Book Reviews

Book Review: Alice Feiring’s For The Love Of Wine

30 January 2019

Image courtesy of Amazon

I felt sad when I finished reading “For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture.” Sad and frustrated. I’d purchased the book to help me prepare for my trip to the Republic of Georgia last year. Published in 2016, it’s on many people’s suggested reading lists, and it’s still the first search result if you Google “Georgian wine book.” For the moment, “For the Love of Wine” seems to be the most important English-language book about the wines of Georgia.

When I read a wine-travelogue, I want two things. First, I want lots of good information about a place’s wine, culture and history, related in a readable way. Second, I want to wish that I had been traveling along with the writer, living vicariously through her experiences. “For the Love of Wine” provides the first, certainly, and most certainly not the second.

I agree with much of what she wrote about Georgian wine, and wine in general. The country’s wine is special, made from an array of unique indigenous grapes vinified using techniques that can be traced with startling directness back to the Neolithic era. Clay vessels that held wine some 8,000 years ago bear a striking resemblance to traditional Georgian qvevri, amphorae-like containers used to ferment wine to this day. And it really would be a shame if that heritage were to be cast aside in favor of more standard winegrowing and winemaking techniques.

What’s sad is that I found myself wanting to disagree with Feiring at every turn, because she has such a moralizing and combative tone. I very much enjoy the natural wines of Georgia as well as those from other countries, and there’s a case to be made that natural wines — made organically and with minimal intervention in the winery — deserve more attention and support. But for Feiring, natural wine is good and conventional wine is bad, full stop. The (conventional) wines of France are “weak,” for example, but the natural wines of Georgia are strong, wild, complex and full of emotion. I don’t trust a wine writer who dismisses 98-99% of the wines on the market (estimates suggest natural wines represent 2% or less of wines on the shelves).

Her uncompromising views unfortunately spill out into her interpersonal relations, and her descriptions of the interactions were painful for me to read. One young man she meets, for example, expresses a desire to make conventional wines. She proceeds to shame him:

“You just want it cushy,” I chided him, and he good-naturedly laughed. “You can get a job with a big factory, but would you be able to sleep well at night knowing you were making wine you didn’t really want to drink? Wouldn’t you rather make wine like Kakha’s?”

He may have laughed good-naturedly, but I suspect he didn’t enjoy the conversation. Feiring claims to be an old lefty, yet she doesn’t seem to grasp how unpleasant poverty can be. She describes herself as “a writer with poverty always at the door,” but she has an apartment in Manhattan. It hardly seems fair to expect this young Georgian gentleman to follow a traditional agrarian life if he prefers to do otherwise, in order that Feiring can get the kind of wine she prefers to drink while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Unfairness becomes hypocrisy when a winemaker complains that he has trouble finding people willing to clean his qvevris. Feiring, who criticizes Georgia’s young winemakers more than once for wanting it “cushy,” does not put her money where her mouth is and volunteer to help. Instead, she nominates her traveling companion: “‘Here he is; here’s your guy,’ I said, offering up Jeremy for the task.” It’s difficult to empathize with Feiring’s judgmental attitude towards those unwilling to clean qvevri when she never does the dirty work herself.

Feiring shames other Georgians over the course of her travels as well. In this example, she shames a winemaker for not giving his wife some qvevri in which to make her own wine:

“And where’s Marina’s qvevri?” I asked, eager to see the continuation of his wife Marina’s wine. Iago looked hangdog. “But why!” I gasped. It seemed incomprehensible. The wine was so very good. It was so important for women to be seen in the wine world, as it can in truth get to be too much of a boys’ club. “There was no room; I needed all the qvevris this year,” Iago explained. “Marina and Téa didn’t get their qvevri?” I repeated. I mean, how could he? The doting husband Iago? How could he not take care of his wife? I was crushed. He looked crestfallen.

Of course he looked crestfallen. In this situation, Feiring exhibited no empathy towards Iago. All that mattered were her own feelings about the subject. Feiring admits in the book that her emotions are “too raw and intense for [her] own good.” She writes how she often feels “…too emotional to live in the real world, but in Georgia everyone seemed like a mythical human who felt first and thought later. [She] felt at home.”

But the problem is not emotions that are too intense. Everyone has feelings, often strong ones. The trick is to express one’s feelings, however strong they may be, in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way. It’s not easy for most of us, but it’s possible, and it’s necessary.

