Researching and writing a book about people who work with wine changed my life. I plunged into stories about grapes and geography, filled the fridge with quirky and classic vintages, and marveled when the world’s geography of taste expanded. I sipped wine made by colorful characters in locations odder than any pea green boat ever aimed for: a countryside resembling Hawaii in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; a land where people mount wooden phallus symbols over their doors; an unexpected locale in rural farmland Missouri producing wine that would make you marvel.
During the past six years I’ve read ample books and articles on wine, and found that the quality of some literary ‘vintages’ surpasses others. I enjoyed Wall Street Journal pieces written by Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher because their approach is simple – decide for yourself what you like, experiment with new wines, and scrap decanting to let wines ‘breathe’ in the glass instead, changing character while they do.
It’s a challenge to write about wine and hold readers’ attention. Writers can only prattle on so much about the taste of cherries or chalky soil, or the whiff of Montecristo cigar smoke or leather saddles they sniff in a glass. Sure, readers want delight and descriptions they can relate to, but also need hard facts and edgy anecdotes to keep them turning pages. Reading about winery dogs and chateau owners and the rise of prices in Burgundy will only holds readers attention if – like good wine – the elements of each essay are fresh, memorable, and coherent.
Wine books cover several genres. These include relocation tales about those who shucked professions and moved to France or California or New Mexico to try their hand at producing wine. There are wine detective stories – fiction and non-fiction – about thieves and looters and swindlers seeking fortunes, usually through deceit related to labels or provenance. There are compendiums and atlases and instruction manuals about how to swirl and taste and purchase wine.
My favorite wine author is Gerald Asher. The writing in his books A Vineyard in My Glass, or A Carafe of Red, is rich and fluid, and his grasp of subtleties associated with interplays between geology, geography, climate, and grapes is immense. Asher can drop a casual sentence that encapsulates assessment and analysis garnered during decades of personal experience exploring the wine world, but which also includes essentially the distillate of an entire college course on viticulture or wine making.
Choose any of Asher’s essays and select random paragraphs. He recounts slivers of medieval and ancient history with ease in writing that, like good wine, is complex yet intimate and enjoyable.
Asher, who never indulges himself to be a privileged bon vivant, is – above all – optimistic. In his essay titled Roussillon – Sunlight in a Bottle [from the book A Vineyard in My Glass; 2011], he writes:
“Those are the colors of Roussillon’s wines, too…sunlight preserved in a form most likely to be of comfort to us at this time of year. In fact, a rib roast and a carafe of Côtes du Roussillon Villages followed by mince pie with a glass of old Rivesaltes should be reassurance enough for even the most skeptical that the world will indeed go on turning and that the sun will go on shining.”
I enjoy wine writings from Eric Asimov, Lettie Teague, Jay McInerney, and even the dynamic confidence Robert Parker injects in his tasting notes. Choose whoever you like, but for less than the cost of a decent bottle of wine, I suggest you invest in a book by Asher.