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The Question of Natural Wine: A review of the book by Isabelle Legeron MW

Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeronimage from website of Anthony Zinonos

NATURAL WINE
Isabelle Legeron
An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally
208pp. Cico Books, July 1, 2014. $24.95
1782491007; 978-1782491002
book provided for review

***

[I]n its purest form
natural wine is almost a miraculous feat — a great balancing act between
life in the vineyard, life in the cellar, and life in the bottle.
– Isabelle Legeron

Considering a Larger Context

In 2011, French vintner Olivier Cousin intentionally provoked court proceedings with the threat of his being fined up to 37,000 Euros, and 2 years in prison. On the surface, Cousin had violated AOC regulations by using the regional name “Anjou” on his labels. However, for Cousin the situation was far more fundamental.

Cousin had left the AOC system in 2005 choosing to classify his wines as Vin de Table instead. Over the decades prior, Cousin watched large scale agro-industrial wineries pollute his beloved Layon river (within the Loire of Western France) destroying much of the region’s beauty, and the safety of the river itself.

For Cousin, it was clear that much of the pollution occurred within the legal allowances of the appellation system. The additives used in the wine, and the industrial sprays applied to vineyards were acceptable to the AOC system. In 2003, when the AOC decided to also allow acidification, and chaptilization, Cousin had had enough.

For the biodynamic grower, the use of additives and pollutants through the region was too unregulated, and the manipulation of winemaking had gone too far. Further, the reality of such abuses was entirely undisclosed to the consumer. At the same time growers like Cousin himself determined to do better were disadvantaged, told they could not use the name of their own region for labeling their wines, thus disenfranchising them from any claims of their own origins, and recognizability by consumers.

Cousin responded by designating his wines Vin de Table (therefore outside the AOC), while naming them on the label as Anjou Olivier Cousin (a cheeky dig at the abbreviation A.O.C., as well as a reference to the wines’ origins). The move was Cousin’s protest of the appellation system, and a fight for artisanal producers in general. In an interview with Vindicateur.fr, Cousin explained, “I’m defending the right to label an artisanal natural wine, like a basic food product, with all the applicable information.

Issues around Natural Wine

In the last five years, wines from producers such as Cousin have come together under a new, broad category called natural wine.

Like Cousin’s court case, discussions around such wines appear fraught. Central to disagreements sits the apparent lack of clarity for what counts as such wines. At the same time, people tend to understand that generally the category refers to the idea of doing, and adding less.

For many, the mere appearance of the category proves an offense — an insult to wines that fall outside it. While for many within the natural wine movement there need be no defense. Less additives is simply better. Add to that orthodox biodynamics on the far side of natural wine where you discover the spirits of the plant world, and a realm few skeptics are willing to travel. It quickly becomes difficult to speak across category lines.

More than that, however, natural wine as a category appears as the displaced focal point of an overdetermined system. Include in that system lack of disclosure on labels, poor appellation regulations otherwise supposed to protect consumers, and the disenfranchisement of artisan producers, all as fought against by Cousin. Add to that long term damage to the environment for short term gain, industrially made wines that ultimately taste of cardboard and jam, poisons named protectants, and more.

Select any one of these factors and you step into enough motivation for consumers to want more transparency, and greater health, regardless of attachment to the idea of “natural wine” or not. Put these factors all together, leave them ineffectively addressed and building in problematic over decades, and you find the explosion of a movement doggedly against what is seen as an agro-industrial-economic complex. It’s unsurprising techniques used to grow wine for thousands of years, have erupted into the symbol of a movement that wants to be different.

The difficulty of the discussion around such wines, then, occurs as much for the complexity of the innumerable factors that motivated the category to begin with, as issues within the category itself.

Enter Isabelle Legeron

In her new book, Natural Wine, Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron strives to find a clearer path through the complexity of such a system. She explains her motivation in the introduction. “[W]hile advances in technology and winemaking science have been enormously positive for the industry as a whole, today we seem to have lost perspective,” she says (p 13).

