"An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit Of Perfection - and Profit - In California", David Darlington's story of the California wine boom that started in the 1970s, is (unintentionally, I'm sure...) an ideal companion/follow-on book for the California wine enthusiast who has already read former Time magazine correspondent George Taber's "Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine".
Wine enthusiasts know the story: in an unthinkable upset to the status quo of French wine dominance, two Napa Valley wines came out on top in the red and white wine categories. "An Ideal Wine" picks up the story from that point, in effect -- relating the tidal wave of change in the California wine industry that reverberated from the revelations of the 1976 tasting.
The "...One Generation..." description in the title is somewhat misleading, for while Darlington describes the efforts of the new generation of California winemakers of the mid-'70s and '80s to produce wines that would rival those of the French wineries (while making a profit--no easy task...), he focuses on two in particular, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards and Leo McCloskey of Ridge Winery, and later his own wine analysis firm, Enologix. Other players in the field are mentioned somewhat in passing, with only two, Dick Graff of Chalone Vineyards and Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery, being dealt with in any detail.
This rather laser-like focus doesn't detract from the story Darlington tells, however -- in effect it condenses what might otherwise be an untenable task into a manageable effort by "bounding the problem" -- the apposition and comparison of the stories of these two very different winemakers bookends the range of approaches to winemaking quite neatly, highlighting the wide array of styles and techniques used by the disparate group of new-to-the-industry California winemakers of that time by concentrating on two who define polar-opposite approaches to the task.
Randall Grahm personified the holistic, terroir-based, biodynamic farming approach to winemaking; McCloskey's style was the Chem-101 approach: gas-chromatographic analysis to compare a wine's characteristics to known 91-point + wines, guiding winemakers in synthetic manipulations of their product to achieve saleable characteristics (and profitability) by conforming to the preferences of the wine critics who defined the standards to which wines were held.
The period of the mid-1970s and 1980s was a fascinating time in the wine industry, an era when the number of wineries and the acreage planted in grapes, in California and around the world, mushroomed exponentially. Fortunes were invested, and sometimes lost; skilled vineyardists and winemakers moved from job to job, plying their trade for ever-increasing salaries in the competition between wineries; deals were made and broken -- and the wine consumer was presented with a bewildering number of labels, varietals, and appellations from which to choose.
It was a heady time, and Darlington tells the complex and fascinating tale of the biggest agricultural boom since the 17th-Century's tulip mania in a manner that is straightforward without being over-simplified. If you are at all interested in the development of winemaking in the New World's "boomtown" era, this book belongs on your bookshelf, right next to "Judgment of Paris".
If you think the California wine you buy in the grocery/liquor store is the result of patient western farmers harvesting, pressing and fermenting the grapes they have grown on their own land, then bottling them for sale after carefully aging them in oaken casks, you are sadly mistaken. This may have been how things were in California 30-40 years ago, but not any more.
The wine business has become [mostly] just another form of factory farming in the US, with winemakers buying and blending grapes from all across California, swirling in a some optimally-shaped oak chips for a carefully spec'd duration, fermenting with bioengineered yeasts, ripping the wine apart by centrifuge and double osmosis to break it down into its constituent elements, then recombining the liquid in "just the right" chemical combination to satisfy the consumer consensus for a full-bodied cab or a lightly sweet chardonnay.
David Darlington brilliantly chronicles the journey that has grown California's wine industry from a patchwork of Napa farmers to a multi-billion dollar food chemical industry. And he does so by bouncing us back and forth between the yin and yang of this development: (a) those (few) who feel wine is all about spirit and terroir ("opera in a bottle," one brilliantly puts it), about experimentation and dynamic interaction with the soil, and (b) those who see winemaking as primarily a commercial chemical process. The former (a) are represented by Randall Grahm, a brilliant and quirky winemaker of Bonny Doon fame. The latter by Leo McCloskey of Enologix.
But it is not a black and white battle of art versus science. For even the artisan wine makers pick and choose various scientific innovations to apply to their winemaking, within the rather strict regulatory bounds that California sets. And even those who are all about science claim they are just using the latest technology has to offer to make a better product: "Why wouldn't I want to use data to be a better winemaker and get my wine into the market where people can enjoy it? I want to use every tool at my disposal. I think this is a logical end to agricultural endeavor."
