As promised for the New Year, we are committed to broadening our discussion on wine beyond Spain and Portugal. One way we’re attempting to do this is by both contributing to Dr. Debs Wine Book Club and by doing a little research on our own as we find books of interest to us. And fortunately, our new plan couldn’t have come a moment too soon considering that my father-in-law was kind enough to surprise me over the holidays with Natalie MacLean’s book, “Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.”
Cracking open the book in Norway next to a roaring hot fire, which are much needed on those cold blistery days; I was reminded how much I enjoy holding a physical book in my hand. It’s funny how often you forget that these objects exist when information is so readily available at click of a mouse.
The book is broken down into eleven chapters, two of which are solely dedicated Natalie’s observations as to how she both entered the wine world and what she intends on doing now that book is finished. Both sections are a fun read, but don’t compare to the meat of her story which describe her roaming adventures through wineries, vineyards, cellars, restaurants, retails shops, wine tastings and interviews.
But before I comment on my impressions, allow me to give you a general overview of what you’ll encounter when reading this book. Natalie begins her journey in Burgundy, where she uncovers some of her deep resounding questions about Pinot Noir and its relationship to some of the most coveted wines in the world through her conversations with Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and Domaine Leroy. She then heads west to Sonoma Valley where she learns the back-breaking work of harvesting grapes (something I’m still dying to experience) with Seghesio Family Vineyards and later with the radical winemaker, Randall Graham (a man for whom I adore). In Champagne, she visits some of the most prestigious cellars in the world, conversing with legends such as the grand dame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin of Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommeroy of Les Clayeres. This is such a great chapter as she describes what its like to manually disgorge a bottle of champagne, while promptly humiliating herself in the process. She uses the hotly debated and contentious critique of the 2003 Pavie between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson to evaluate the effectiveness and future of power dominating wine critics. Comparing two retail shops in the heart of San Francisco, Natalie ties on her sales apron to uncover some of the truths and misconceptions in the retail wine trade – an intriguing chapter when considering the current issues with wine.com. She conducts an interview with the novelist, Jay McInerney (someone I was oblivious to before this book), followed by a discussion on tasting wine, while hosting an informal wine tasting in her own home. And finally, she suits up as a sommelier in Quebec at the award winning restaurant, Le Baccara, where she offers her take the current state of wine service, wine menus and knowledge held by your average customer.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, simply because you’re taking the journey with her, rather than feeling like a student in a wine seminar. You’re walking in the fields getting your own boots wet and heavy with mud. You feel her frustration when she’s incapable of reading cultural cues and her elation when meeting some of her most revered wine professionals in the world. And along the way, you will never stray far from her detailed and sultry descriptions of her undying passion for wine of any color, style or variety:
“I moistened my lips with the wine and drank it slowly, letting it coat my tongue and slide from one side of my mouth to the other. The brunello trickled down my throat and out along a thousand fault lines through my body, dissolving them.”
Sound like a Daniel Steel novel? In many ways, it is, but you’d have to throw in a touch of Jancis Robinson, a dash of Stephen Colbert and a sprinkling of MFK Fischer. Her style is witty, challenging, intelligent, and at times, completely bizarre – using such descriptive and involved metaphors, I found it difficult to stay on track. But by half way through the book, I succumbed to her style, figuring that to meet this woman in person must be thoroughly entertaining.
Living in an Iberian wine bubble, the book also brought to light issues outside of my everyday realm that excited me. Topics such as: Will Champagne eventually lose its stronghold among less expensive, quality sparkling wines of Spain, Australia, California or Germany? Should wine shops be organized by region, flavor profile, cuisine, etc.? Does it really matter, and how could we apply these same “radical” ideas of wine store management to wine stores here in Spain or Portugal? As we push for less prestige and haughtiness from US retailers, begging for the simple “hello” principle, should consumers carry those same expectations to a wine retailers in Spain? What should customers be wary about when ordering wine from a restaurant? How can they be better prepared? And do these standards change from one country to the next? How do you help a newbie face a wine menu larger than a phone book as they pass out from performance anxiety? Do men and woman approach both wine menus and wine shopping differently? Must a tasting note have some correlation to everyone’s reality, or can it be something that is suited solely for your tastes? For example, can we say that a Chilean malbec is a “Hooters dancer in a bikini top – ripe, lush and ready to be consumed” or have we strayed way off the mark as to what you can relate to?
These questions challenge me to go out and get more personal with wine retailers and restaurants in Spain and Portugal. It makes me wonder if I am describing wine effectively, or if I need to make adjustments to style. It also forces me to consider if we’ve done a decent job preparing you to enter an Iberian wine shop or restaurant well armed.
In short, I like it and felt it was entertaining and extremely thought provoking. Now maybe in part this relates to my world being slightly sheltered here on the peninsula, but I have faith you’ll grab some truth from the pages. If you’ve read it, please let me know what you think. If not, you can pick it up through Catavino, informing us of your impressions when you’ve finished the book.