In naming the impacts of this lost perspective she describes how wine has become “a product of the agrochemical food industry” (p 14), a world created by a desire for “absolute control” of our natural world through science. Ultimately, according to Legeron, the negative effects of such practices are found in vines inability to uptake soil nutrients due to lack of life in the soils (p 27), the demand to use added yeasts, enzymes, and then intensive filtering in the cellar due to absence of healthy yeast to microbe balance on fruit (p 58), and finally on our own ability to process the wine without (a) hangover, or (b) negative long-term health affects (p 84).

To make consumption of the information easier, Natural Wine has been arranged in three major sections — (1) What is Natural Wine?, (2) Who, Where, When?, (3) The Natural Wine Cellar.

The challenge of the book rests in section 1, “What is Natural Wine?.”

Here Legeron takes an overview of the category in general covering the range from vineyard, to cellar, to taste. When distilled to its most coherent sections, a wealth of information and insight is provided throughout. For example, comparing winemaking to breadmaking gives an interesting perspective shift for understanding the role of quality in winemaking choices, and what it means to talk about wine as a living thing. There is also an impressive amount of insight given directly from producers on subjects such as dry farming, the role of sulfites in wines, the relevance of biodynamic treatments, and more.

However, chunks of section 1 also prove frustrating as Legeron falls to making claims about natural wine not adequately substantiated within the book itself. It is at these moments that Legeron inadvertently falls into a lack of transparency herself. Truthfully, this phenomenon appears most readily within the introduction, which, like opening arguments in a court case, might be the appropriate place for impassioned feeling. However, the presence of that approach in the introduction made me especially attuned to finding similar tone later in the book.

An example can be found in her section “Taste: What to Expect.” Though she began the book clarifying there is no definition of natural wine, here she goes on to proscribe what counts as natural while also asserting what natural tastes like.

In terms of taste or palate experience, she asserts that natural wines (a) “have a greater array of textures than conventional wines” (p 75), (b) have more deliciousness, (c) show umami, (d) tend to be lighter and more ethereal, with freshness, and digestibility, and (5) are also moody, or change-able. Having tasted many of the wines Legeron recommends as natural, however, it is clear these characteristics do not necessarily dominate the category.

As for proscribing the approach for natural wine, she offers that with natural wines (a) “the way in which they are farmed, [...] the vines are encouraged to cultivate deep roots” (p 75), and that in the cellar they (b) are “neither fined” (c) “nor filtered but, instead, are” (d) “given time to stabilize and settle” (p 75 her emphasis). Her claim of deep roots here depends on assuming that natural wines are made naturally in the cellar while also grown as such in the vineyard. However, many of the wines named in the back of the book do not fit all of these descriptions, thus illustrating the issue of inconsistency, and lack of coherent definition that many find inadequate with the category itself.

Part of the concern here is that while Legeron does not define what counts as natural wine she clearly does assume something coherent to the category that might not actually be supportable. Honestly? I’m not convinced the definition question is as central an issue as many critics of the category make it to be, but I’ll save that for a future discussion. However, there is an inconsistency happening in Legeron’s claims here that open the door good and wide for skeptics to have their hay day. As a leader in our understanding of this type of wine, part of her role is to address such issues.

Part of the brilliance of Legeron’s book can be found in sections 2, “Who, Where, When?”, and 3, “The Natural Wine Cellar.”

Here, Legeron shows off her ample knowledge of the wine world offering unique insights into the people, and places that make natural wines possible, as well as guiding the interested consumer on a tour through the wines she wants to drink. It’s a well-handled overview of the world of natural wines that goes in-depth enough to be useful to even the most knowledgeable reader, while still accessible enough for the novice.

The wealth of information offered throughout Legeron’s book proves impressive. She offers readers accessible explanations of key aspects of wine from wine faults to the role of the full process of farming to bottling, as well as insights into the relevance of dry farming, and what it means to be an artisan winegrower. In the midst of all this she shares charming profiles on exemplar producers, who in turn give a surprising range of insights on everything from harvesting birch water, to making apple cider.

At first brush, the range of information offered could seem in excessive of its subject. Some of it seems to have nothing to do with wine, like the birch water mentioned, a listing of medicinal plants and their uses, or instructions on how to forage a wild salad. However, the inclusion of such segments gives insight into Legeron’s overall view — the point is to think holistically.

