the climate and coming up with a good, clean crop. But here is Lebel stating, as fact, that somehow, beyond all measurable weather and soil conditions or physical practices in the vineyard, the personality or soul of the grower finds its way into the final wine.

This is an exceptionally curious and provocative thing to say. How does the “personality” of a grapegrower enter into the wine? Can it really be as important as chalk? We are talking about sheer mystery…the inexplicable. It would be easy to dismiss this as humbug, except that Lebel has a great deal of credibility. One has to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea if Moreau’s earthiness or Blanc’s gregariousness actually play a role in what I experience when I drink Krug Grande Cuvée (which I wish I could more often). But I really, really like the thought that, somehow, these gentlemen’s spirits are in the wine. That is about the most romantic thing I’ve heard in a long time–and what is great wine, if not romantic?

Have a lovely weekend, and if you can, drink Champagne!

A new wine book, and some 23-year old predictions

 

Every wine writer eventually has to make the Big Decision: How deep into the tall weeds of technicalities do you want to go?

I’m talking about everything from solar radiation and new vineyard roping systems to row spacing, different types of trellising, spraying, leaf pulling, clones, rootstocks, the chemical properties of grapes and wines, the details of carbonic maceration, cold soaking, skin contact, yeasts—and I’m just getting started! After all, this is why students spend years at V&E school.

Some writers are naturally attuned to these things and actually get a pretty good handle on them, but most don’t. I’m in the latter camp. I know a lot about wine tasting, history and California, but I’ve largely avoided tackling that university-level stuff any more than I had to—as I suspect most writers have. You can get by quite well with a minimum of knowledge in this business, although it does help to have some technical books on your shelves to look stuff up if you really need to know.

I do have a couple books, but recently a publishing company sent me a book I wished I’d always had: The Business of Winemaking, by Jeffrey L. Lamy (Board and Bench Publishing, San Francisco). Lamy, who just died, was an Oregonian with deep roots in the wine business; his hard-cover book is really an indispensable guide to wine writers. Want more information on the distribution system, phylloxera, different kinds of tanks? Look it up in the index. This may not be a book to read yourself to sleep at night, but it is the best source of technical information I’ve seen.

************

And, on a different topic, I was doing some Spring cleaning and there in my bookshelf I found the June, 1993 issue of Decanter with the cover story, “What Will You Be Drinking in the Year 2000?” Being a Baby Boomer who was told (by the experts) that by the year 2000 we’d all be using our personal jet-packs to travel, I have an irresistible urge to see how wrong prognostications can be. So what did Decanter say?

Well, they had a bunch of different people make predictions. Here are some of the ones that weren’t quite accurate. I won’t name names, but they are (or were, in 1993) some of the biggest names in the business). One pundit said that Eastern Europe would offer the best value for the money. Didn’t happen, at least not here in the States (although, who knows, maybe it will someday). The same pundit predicted that Bordeaux and Burgundy would be “finished” and would be “buried.” That didn’t happen either. Two very famous personalities said that Cabernet Sauvignon’s position would be challenged by Syrah and Merlot. Wow. Talk about wrong.

A number of the pundits predicted that China would “develop dramatically” by 2000. I don’t claim to have much knowledge of Chinese wine, but I don’t think that in 2000 there was much going on there, quality-wise. Maybe there is today.

One interesting question was whether Champagne would continue to be the world’s best sparkling wine. Some (Hugh Johnson) said yes. But some people predicted that other regions (Australia, California, South Africa, Chile, Moldova) would rival Champagne. I, personally, think Champagne still beats California, but the best of California (hello Schramsberg) is pretty darned good.

Anyhow, it just shows to go that even the smartest people don’t have crystal balls.