Wine in Context: The New California Wine, a book review

Reading the New California Wine

Led Lemon on Jon Bonne's book cover

A friend recently shared with me the lesson he’d learned from a high school literature teacher. It takes close to a lifetime to write a book. When you read what someone has written, you learn much of what they know.

Jon Bonné offers through his book, The New California Wine (released today), a generous portion of his knowledge of California, but what he gives is not mere information. Through an intricate inter-braiding of stories about Bonné’s own time with the new heroes of California wine, in depth historical information about how it has arrived at this point in time, and intimate revelations about both specific people and the difficulties of actual wine growing regions, Bonné invites his reader into what is essentially a California Wine Master Class with feeling.

Bonné’s writing here is at its best when he falls into intimacy with one of the people (both winemakers and viticulturists) he profiles in the book. His love for the subject shows in these moments. But his dedication to treating it seriously shows too when he dances out of the personal, and into an explanation of phylloxera’s impact on understanding California terroir, or the problems with Russian River Pinot Noir and soil, as examples. In this way, Bonné delivers his subject matter with a fine-tuned balance showing both the rigors of a true historical critic, and the intimacy of a friend of the industry. The book reaches up to a Master Class level when you realize it is written both for the reader wishing to be truly engrossed in California wine, and also with the understanding we’re all there to learn something. He fits in, for example, quick while adequate explanations of biodynamics, of rootstock types, of specific appellations, and more.

Though the aesthetics of a book’s design might seem extraneous as reviews so often focus on textual content, two elements of this side of the book’s production are relevant to mention. First of all, Bonné’s book is a pleasure to hold (a tactical reality that assists in its reading). It carries the size and weight of a publication you are meant to sit back and drink in. The simple structure of the book itself coupled with the gorgeous (and again intimate) photography provided by Erik Castro make it a pleasure to read. Secondly, however, is the form of Bonné’s writing itself.

In telling his story of California wine — both historic and present — Bonné chooses not exact chapters as much as a rolling of vignettes, given like the cantos of a long poem that when read in succession interweave to tell the full story. The approach releases the reader from the potential boredom of what could otherwise be seen as drier moments of historical information, or technical elements of wine. The approach also highlights what I believe to be part of Bonné’s larger view.

The figures he profiles, like Tegan Passalacqua, David Hirsch, Paul Draper, Angela Osborne, Stephy Terrizzi and so many others, are heroes of a modern age. In an era of unabashed desire to make big fruit to make big money, these people stay the course out of dedication to something more elusive and more valuable–a subtle exploration and discovery of genuine California terroir. The figures Bonné selects are not only the younger hip winemakers that have grabbed the focus of the New York wine industry, for example. He writes on the people that have kept attention on the question of terroir all along, some of whom are, importantly, the people winemakers depend upon — those making the fruit in a way that can support lean balance. By choosing the rolling vignettes style, each person Bonné writes about receives their own celebrated moment.

By the final section of the book, Bonné also gives an index of wines, grapes, and regions shown through with those same people we’ve come to know earlier in the text. The book, then, becomes a reference point for this moment in California wine history — not only those figures that champion the new style, but also the wines that reflect their expression of it. The text stands as useful now for finding the wines that fit into Bonné’s Master Class, but also useful for our future selves looking back to re-learn this period later. In other words, through his book, both its content and structure, Bonné is emphasizing what many of us are excited to witness and experience. We are living a crucial moment in California wine, the full direction of which we are all yet to discover.

It is in these ways Bonné gives to us not only insight into what he knows, but with it, his own genuine regard for the new California wine. His book stands as a testament of his belief for its future.

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Thank you to Jon Bonné and Ten Speed Press for sending me an advanced copy of The New California Wine.

For a preview of the book, check out Bonné’s excerpts at SF Gate here: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/A-journey-to-find-California-wine-s-new-generation-4947651.php

For more information from the publisher, and an excerpt: http://crownpublishing.com/feature/the-new-california-wine/#.UngJXI3D9G8

For Andre Darlington’s insightful review of the book: http://andredarlington.com/?p=4059

For Fred Swans’s book review: http://norcalwine.com/blog/most-read-articles/9-book-review/824-review-new-california-wine-by-jon-bonne

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The New California Wine, by Jon Bonné
304 pages, 50 full-color photographs
ISBN 978-1-60774-300-2
$35.00 paper over board

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Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Comments

5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Ron,

    Elaine. Thanks for the review. Since I live in Marin, I read Bonnie’s articles every week. I’m convinced you are on the cutting edge because I’m often surprised to see a wine or wine maker you wrote about appearing in one of Bonne’s columns a few weeks later.

    But I wanted to point out another book that I found fascinating and informative about California wines. What surprises me about this book is that very few people who I meet within the industry know about it. Maybe I just don’t hang out with the right crowd or I need to get a life and join the masses who simply find a wine they like and drink it. . However An Ideal Wine -one generations pursuit of perfection and profit in California, is a book that basically tells the story of California wine by comparing and contrasting two distinctly different types of winemaking/marketing. The foundation of the story profiles Leo McClosky who’s company consults with winemakers in pursuit of Parker’s 100 points and Randall Graham who pursues terroir and winemaking with no regard for Parker (although Graham is little more complicated to sum up in a few words). With this comparison as the bases, the book expands out to the other winemakers who have and are shaping California wines. Rarely do I read about wine in California without thinking about what I learned from this book.

    Thank you for all your writings.

    • Hi Ron,

      Thank you. I am humbled by your comment, and appreciate you taking the time to write.

      The book you mention is one I am familiar with but have not had the time to read. I appreciate your recommendation of it, and will more purposefully seek it out.

      Thank you!

  2. Patrick,

    So was the book perfect? I am just wondering if there were any possible minor flaws. Do you have any philosophical discrepancy with his somewhat personal approach?

    • Hi Patrick,

      Thank you for your invitation for me to say more. Your question is something I already address in what I’ve written, though perhaps less overtly than you’re asking for here.

      Bonne’s personal approach is part of what makes the book work as it is. He is able to take his reader through a rather in-depth look at the style of California wine he is considering without the writing becoming tedious or boring. That is no small feat to accomplish. I believe his reliance on the interweaving of personal, with technical, with historical is part of what makes that work.

      Bonne also escapes the worry of the personal becoming self-indulgent, never dwelling too long in his own revelry, and also not relying on personal narrative of the people he describes as much as accounts of the work they’ve done to arrive at their wine today.

      The book occurs in a form that some people may try to resist — it is neither straight narrative, nor straight reference — but Bonne’s use of the triptych model coupled with the cantos style I already describe, is done to good effect, and helps make sense of his overall project.

      I think Bonne has done good work here. My review is an honest one.

      Cheers!

      • Again, the two reviews I link to at the bottom give quite thoughtful, while differing views of the book. I do recommend reading them for another perspective. There are a lot more reviews being printed today as well that will no doubt take up a different aspect of the text — there is a lot to consider — so do keep an eye out for those.

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