For Legeron, natural wine is a matter of taste. She thinks it’s more delicious. As well as a question of health. She believes it’s better for us. And also a choice in lifestyle. For Legeron, natural wine reminds us we have the opportunity to choose what, as well as how we consume.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

1

Scratching and Sniffing with Jr

It’s not everyday you can read wine books with your kid, not to mention reading wine books first thing in the morning instead of watching cartoons. So, I decided to test out Richard Betts’s new book, The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert, by reading it side by side with Jr.

Richard Betts has created what he calls “a kid-style book about an adult topic” relying too on spirited illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton, and the design talents of Crystal English Sacca. The book’s approach gives a fun board book layout, complete with faux mirror at the start (for intensive wine study self-examination), actual scratch and sniff circles along the way, and a pull out wine chart at the back.

Even with its playful style (that is, don’t let the playful approach fool you), the book really does offer actual insight into the form that scents and flavors take in wine, including hints at varietal character, terroir, flaws, oak, and winemaking effects. By the end of the text, a dedicated reader with actual wines in hand for practice, can use the Scratch & Sniff‘s format to investigate basic varietal distinctions in wine, as well as essential Old World/New World type casting. It’s a fun process for learning solid wine basics across a vast field of styles and types. In other words, it’s a format you could use to enter into studying wine, or a book you could enjoy for loving wine more.

What the book doesn’t get into is structural components like tannins and acids, but considering the olfactory thematic of the book, that makes sense. It’s hard to scratch and sniff mouthfeel. This is a great gift for your friends that like wine, and are curious but find learning about it intimidating.

In other words, back to Jr. A teenager is a classic “why would I want to do what geeky mom likes to do?” sort of example of how well a wine book plays off outside the wine geek realm.

She’s had to suffer through visiting (not that many but a few top notch) vineyards and wineries, tasting historic wines when I come upon them (including the reasons she should be recording that palate experience in her memory), and even doing (wine) acid tastings to learn the distinctions between tartaric and malic acids. (It ruined her experience with hard candies for a little while.) All that said, she also finds wine boring.

So, what did Jr have to say about The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert?

From a teenage point of view, she gives Scratch & Sniff the highest compliment. That is, she actually picked it up again for the several-ith time to do this review, and spent a whole lot of time looking through the book repeatedly as well.

Here’s our conversation.

Reading wine books in PJs

from left: Me, Jr, in our robes in the morning

Jr: Mom, of course books on wine aren’t going to be very interesting for someone who cannot enjoy wine, such as a teenager like myself…

Hawk: Wait, can you say more about why as a teenager you can’t enjoy it?

Jr: Because, like, I can’t enjoy it yet, because, um, (laughing) my mouth has not matured to the point where, like, I can fully appreciate it, you know?, although this book’s creative presentation and approach is fun to look at, play with, and see because it has fun comics and it’s interesting to scratch and sniff different things in the book… (turning pages) Like, bacon!

Hawk: But there’s no bacon in there!

Jr: Yeah, there is! Mom! It’s right there!

Hawk: Whoa.

Jr: Wait. I can’t smell it. I can’t smell the bacon.

Hawk: Let me smell. Oh! I can smell it. But it does smell almost like chocolate. I like chocolate. Huh. That’s one of the few pages that has more than one smelly thing on it.

Jr: Nah ahh! You just haven’t been looking closely enough. (smells another page)You gotta full-on feel the whole page to find it. Wait, why do you want me to just rub the smell circles, instead of scratch them?

Hawk: Because then they’ll last longer.

Jr: What? Oh. Does it make the smell go away less?

Hawk: Yeah, it wears off slower that way. I grew up on Scratch & Sniff books. Did you know there used to be a whole world of Scratch & Sniff books?

Jr: (Quietly) No. (Sighs, and cuddles up.)

Hawk: Does it make you sad?

Jr: Yeah.

Hawk: Do you want people to make more Scratch & Sniff books?

Jr: Yeah.

Hawk: Would it help you to smell the cherries again?

Jr: I didn’t see any cherries. What cherries? (looking back through the book again)

Hawk: Yeah! There’s a red AND a black cherry, and they smell different.

Jr: Oh! I like how the black cherry smells better than the red. Oh! There’s even vanilla! Yeah, I like that one, the vanilla.