In fact, as Darlington show throughout, it may be more the data than the science that has hijacked the wine industry. As the documentary Mondovino and the feature film Bottle Shock indicate, the industry is dominated by pursuit of high ratings, especially the 100-based score popularized by Robert Parker, whose taste more than any other has influenced (and homogenized) the American wine industry. By the early 1990s, obtaining a 90+ score from Parker became the near singular pursuit of winemakers, a Holy Grail that could make or break a multi-million dollar winery.
And then there is Randall Grahm, for whom Darlington certainly seems to have a soft spot, bucking the trend and eschewing riches in order to pursue his dream of making a truly great pinot noir. Colorful and charismatic as he is, however, he seems sadly alone in an industry that is become more about marketing than terroir, more about blending a perfect $9.99 wine for the masses than creating "opera in a bottle."
Darlington has written a thorough, engrossing account of the American wine industry's loss of innocence. And if at times he digresses into a mind-numbing discussion of chemical compounds and their influence on a wine's development, it is simply a reflection of the industry and it certainly shows the author knows his stuff. In short, if you have any interest in wine, and want to know what you are drinking and why, uncork a bottle or three, and sit down to read this superb book.
David Darlington writes about the California wine industry from multiple perspectives, providing an eye opening jolt to the reader. While never understating the essential elements that produce a good wine, it is clear that nature plays a large part in the equation: soil, sand, minerals, water, sunshine, in other words, the location of a vineyard. The author expands on the concept of how and why a wine tastes good, that is its chemistry, which is the magic created by the right combination of yeast and grapes. The essence of good wine is discovering how and why it appeals to the sense of taste and therefore becomes a best seller for the vintner. Recreating this magic time after time is the goal and sole reason that the California wine industry has become so competitive on a world wide scale. The goal is always to produces a good tasting wine. Along these lines, the author writes about the vintners, marketing techniques, the university programs which were created for educating vintners in California and the newest phase, chemically analyzing a wine for specific compounds from which a score is produced that translates to the "ideal" wine - all with the goal of making fabulous wine!
Chapter one introduces the reader to Leo McClosky, a famous vintner who created a company called Enologix. Enologix analyzes the fruit (grapes) with solvents and tests, using a high performance chemical chromatagraphy system which measures selected secondary compounds, known to exist in wines that have a high appeal on the "ideal" wine index. It is fascinating to learn that Enologix has a data base for "70,000 wines, the largest file of its kind in the world, including information about soil, climate, prices, equipment, viticulture and vinification practices, along with archived sensory analysis and critical scores, all of which can be cross-referenced by computer ..." [page 19]. Their index is based on the taste and appeal of an ideal digitalized cabernet wine. The tested wine is given a score based on a point system where above 90 points meets criteria for having the qualities which appeal to custumers. It is presumed now that wine is measured on both objective and subjective terms, where the objective is deemed the main criteria due to measurability. The 100 point scoring system was first created by Robert Parker, a well known wine critic and writer for the magazine "Wine Advocate". It has now become the standard of excellence by which to praise a good wine and is used by most magazines including "Wine Spectator" and by experts who evaluate wines. Any wine getting a score over 90 (the closer to 100 all the better) when highly praised by these two prestigious magazines, will increase in market value and can ask a larger price accordingly. The scoring system which Robert Parker conceived was based on subjective taste; the scoring system developed by Leo McCloskey at Enologix was based on objective criteria, chemicals which are related to taste. Somewhere the two meet in that the main criteria for vintners is a successful product, one with high sales, which is the bottom line in any industry. Leo McCloskey claims that scientific criteria is the best technique for selecting superior wines.
