Wine-Swigging Rednecks Battle With Hired Guns in Two New Books

The cover jacket of "Reading Between the Wines" by Terry Theise. Source: California Press via Bloomberg

The barrage of inane glossy books about matching wines to every imaginable food seems to have ceased this season. Instead there are two books that inject some much-needed sense and historical perspective in the face of the rapidly changing way in which wines are made, marketed, shipped and sold around the world.

They are not massive tomes. Like most of the best wine writing, Terry Thiese’s new “Reading between the Wines” (University of California Press, 189 pages, $24.95) is a small, personal book that can be read in an evening with a bottle alongside. Thiese is an importer of Champagnes and Austrian and German wines, so he knows how the market works: the brandishing of scores on a 100-point scale, as if there was any difference between a 92 and a 95, when 70 or so wines are tasted and spat out in the same morning.

“The most successful wine isn’t always the one with the highest score, it is the one the tasters reach for to drink after the tasting,” he reminds us. “‘The best wine is the first one emptied,’ is a wise proverb.”

Thiese is a true wine writer, not a compiler of notes and numbers, so he can extol the character and nuances of a wine in a way that the oenophile can really appreciate. As he says himself: “I’d far rather read the genial musings of a humane spirit mulling over the little nimbus between his soul and the wine in the glass than to see how many arcane adjectives some anal geek can string together.”

California Cults

He is as shocked as any reasonable person should be at California cult wines that bound into the market with no prior history, recalling how a wine salesman whose dream was to make wine went out and bought grapes, had them “custom-crushed” for him by a “hired gun” winemaker out of U.C. Davis, then offered the finished wine for $125, at which time, writes Thiese, “I knew the world had gone mad.”

Thiese reminds us how certain wines are inextricably linked to human emotions and memories -- the day a child was born, the night a father died -- and he remains staunchly catholic in his belief that, “There are no ‘invalid’ moments of pleasure in wine,” only higher and lower pleasures. “It’s good to stay in touch with your inner redneck, or you risk your taste becoming precious.” Thiese is a man I’d like to drink with. Any wine.

I have happily drunk wine with Matt Kramer, whose new collection of essays fills “Matt Kramer on Wine” (Sterling Epicure, 334 pages, $19.95). The cover line calls him America’s most “Lucid Wine Writer,” and I’m good with that.

Becoming a Geek

Kramer is a columnist for Wine Spectator Magazine and loves nothing more than to puncture the pretensions of the same kind of wine writing Thiese deplores. Kramer even has a hilarious essay on an imaginary visit to his doctor, telling him, “This is gonna be a little difficult to explain...I’m afraid that I’m becoming a geek” and confessing his anxieties about wondering what’s the right glass for various cru Beaujolais.

In fact, Kramer is never anything less than good fun to read, even when he’s being highly critical. He characterizes the salivating human response to wines with the deepest color, most attractive nose, and scent as the “Low-Cut Dress Syndrome.” He skewers California winemakers who contend it’s a “good thing” to drive alcohol content in their wines up to 17 percent (“about the limit of what a yeast can ferment before it dies from alcohol toxicity”), then “water back” the juice -- “jargon for taking a garden hose and pumping water into the vat” to dilute it to a still-high 15.5 percent.

Soul of Wine

He takes on the manipulators who use lab techniques like reverse osmosis and microoxygenation, saying it de-humanizes the wine, comparing it to a Tour de France rider using performance- enhancing drugs. “Want proof?” asks Kramer. “Recall (if you can) the taste of real cream compared with today’s ubiquitous ultrapasteurized versions.”

Kramer wrote in 2001: “We’re at a crossroads. The fight for the soul of wine has begun.”

The battle was joined by many of his colleagues, including myself, who believe that a passion for tradition is not the same thing as nostalgia. With Kramer on the front lines, we have a good shot at pushing back the forces for whom wine is just a commodity to be rated and priced by numbers.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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