Reading wine books in PJs

Jr reading about “other” (not earth, fruit, or wood) scents to me

Hawk: So, you know more than the average U.S. teenager on wine…

Jr: Well, duh, Mom! My mom is a wine writer! (flipping through the book) I wanna know what butter smells like. (scratches the book) Oh! The grass smells good! Wait, why doesn’t the wet dog, or the wet newspaper have one? That would be fun.

Hawk: Okay, but you know more than the average teenager about wine. So, can you tell me reading this book, what you still learn about wine that you didn’t know before?

Jr: No. No I can’t. (laughing)

Hawk: If you spend a little more time with the book I think you could.

Jr: No! I was joking, Mom! …So, just talk about stuff I didn’t know?

Hawk: Yeah.

Jr: I didn’t know there were so many white wines. I knew what the red wines were. But some of the white wines, I didn’t even know how to say, and they were weird to me. Also, I like how they were talking about how not all oaks are created equal, because I really like that picture, and I think it’s a good way to approach it and it helped me put my mind around that a little more.

Hawk: Around what?

Jr: How different oaks are. See? This is the French one right here (pointing to the illustration of an oak barrel in a beret, next to another oak barrel in a cowboy hat)

Hawk: Ah-hoh-hoh! (feigning ridiculous French accent and eyebrow raise)

Jr: Yes. Yes. Okay. The French one–cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, toast–but if you add dill and coconut to all that, then it’s American. See that? Yee haw! American! It’s about oak!

Reading wine books in PJs

She’s sniffing red, I’m sniffing black cherry

Hawk: Anything you wish was in the book?

Jr: Yeah! I wish it had a scent for wet dog and/or wet newspaper! I also wish it had a scent for burnt rubber. I think it would have been cool if on the last page there had been a whole page to just smell all the white wines and all the red wines and you would smell them and identify everything and see what you learned. Then on the next page it would say what most people identify in the wines, you know, like wine descriptions.

Hawk: But isn’t that a lot of wines? What if you just had actual wine next to you instead?

Jr: I don’t mean like every single wine. I just mean, like, how it talks about Syrah, cause I like bacon, then you have a scratchy for Syrah.

Hawk: But there are so many kinds of Syrah, depending on vintage, and climate, and soil, and winemaker, that would be difficult to put into a book.

Jr: Oh shucks. Well, read this book, then instead of that last page you should just buy wine and sniff that instead. Go ahead, go get real wine! Test what you learned like that.

***

My copy of this book was received at a book release party hosted by the creators of the book, and Cartograph Wines.

For NPR’s look: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/10/17/236160686/scratch-n-sniff-your-way-to-wine-expertise-or-at-least-more-fun

For Brain Picking’s review: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/15/scratch-and-sniff-guide-to-becoming-a-wine-expert/

For sample pages and more on where to purchase: http://myessentialwine.com/book/

***

The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine ExpertRichard Betts
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co
22 pages
$19.99

***

Thank you to Richard Betts, Wendy MacNaughton, Crystal English Sacca, and Chris Sacca.

Thank you to Alan Baker and Serena Lourie.

Thank you to Carla Rzeszewski.

Thank you to Jr.

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

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.

***
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

***

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

***

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

A Look at the Delectable-VinTank Exclusive Partnership

Delectable Screen Shot

a screen shot of Delectable 3.0s new Regions’ tracking

In a development announced just today (Wednesday, October 16, 2013), Delectable has partnered with VinTank. The partnership is exclusive for both companies, effectively pumping VinTank’s massive social media capabilities through the Delectable Application.

Delectable is known primarily as a wine app available for iPhone users in which they can record, and share the wines they’ve been drinking, as well as follow others in the worldwide community. With their recent 3.0 upgrade, the app has also integrated an exciting regional mapping system, and a wine recommendation system. The synchronicity of Delectable’s 3.0 release with the iPhone 7.0 upgrade also expanded the International user base.