I’m calling out Feiring’s behavior because she, like all travelers, is an ambassador. I want representatives of America, and more specifically of American wine writers, to represent their constituencies well. It helps future travelers. On the other side of the coin, I also want the wonderful wines of Georgia to have the ambassador that they deserve.

Image courtesy of Amazon

In addition, I want wine and travel writing that is clear and well-crafted. When Feiring writes, “Soon he would add a veritable tasting room as well,” does she mean that it’s a true tasting room? Or not quite a real tasting room? I also felt confused when Feiring “took a cup of nubile juice from him” and when she described “hunting down nubile, home winemaking talent.” Was the juice sexually attractive? Is sexiness what they’re really looking for in a winemaker? But Feiring left absolutely no doubt about a certain local baked good: “There was bagel-like bread that immediately made me think of bagels…” Got it. Bagel.

Finally, Feiring’s economic analysis leaves something to be desired. She writes, “It was then that everything crystallized for me: communism under the Russians and modern-day capitalism were twins separated at birth. Neither fostered or celebrated the individual.” It escapes her notice that the free market, specifically the market’s demand for the supply of Georgia’s unique wines, is precisely what has allowed there to be a renaissance of traditional Georgian winemaking. As a utopian ideology, communism allows only its ideal: proletariat-run factories making wine for the proletariat. Capitalism is non-utopian, which means the system has room for factories and small family-run wineries alike. Communism destroyed the Georgian economy and its wine industry, impoverishing the nation and prioritizing wine quantity over quality. Capitalism has started to bring wealth back to Georgia, and it has thus far encouraged individual winemakers to excel.

It’s so frustrating to read Feiring’s book, because so much of it is fascinating and heartfelt. She relates some incredible experiences, and her love for Georgian wine and culture is palpable. It should be an inspiring work, a paean to the joys of natural wine and feasting with friends and family. But “For the Love of Wine” left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you’re looking for a book about Georgian food and wine — and I highly recommend looking for a book about Georgian food and wine — consider instead Carla Capalbo’s lavishly photographed “Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus.” It’s more of a cookbook with additional essays, whereas “For the Love of Wine” is more of a wine/travel book with additional recipes. Even so, it contains excellent, concise information about Georgian wine and cuisine.

Cracking Croatian Wine: A Book Review

29 September 2017

To purchase this book, click here.

France and Italy, to take two examples, are complicated. But if you want to learn more about the wine scenes of France and Italy (or California or Germany or Argentina, to name a few more), you have no shortage of resources at your disposal. I’m sure the books written about French wine alone could fill a storefront shop.

Croatia? Not so much.

Yet Croatian wine deserves attention. I fondly remember the Katunar Syrah from the island of Krk that I recently found at my favorite wine shop, In Fine Spirits. It cost just $21, but it counted among my favorite wines of the year. Gone are the cooperatives of the socialist era, which prized quantity over quality. Once again, Croatian winemakers are free to pursue the best expression of their grapes, as they had been for the two millennia before Tito took over.

And Croatian wine is complicated. The country has some 130 indigenous grape varieties, many of which are all but unpronounceable to those of us who require the occasional vowel (or to those of us who haven’t the faintest idea what to do when an accent mark appears over a consonant). The place names, too, often look wholly unfamiliar. Istria maybe rings a bell, but Pelješac? Brač? Maybe not.

I’ve even been to Croatia — more than once — but I still feel like a rank amateur when it comes to the wine. I was therefore very excited to see that two of my favorite fellow wine writers, Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan of Exotic Wine Travel, released a new book: Cracking Croatian Wine: A Visitor-Friendly Guide. If you’re fortunate enough to be heading to Croatia sometime soon, I highly recommend looking over this highly readable and well-organized reference work. It will give you all the tools you need to drink some of the best that Croatia has to offer.

Dr. Matthew Horkey overlooking vineyards in the Dingač wine region

As a lover of unusual and obscure wines, I simply enjoyed reading the book, even though I have, alas, no plans to visit Croatia in the foreseeable future. Some stores in Chicago do carry the occasional Croatian wine, but they’re rarely presented in an appealing fashion. As Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate once wrote (as quoted by Horkey and Tan in their book), “Let’s not turn a blind eye to the fact that it has not been easy [for Eastern European wine] to shake off the tag of a ‘poor man’s’ wine, the kind of cheap-looking bottles you see languishing on the shelves next to the cat food in corner shops.” Now, I have a much better idea what to look for.

