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Saturday night. The wind stopped, as did the rain and I pulled up to the bar at i Trulli on 26th Street. My first glass, a very appealing '07 Pelaverga from Castello di Verduno. Birthday dinner, not mine, ensued. Delicious dinner. Risotto-toothsome, perfect, under an icing of black truffles, what can be bad? Panelle, creamy, more like polenta, atop a very epplant and cracking fresh caponata. The other two had whatevers. They're not really about wine geekery so I chose the $56 safe bet, the Barbera from Castello (as the guest of honor was not as charmed as I by the Pela.) The first bottle went down and then my friend called in another. I twitched. But it was too late, the Barbera arrived, uncorked, poured and I found myself going through the chore, the chore of drinking. I drank and then I found myself thinking, why does wine matter? Why was I drinking just because another bottle was brought to the table. And why did THAT wine matter? Though I liked it, it just didn't have the levity or the gravitas to keep me going. I didn't want to drink. I was bored.
And so I stopped. I walked home, utterly stuffed with food but still thought about a spot of Madeira. As I went to sleep, I felt as if I had lost my identity. Who was I if wine didn't matter? Perhaps the meaning was buried in the pile of books next to my bed. So, I got up after an hour or two of slumber and one nightmare and did some digging into the problem in search of a solution. This is a book for those of us who were precocious children or wish we were, and grew up to sneak cases of wine into the apartment. Salutations to Grahm who still has the energy to show off (such as Grahm's reinvention of Finnegan's Wake to suit his own purposes). Randall Grahm, the Richard Forman of wine literature? Encased in verbosity, sometimes difficult, always charming and rushing with creativity, is the Grahm brain. I found myself happy for the opportunity to crawl into his psyche and experience how it tinkers and toys. Even with the flash there is substance. Within the let- me- dazzle -you -with-my- tap -dance, the book delivers moments, passages and themes that made me take out the stickies. In the last section, Earnest Speeches and Sober Essays, he calms down, stops breaking that fourth wall, the reading is worth the price of admission. These essays are earnest and sober as advertised. Particularly edifying and perhaps should be required of all UC Davis School of Enology staff and students is the chapter entitled, How I Overcame My UC Davis Education, which has a list of 32 points he wishes someone would have taught him including #3:Merlot actually does pretty much suck--and it's not particularly soft. #6- Absence of defect in wine does not necessarily equate to the presence of quality. There is plenty to be mined here, but pages 279-308 are for me, the books epicenter. Alas, the answer to my problem--why wine matters-- wasn't in those pages. But a true talmudist, he knows the question is far more important than the answer. And I'll follow that kind of person anywhere. Then we come to Jonathan Nossiter's Liquid Memory. Michael Steinberger wrote the review we all don't want to read about ourselves. Mike's article
I too found Nossiter's book tiresome. I had this feeling the author was waiting in ambush; looking for opportunities to burst out of the curtain to shout, "caught you!" But worse, it was just a difficult read with little pay off for the effort. I did come away with belief in his respect for Charlotte Rampling, and that he sees Dominque Lafon as a paragon winemaker. As in his film, Mondovino, I am still surprised by his seemingly lack of awareness of the 'natural' wine movement. It would seem as if he would find something relevant here, especially as his book has a message about why wine matters.
However, I remain indebted to Nossiter. He was the person I first heard use 'cynical' in regards to wine. The year was about 1998 or so. Obviously he, who lived around the corner from me at the time, had an effect. I wish the book had more of one as well. I was no closer to a truth of why wine mattered after I finished than when I began. It might be that he is a better film maker than a writer of prose, but problematic at the book's core is that Nossiter had no questions to ask, there was no curiosity and therefore neither did I.
(For another take, another point of view, head to Ken Payton's 3 part interview with Nossiter This all brings me to a thirst for wine literature and that's why I have dug out two gems by Patrick Matthews. Patrick Matthews has decided that a falafel business in England is more profitable than a wine writing life. HE'S CORRECT. (And I am currently looking for my own personal falafel. ) In looking down alternate roads to fulfillment, he has probably found out that yes, sure wine might matter, but stopped trying to find out why. He searched for the grail in two fabulous books, and now, it's about chickpeas. The Wild Bunch, Great Wines from Small Producers (1997) and Real Wine, the Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking (2000) Haven't read either? Then correct your ways. While the Wild Bunch, really should be called Real Wine and Real Wine (mostly based in California) something else it matters not. These two should be the classics next to your copy of Adventures on the Wine Route. Oh, put them in even higher esteem than the Lynch book, because Matthews' are purer, they had nothing to sell and plenty to communicate. They are even more interesting to me now then on the first read, about a decade ago. Modern New and Old World winemaking are brought into historical perspective. There are tales from the beginnings of vin naturel, and Dard & Ribo and wines that couldn't even make it back to London without going dodgy. Unlike Nossiter, Matthews is devoid of snark. Unlike Grahm he is devoid of the room full of coo-coos and Deus ex Machina booming voices, or rubber ducks and flashing numbers. He delivers all with an even hand; Guy Accad, the wine consultant who screwed up Burgundy with his quest for color and fruit, discussion of sulfur (mechanical harvesting makes sulfur indispensible) cold fermentation, Chauvet and even the history and problem with clones. Years ago when I read Natural Wine I was more dismissive. I suppose I was reactive to seeing the names Mondavi and Grahm (far from natural back then) in this volume. But now, upon the reread, and mind you, I am not finished, his themes and discussions are still current, much more so than I gave credit for. I was wrong. He was right. It doesn't matter at all who the players are, the discussion is real and vibrant. Out of print, there are still a few on Amazon. Go dig them out, and perhaps some smart publisher, put them back on the shelves, because there is some genuine revelation in the pages about the truth that is in wine, the blood of agriculture and transformation, that does matter indeed, even though sometimes I just can't put my finger on why.