VinTank is known as a well established tool for wineries to track social media. When using VInTank, wineries receive a signal that someone is talking about them, letting them know what is said, and who they are. Perhaps most importantly, via the VinTank platform, those wineries are then also able to respond directly through the chatter to say thank you to a consumer for drinking their wine. As VinTank CEO, Paul Mabray, explains, “we’re working to make wineries more human and engaging by helping to connect the consumer with who is behind the bottle, to build a relationship.” The platform makes connection between wineries and consumers easier.

VinTank already tracks wine engagement through the social media channels of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and FourSquare. The new partnership makes Delectable the only wine app with such a high level of connection, treated at a similar level as Twitter or Four Square within VinTank’s platform. Delectable’s program is currently only available for iPhone users. However, with VinTank, wineries are able to comment within Delectable from outside the Delectable system, making it possible for Android (for example) users to also engage.

The partnership for Delectable with VinTank, then, deepens the connectivity between winery and consumer in the Delectable framework as well. Winemakers have already been using the application, thereby sharing their wine drinking experiences with an interested consumer audience. With the new partnership, those same winemakers are now able to more readily interact with consumers that are drinking their wine.

In this context, part of what is significant about Delectable is the self-selected nature of the app. People downloading a wine only application to use on their iPhones have already crossed a threshold of engagement with wine that isn’t obvious through the other social media channels. Delectable is thereby giving VinTank customers the highest level of social media relevance–already known-to-be wine lovers.

From the consumer perspective, VinTank’s access to Delectable makes contact with the producers of the wines they love more possible. As Delectable CEO, Alex Fishman, explains, “we’re trying to develop interaction [with winemakers and producers] for people that can’t travel around the world meeting with them directly.” Delectable users continue with the app in the same way they already have but behind the scenes the scale of engagement has increased via VinTank by giving wineries easier and better access.

As Fishman describes, “the single most exciting project for us, from the beginning, is deepening the connections between consumers and producers.”

***

More on Delectable 3.0 in the next couple weeks.

Full disclosure: I use Delectable.

***

Thank you Alex Fishman, Julia Weinberg, and Dan Fredman.

Thank you to Paul Mabray.

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

From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes & Wine in the Russian River Valley, A Documentary

a map of the Russian River Valley AVA, approved in 1983; image from Russian River Valley Winegrowers

In 1997 Maurice Joe Nugent began planting grapes in the Russian River Valley, having found his calling, in a sense, after leaving a professorship in Chemistry in order to fulfill his hope of living in California. Within a few years the fruit had proved to be reliable and he found himself enjoying his days driving a tractor about the property, pulling leaves to moderate sun exposure, and simply enjoying his new career. While walking through the vineyard he began to wonder about the history of the place–how did wine in Russian River Valley get so good?

That initial question set Joe off on a quest of talking to people on film–asking them to tell their stories about their life of wine in the area of the AVA founded in 1983, but reaching back to a history of wine production established well before Prohibition. What is remarkable about the project is that Joe succeeds in recording interviews with men that not only lived through Prohibition, but also helped jump start the California wine industry immediately after its demise.

The interviews have been brought together in a documentary film to tell the story of what is now called the Russian River Valley. What this film does well is bring together a wealth of information with the intimate insights of genuine story telling. The interviews shown throughout capture men in the revelry of their memories, offering a glimpse at the lives the people of the area have lived, while eliciting the history of the place itself. In this way, one can’t help but be charmed with how the history is told. At the same time, the movie offers clear insight into details of the industry’s trajectory, along with some, perhaps, illicit implications into the founding of one of the larger producers of wine in the area.

Where the movie limits itself is in a few interviews filmed with less polished technical effect. What becomes clear by the end of the documentary, however, is that those moments offer irreplaceable recordings of men sharing history. The rougher interviews are included for this reason–they are irreplaceable. Some of the figures shown in the story are no longer alive. In this way, the movie is an opportunity to hear from our elders in the wine industry, those any of us in Sonoma County are, in a sense, indebted to.

From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes & Wine in the Russian River Valley shares the history of pre-Prohibition immigration and migration to the then-remote area of Northern Sonoma, the post-Prohibition boom, and the quite recent move from bulk wine to a focus on quality, resulting in the development of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as the area’s grape figure heads. Best of all, the movie manages to share this history alongside the charm of real people that impacted the success of the wine industry in Sonoma.