Even the most casual wine consumer, however, will find this book to be indispensable if he or she is traveling to Croatia. Horkey and Tan spent approximately seven months in Croatia researching this book, tasting wine all over the country, and trying out different wine bars and restaurants. Their book explains Croatian wine, yes, but it also serves as a guidebook to enjoying the good life up and down the whole of Croatia.

Charine Tan in Kutjevo, Slavonia

Cracking Croatian Wine has plenty of juicy tidbits for wine geeks like me, but it never gets bogged down with minutiae. The “Brief History of Croatian Wine” chapter, for example, is just two pages long. The chapter that follows, “Croatian Cuisine,” is one that everyone should read before heading off to the Balkans, particularly the list of “20 Croatian Dishes to Try.” I wouldn’t mind a bowl of pašticada right about now…

I also appreciate the list of Zagreb’s top wine bars and wine shops in the “Where to Buy Wine” chapter, and the subsequent “How to Decipher Croatian Wine Labels” is essential reading. It ends with the line, “Not so difficult, right?” I’m not sure I agree — I think I may need to have a copy of that chapter at the ready next time I plan on buying some wine from Croatia.

Similarly, the descriptions of indigenous Croatian wine grapes are incredibly useful. If you’re going to Croatia, give it a read-through, but then keep it handy as a reference for when you’re faced with a wine list. Few of us will be able to keep all 20 of the grapes straight, especially with names like Kujundžuša and Trbljan.

The Kozlović Winery in Istria

And, of course, there is quite a large chapter on the various wine-growing regions, including not only descriptions of the local wine style(s), but also recommendations of local wine bars. Each section has a list of suggested wines to try, with options “For the discerning palate and the connoisseur,” “For the adventurous palate and the wine geek,” and for “Fun and easy to drink.” Each wine recommendation comes with a photograph of the bottle, which can be ever so helpful for jogging the memory when one is in a wine shop.

The book ends with fascinating interviews with three authorities on Croatian wines, including writers and a winemaker.

I had a few minor qualms with the book. The vocabulary choices are occasionally a touch overblown, as in: “In Croatia, this would be a spurious opinion.” And more important, I wish that the authors had taken more of an opportunity to share personal anecdotes about their experiences. They warn us that “tasting visits may turn into a hedonistic afternoon of copious food and wine,” but they give us only the briefest of examples in a paragraph in the Preface. I would have loved to have read more about those hedonistic afternoons, but perhaps that’s for another book.

Along the Pelješac Peninsula

Those quibbles aside, I wholeheartedly recommend investing in Cracking Croatian Wine. It’s easy to read, well-organized and concise. For those traveling to Croatia who plan on drinking wine, it’s essential. And, no less important, it’s inexpensive.

You can purchase an electronic copy here for $7.99, and you can also use that link to buy a paperback copy if you prefer. The book certainly whetted my appetite for a return trip to Croatia, and this time, thanks to Horkey and Tan, I’ll be prepared.

Full Disclosure: Odd Bacchus receives a small percentage of the price of the books purchased using the links above.

Photo Credit: All photos above provided by Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan.

Book Review – Wine Folly: The Essential Guide To Wine

26 September 2015

Wine Folly CoverWith all the wine books floating around out there, you need to make a compelling case to write a new one. Madeleine Puckette and Justin Hammack do just that with Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine, released on September 22. I met the engaging Puckette at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in New York, and impressed with her presentation, I was eager to see how her book turned out. I’m happy to say that I can recommend it, especially to someone interested in wine but not especially knowledgeable about it.

What makes this book different from other heftier wine reference guides is its use of clear and easy-to-decipher graphics in order to convey information about everything from flavors to glassware. I especially liked the flavor wheels accompanying each of the descriptions of 55 various single-varietal wines and blends. Organized into categories such as “Herbal/Floral,” “Oak” and “Tertiary,” these wheels clearly organized the numerous flavors one might encounter in a particular wine. Those who sometimes struggle with picking out and describing flavors and aromas (and that’s most of us) will surely find it useful to sit down with a glass and the corresponding wheel to get hints about what we might be tasting.