In the second chapter, the author introduces the reader to Randall Grahm, a highly successful and innovative California vintner who in the 1980s became known as "the Rhone Ranger" for his ability to popularize the grape varieties from the Rhone River Valley of France and grow them in California. These grape varieties were better suited to the California climate than the more well known varieties from Burgundy and Bordeaux. Grahm bought grapes that no one then wanted and from them created great wine. He also marketed the wine under fancy graphic cartoon-like labels, the first of its kind which caught on like wild fire. All of his first efforts were intially directed toward creating a great pinot noir wine in California. He was convinced it was the best red wine but when his efforts were unrewarded, he turned to other more original endeavors. The author does an outstanding job of interviewing this vintner and giving the reader a rare glimpse into the romance, myth, and love of grape growing, along with the hard work of marketing and producing a good tasting wine. The ups and downs and vagaries of the wine industry are clearly evident in the stories associated with Randall Grahm's rise to fame and fortune as well as the challenges he faced along the way. Despite his love of Old World Wine and particularly that of France, where vineyards had been cultivated in the same region for centuries, Randall Grahm has faced serious problems associated with growing grapes in California, where vastly different conditions and challenges face the vintner. In the 1990s, Grahm owned his own vineyards, near the Santa Cruz Mountains close to Bonny Doon, until his vines died of Pierce's disease. Despite his love of French wine and its association with "terroir", the irony is, many of his most recent products are blended wines from grapes that he obtains from multiple vineyards in areas where he is satisfied with the fruit produced. Yet, Grahm is devoted to the concept of biodynamics and in love with the Old World wines for the synergistic relationship of the vines, soil, and sun that evolved over centuries to produce the unique characteristics which can identify the wine from any specific growing region of France. The author quotes essays, thoughts, and ideas from Randall Grahm that are a joy to read by anyone who is fond of a glass of wine. How to achieve the ideal wine as defined by Randall Grahm is very different from that defined by Leo McCloskey.
Much of this book delves into the history of the California wine industry from the 1970s to the present. It is a highly detailed review of the lives of many important persons who helped this industry evolve into its present state. I thoroughly enjoyed learning how Randall Grahm became an entrepeneur in the wine industry. Much of this book is devoted to his evolution as a vinter, his background and education, at University of Californa at Santa Cruz. Many prominent vintners took their degrees from various branches of the University of California, most popular was the Davis campus. The author also delves into the life of Leo McCloskey and his early start in the wine business. It is fascinating to read how his life evolved into the current highly influential position as creator/owner of Enologix. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the pioneers of the California wine industry who had vision, courage, and "put their money where their mouth is" so-to-speak in that they dared to invest their personal resources of time and money to make their dreams come true. This book is not an easy read, as it does not follow a standard time line and jumps from topic to topic based on the author's own concepts and ideas of importance. Erika Borsos [pepper flower]
In 1975 I went to visit my sister and husband in Sonoma and got completely hooked on the mystique of California wine. I visited the Heitz vineyard and had my first taste, after a lifetime of Gallo jug wines, of the nectar that was Martha's Vineyard. I haven't been back to wine country since, but my drinking life was forever changed. Or was it?
This enormously entertaining and insightful foray into what the California wine business was and has become over the last few decades is a real eye-opener. Wedged between the two extremes of crazy-mystical cult winemaking and profit-driven manipulation of virtually every aspect of the process, the narrative skilfully weaves a story of the "delusionary" culture that has possessed the winemaking industry in California.
The two bookends of this story, Leo McCloskey and Randall Grahm, are perfect foils and seem, for all their differences in approach, to be on the same quest. Their stories are well-told and carry well the larger story of an industry in the grips of one man, Robert Parker, whose 100-point scale has come to define consumer tastes, driving out the potential variety of experiments and happy accidents in the name of a 90+ score based on a single tongue.
I still fondly remember that Heitz cabernet, but have never been able to quite replicate its magic in all my wine-swilling days since. Perhaps it is always like this or perhaps under the pressure of industrialization and profit-seeking, California wine ain't what it used to be. If you are at all interested in wine culture, read this book.
Wow! This is an extremely well-crafted work of nonfiction and it seems to me that the obsessive attention to detail making wine commercially requires has influenced the writer's sense of how to created a well-rounded, deep, rich read which, despite the depth of detail is satisfying and engaging on the surface as well. Kind of like really good wine I suppose.
I'm not knowledgeable about wine and have fairly unrefined (populist) tastes. Still, I find the topic of winemaking and especially the wine marketing interesting and that's why I read the book.
A lot of the non-fiction I've been reading sag in the middle or fall-apart at the end, it's refreshing to see a writer lavishing such attention on the overall structure of the narrative while also maintaining a strict standard of excellence on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Not only is the book written with vim and sensory detail, it's structured in such a way to be engaging from start to finish.
I enjoyed it so much I plan to read some of the author's other books. Just spellbinding.
on July 16, 2011
Fun to read, enlightening, and hitting the bullseye - this is a great read for anyone, not just wine lovers. A writer first and a raconteur of the wine world second, Darlington artfully and gently unmasks modern winemaking's dirty little secrets, with a beguiling tale of the chemical manipulations for sale by Enologix, the subject of Darlington's Sunday NYTimes magazine piece (which won Darlington a James Beard award for writing) used by more than 1,000 (many Napa) wineries in California to game the wine critics' rating systems.