***

From Obscurity to Excellence: The Story of Grapes and Wine in the Russian River Valley will celebrate its release on December 1, 2012 at the Wells Fargo Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA.

For more information about the movie visit the movie’s website: http://www.russian-river-valley.com/

To purchase tickets for the December 1 screening (some of the people interviews in the film will also be present at the screening): http://events.pressdemocrat.com/santa_rosa_ca/events/show/293052645-russian-river-valley-grapes-and-wines-movie

***

Thank you to Joe Nugent for including me in the pre-release screening, and for taking time to talk with me.

Thank you to Kanchan Kinkade.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com. WakawakaWineReviews

 

Building Delectable: Alex Fishman and Aaron Vanderbeek Brainstorm

“What Can We Do To Make the World a More Delicious Place? The conversation started over breakfast in May a year ago, at Gramercy Park, in New York City. Alex Fishman had just returned from half a year working in Dubai, and his long time friend, Aaron Vanderbeek, just happened to be visiting the city on vacation from San Francisco.

Alex Fishman: How Big Data Operates Behind Learning & Loving Wine

Alex Fishman, Delectable co-founder, enjoying life on the go

Not all that familiar with wine at the time, Alex Fishman and his girlfriend had happened upon a bottle in the Dubai duty free shop that they enjoyed. They wanted to remember the wine to purchase again later, but reading the label to sort out the basic information–producer, type, vintage–was daunting. How could they learn more about a wine, if it was hard just to identify what wine they’d enjoyed? It occurred to Fishman that other consumers likely have similar trouble. He was struck with the challenge of how to make it easier.

Fishman’s work history has sorted its way through the realm of big data. In illustrating the reality of such work, he references the success of Paypal. Fishman explains that what that company did better than any other ecommerce money exchange site at its inception (Paypal got started in the late 90s, becoming a subsidary of Ebay in 2002) was fight and prevent online fraud. At the time Paypal started, numerous online money exchange companies were in operation. The difference was that while other exchange sites relied on artificial intelligence to spot fraud activities, the people behind Paypal recognized that anyone determined to defraud consumers would be smarter, more innovative than a programmed computer. Paypal chose, then, to use computers for what they did well–querying and sorting vast collections of data–while people worked with those computers to exercise their human assets–spotting patterns and anomalies in online behavior. The combination worked, setting Paypal as a leader in online financial exchange and security.

The Paypal model led to applications in other forms of security as well, including national security and border protections. The company Palantir, where Fishman worked, was born. What Palantir did was extend the financial security model that Paypal had delivered, into national border defenses to fight terrorism, increase the safety of international monetary exchange, and track crime. Included in Fishman’s trajectory with the company was six months working in Dubai, developing security solutions appropriate to the social environment there. But after several years of working in the realities of border security both in the United States and abroad, Fishman began wanting to use his skills to improve the richness of everyday life within a country’s borders. He decided to return to New York.

Aaron Vanderbeek: The Life of an Entertainment Engineer

Aaron Vanderbeek, Delectable co-founder, on the verge of infectious laughter

After completing an undergraduate education in a Music and Mechanical Engineering double major, Aaron Vanderbeek began developing nano fabrication techniques for the production of memory cards, or d-ram, with the company Samsung. Though he did incredibly well at the project, he realized his heart wasn’t singing from the work, and he decided to return to graduate school to move his career in a direction that tuned in closer to his interests. Carnegie Mellon offered a Master’s Program in Entertainment Technology, offering their advanced students the opportunity to dive into deep study of multiple avenues of entertainment from Theatre to Amusement Parks to Video Games to Television, in order to learn the fundamentals behind creating entertainment. The result of the program was to give successful students the confidence to design all different types of entertainment through all different mediums. That is, what Vanderbeek learned through the program were the foundational skills needed to design experiences.

In completing his Master’s, Vanderbeek made it his goal to find his way to San Francisco to live and for work. The move led to him working for companies in the city first to design hard-core gamer entertainment, like Dante’s Inferno, and then after, mobile social media games. The experience led to Vanderbeek applying his skills with building entertainment systems to the realm of interactive software and social media. Then Fishman called.