Besides covering wine varieties and 12 wine-producing countries, Wine Folly includes sections on Wine Basics, Tasting Wine, Handling Wine and Food and Wine Pairing. Of these, the section on “How to Taste” is especially strong, including detailed descriptions of how to glean information from a wine’s appearance, what to look for in an aroma (including an excellent page on identifying wine faults) and how to differentiate among acidity, tannins and alcohol. I also appreciated the sections on Serving Wine and Wine Temperature — there are more than a few restaurants I can think of which would benefit from a review of these pages.

Wine Folly SyrahThe two-page spreads devoted to the different wine varieties also contain useful information. The Syrah page (right), for example, lists the main countries where the grape grows, accompanied by a graphic indicating what percentage is planted where. A “Profile” graphic shows the amount of fruit, body, tannin, acidity and alcohol you find in an average Syrah, and another graphic shows the dominant flavors. And a “Regional Differences” section alerts readers that Syrahs from regions such as California and Spain tend to be “Full-bodied with fruit-foward flavors of blackberry, blueberry, sweet tobacco smoke, chocolate baking spices, and vanilla,” whereas Syrahs from places such as Chile and the Rhône Valley tend to be “Medium- to full-bodied wines with savory flavors of plum, olive, boysenberry, leather, green peppercorn, bacon fat and cocoa powder.” If you know what sort of red wine you like — ripe and rich or taut and earthy — such comparative descriptions can be immensely helpful when deciding whether to choose a Syrah from Argentina or Australia.

Certain parts of the book struck me as problematic, however. Some of the pages devoted to wine-producing countries contained useful information, such as the Chile profile, which explains, counterintuitively, that wine regions there differentiate themselves east-to-west, according to their proximity to the sea and the Andes, more so than north-to-south. Other country pages offered little that you couldn’t deduce from walking into a well stocked wine shop. Argentina’s page, for example, explains that the country is known for “a bold and fruity style of Malbec” and that the top grapes are Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Syrah, Torrontés and Pinot Noir. The flavor descriptions of each variety tended to be too general to be helpful. Malbec’s flavor, for example, “ranges in taste from juicy tart raspberry flavors to rich blueberry and sweet tobacco, depending on the vintage, quality and oak program.” The relative merits of the various wine growing areas in Argentina are unaddressed aside from a brief mention of the benefits of high-elevation subregions. I’m left still wondering what to look for when faced with a shelf of Argentine wine in a shop.

Then there were the parts of the book I simply disagreed with, such as the assertion that “All red wines can be aerated,” i.e. decanted. If you aerate or decant an old, fragile wine, you’ll almost certainly lose whatever fruit and acids might be left. I still smart at the memory of a foolish waiter at a Chicago BYOB restaurant breaking the cork on a 1986 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the remaining cork piece into the bottle and then decanting it through a coffee filter. When I saw what he was doing at the waiter station, I stopped him in his tracks, but the damage to the half of the wine he decanted was done. It fell flat, lacking the liveliness of the portion remaining in the bottle. I never decant a wine without tasting it first. Otherwise who knows what flavors you might lose in the process?

Wine Folly Tasting PageA book of this brevity can’t cover everything, certainly, but I did regret certain omissions. In the dessert wine section, Hungary’s Tokaji, one of the world’s greatest wines by any measure, was notably absent, as was any mention of its main grape variety, the noble and fiery Furmint, which now also appears in striking dry varietal wines. It also seemed a shame to not include the ancient winemaking center of Greece, which has experienced a wine renaissance in the last decade, producing all manner of exciting wines from unusual indigenous grape varieties.

The book’s brevity and occasional omissions are much less of a problem if you are willing to use it in conjunction with the Wine Folly website. Links on the side of almost every page direct readers where to find more information about a subject. I prefer not to have to make that extra step to find information — it’s much easier for me to pull my Oxford Companion to Wine or World Atlas of Wine off the shelf than turn on my computer or phone to look up a website while already looking at a book.

Criticisms aside, as a stand-alone volume, Wine Folly still works. Someone just getting into wine who wants a systematic, unintimidating, easy-to-understand and visually appealing wine book would surely benefit from Wine Folly. It has a clear organizational structure, and its attractive graphics boil down and simplify a lot of information. Anyone looking for a first wine book should seriously consider this work. And even though I’ve been writing about wine for more than four years, I suspect I’ll refer to those handy flavor wheels from time to time myself!

Note: My copy of the book was provided free of charge.