Equally humorous is the quest for true terroir, as exemplified by the Bonny Doon's charismatic philosopher/creative writing genius Randall Grahm.
This book is sure to become a classic, just as Darlington's other books have - I also recommend Angels Visits, about zinfandel. You need not care about zinfandel to enjoy it.
An Ideal Wine is an artful kiss and tell about the wine industry in California - a story anyone (not just wine lovers) can heartily enjoy.
This book is slightly mis-represented in the synopsis. What this book truly deals with are the two major factions in the wine industry: those who believe wine is like any other consumer product and that science and technology should be employed to provide a consistent, marketable product; and those who believe that wine is an organic product, grown from the earth and vine then coaxed into the bottle with as little human intervention as possible.
Being a long time wine industry veteran I am torn between these two schools, as is most of America, and the author so it seems. On the one hand, as a retailer, it makes sense to provide customers with the product they desire and make profit on that product. However, as a consumer myself, I prefer less intervention and a pure expression of terroir (the nature of the wine as it expresses the location where the grapes were grown).
You do not have to be a wine industry veteran to enjoy this book. The book is well written in a very interesting non-fiction style similar to a lengthy yet interesting magazine article. You get to acquire a sense of the people involved in making these wines and even began to understand and sympathize with both schools of thought.
I have the utmost respect for Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon and I am delighted that he is one of the primary focuses of this book. His insights and wit are some of the highlights of the book.
The book flows well, is interesting, and very well written. I recommend this for anyone with even the slightest passion for wine. It's purpose is not to sway you to either view, but to make the reader aware of the ongoing struggle in the industry as well as make the reader aware that the future of the wine industry is uncertain.
I understand that the subheading One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California is slightly misleading. I believe the author is summarizing the two polarizing styles and approaches using two of the extremists: McClosky and Grahm. These gentlemen both were pioneers in the coming of age of California wine of the 1980s and 1990s. Though there are many other (too many) pioneers from this generation, Grahm and McClosky make pretty interesting examples. There are also smaller sections dedicated to other pioneers such as Jed Steele, Jess Jackson, the Benzigers, the Fetzers, and other prominent families during this era. There are more than enough people highlighted in this book to keep things interesting.
All in all this deserves to be on your bookshelf!
on September 18, 2012
My most important takeaway is that great wine is grown somewhere that lends it soul to the grapes, with traditional methods a winemaker then coaxes a magnificent beverage that can transform the spirit. The romance of wine will never leave, hope springs wherever people put nature over profits.
Some may try and use technology to overcome vineyard limitations and many are driven by greed.
The exciting producers are going back to natural methods and I believe this will only be more important with fine wine drinkers going forward.
This book should be required reading for ANYONE who has ever bought a bottle of wine, it is truly an epiphany inducing read that transcends just wine.
The author masterfully skips between winemakers so as to compare and contrast methods and philosophies.
I have visited the Benziger Winery (a champion of Natural Wine) mentioned in the book and it is the closest I have been to Eden!
A great intro to Biodynamics (sustainable farming) this book is a MASTERWORK documenting the collision of art, commerce and personalities in the world of wine!
A MUST READ!
on September 25, 2015
I hardly EVER review books in Amazon, but I absolutely MUST say something about this one. If you are interested in California wines, this is a "must read." It's a real eyeopener if you aren't aware of how modern, corporate wine is made. It doesn't just talk about two people, as some other reviewers have intimated; it covers a LOT of ground about quite a few people in the wine industry (many of whom, I'm sure you will have heard of before) and about the varied philosophies of wine making, including bio-dynamic vineyards and wine production . It's a very engaging read *IF* you are fairly serious about your interest in California wine. As a result of reading this book, we're going to start looking for and buying California wines that have been produced outside of a corporate philosophy. (Not really for a first-time or very casual reader about wine-making)
on July 1, 2013
Just when I thought wine making was that magical evolution from farm to glass, involving the purist artistry human interaction involving fermentation, aging, blending and bottling, it turns out there is a lot more to the business than most of us ever knew. This book provides a fascinating peak behind the winery walls, taking the reader through diverse approaches to wine making, including "thinking outside the box" wine making endeavors to the use of sophisticated data analysis and chemistry to alter wine flavor profiles to achieve the highest point ratings from otherwise ordinary wines. Wine enthusiasts will be shocked by what they learn about wine making by reading this book. And, as an amateur winemaker, I took away some very useful tips that will go into my next project!