A little over a year ago, in May, back in the United States, Fishman decided to call his friend, Vanderbeek, hoping to schedule a Skype chat to catch up. By coincidence, Vanderbeek was actually visiting New York at the time so instead of video conferencing, the two met for breakfast. Fishman began relating his interest in working for the sake of life within borders, while Vanderbeek talked about his work in video game design. By the end of breakfast the two had realized a common goal–to make life more delicious–and brainstormed the early stages of an answer to the question of how to do just that. As the meal came to a close, Vanderbeek made Fishman a deal. If Fishman would move to San Francisco, Vanderbeek would quit his job so the two could work together. By September, a year ago, the two had incorporated their new company, Delectable.

Delectable: The Wine App, 2.0

a screen capture of my recent Delectable wine diary as the system identifies a Vermouth I posted. I’ve been trying it out and been acting tricky, posting pictures of other drinks besides wine and images with lots of corks or multiple bottles. Delectable’s id’ing softwear really does always work. Amazing. This image shows only one screen within the program. Other page views of the app show what friends have been drinking, or recent activity, among other things.

Together, Fishman and Vanderbeek built their iPhone App, Delectable 1.0, offering a way to help users identify and remember wines. The original design allowed users to take and store a photo of a bottle of wine to build a kind of wine diary for bottles to be remembered later. The remarkable element of the app though went beyond simply storing images–the app identified and named the wine for you, recording the producer, vintage, and exact wine type–alleviating the kind of confusion originally felt by Fishman in the duty free shop in Dubai. Since the release of version 1.0, the pair have gone on to develop a Delectable team with other engineers, both from the tech and the wine side, to assist in expanding the functionality of the app.

Today, November 1, marks the official release of version 2.0. With the upgrade, Delectable expands the program to a more community based experience. Much like Instagram, a user on Delectable can share an image to their online community with comments as desired. However, while on Instagram you simply post a picture, on Delectable the wine in the image is identified for you. But further, what Delectable 2.0 does differently is not only identify the exact wine, but also offer a simple rating system for that wine with room to type in comments, and a way to purchase it again. The Delectable team works with the best possible source for locating requested wines at no additional cost to the user. What the Delectable 2.0 app does, then, is combine Image-identifying software with the benefits of social media and online retail, all in your phone.

As Fishman and Vanderbeek describe it, they believe wine is to be shared and enjoyed. Their goal, then, is to make every step of the wine finding-and-buying process easier for the consumer to help increase that enjoyment, while also helping the consumer to connect to smaller wine producers to share in unique experiences. In their view what differentiates Delectable 2.0 from many other wine apps is the source of information and income.

Other wine apps generally make their money, and therefore also direct their marketing, based on resources directly from a wine seller–be it a producer brand, an importer, or a distributor. The reality of that is that mostly larger companies can afford such efforts, and as a result it is often larger producers that direct what is marketed, mentioned or sold on other wine apps.

The difference with Delectable is that it is individuals that get to post for themselves the wines they enjoy, whatever those wines happen to be. Since each user also decides for themselves who they want to follow on Delectable, individuals on the Delectable platform are driving what wines anyone is or isn’t exposed to, rather than marketing companies directing such influence. It isn’t that users can’t post wines made or sold by larger groups–indeed users can share any wine they enjoy. It’s that what is posted is directed by the consumers themselves. In this way, Fishman and Vanderbeek see themselves as helping to fill a gap in the wine world–the opportunity for consumers to connect more directly with wine made from smaller producers.

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Congratulations to Alex Fishman and Aaron Vanderbeek, and the entire Delectable team on today’s official release of version 2.0!

The Delectable 2.0 app is free. Check it out!

If you are interested in downloading the app you can do so in the Apple app store here: del.ec/download?ew

Thank you to Alex and Aaron for taking the time to meet with me. Thank you to Julia Weinberg.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

Eric Asimov’s “How to Love Wine”

My copy of Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto has already been filled with folded down corners and marks on pertinent sections. The pencil appears where he shares ideas I want to reflect on further–like his consideration that a great wine moves in “a fragile ambiguity” offering experiences of doubt and tension (48). The dog ears hover over moments of prose I find enticing and beautiful. There is a sort of almost incongruity in this, as Asimov’s writing here focuses on a central thesis–wine is for ease and pleasure. Along with that thesis, is a common refrain recommending we move away from the tasting note culture of wine, in which apparently objective analysis seems to bear down on bottles, and to instead drink wine as integral to a culture of enjoyment. For me to mark the text, then, as an academic would, with notes of professional analysis, might seem to avoid Asimov’s point. The ultimate conclusion Asimov offers, however, supports that there is no one right style of wine, and no one right answer on what should be enjoyed. (There are some recommendations on how to enjoy it–over time, with a meal, etc., but not a limitation on those possible ways.) It is instead, simply, that if we wish, we should feel free to go ahead and love wine.

Asimov’s book brings together the journalistic tone we know of him already from his regular writing in The New York Times, with personal stories in which he invites us into some of the intimate moments that changed his view of wine. I found myself charmed at the flow of these remembrances, feeling for the younger Asimov that revels in the joy of discovering the power of a meal, that is, “the sum total of the event” (107)–the place, the mood, the food, the place settings, the wine. And especially for the Asimov that celebrates sharing these moments with others, including a 30-year Bordeaux with his parents on their 30-year anniversary. And that I believe is part of the point of this book.

Let me explain.

There are times in this read when I question the contrast between the more spare manifesto tone, and the memoir approach. The book begins with the sense that it needs to convince us of something, and at first I resisted what felt to me an opening with a defensive stance. After the first couple chapters, however, we step into a more relaxed voice that wants to share stories with us, and invite us into a more familiar understanding of Asimov’s personal connections with wine. By the conclusion it is clear Asimov, as he puts it, does not wish to proselytize. The early chapters, then, must stand for some other purpose. At first the move from the earlier, into the narrative reflection felt disjointed to me. In moving through the book as a whole, however, I recognize these first chapters are there to do what might be important work–that is, help us to clear a space for ourselves from the heavy assumptions of a wine culture that demands infallible knowledge and analytic tasting notes. In stepping out from under such weight, we can instead simply breath, relax, and enjoy as we read. Not only for hedonistic pleasure, but also for the sense of complexity that comes with no longer expecting an expert to deliver packaged and memorizable answers for us. The responsibility of authority comes back to us. In purposefully helping to create this kind of space, I believe Asimov is doing something to be appreciated, and that he can be thanked for.

U.S. wine culture often appears as intimidating, pretentious, and alien. Novices and connoisseurs alike doubt their own ability to successfully select a bottle of wine, as if it is a test not only of ones knowledge, but perhaps too of ones value as a person, or as a professional. There is, in other words, a fear that when it comes to wine it is far too easy to screw up. Eric Asimov, with his job as the Wine Critic of The New York Times stands as one of the arbiters of taste for the nation, and the world of wine at large. With such a position, then, if there are people qualified for delivering the test results of appropriate wine knowledge and value, Asimov is one of them. From that position of authority, Asimov avoids announcing what wine it is right for us to drink, and instead invites us to relax and enjoy whatever we drink with greater ease and freedom of pleasure. In this way, the stories he tells us are not only wonderful anecdotes about a person I love to read. They are also invitations for us to see that he (and by implication, the other arbiters of taste in the wine world too) is simply a person. Any experts in wine have ample knowledge, yes (and that should no doubt be respected), but the knowledge they have arises from their own experience with wine over time. Wine knowledge, then, is dynamic, changing, and, at its root, personal. If we want to love wine, we can develop our relationship with it ourselves too, just as Asimov or any other expert has.

By sharing his memoir with us, Asimov accomplishes the manifesto portion of his text by example. In the midst of what might otherwise seem alien, or intimidating (the world of wine), what Asimov’s book does, is invite us in to the experience.

***

Eric Asimov‘s book How To Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto was officially released today, October 16, 2012. It is available in the United States from William Morrow.

Thank you to the William Morrow division of Harper Collins for sending me an advanced copy of this book.

Most importantly: Congratulations and thank you to Eric Asimov for this excellent book, and for all his important work. May we all strive to bring such humility, grace, and clarity in excellence.

***
To hear more on the book from Eric Asimov himself, check out this interview by Levi Dalton on his podcast series, I’ll Drink to That! “Episode 33″.

Asimov, Eric. How To Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto. ISBN: 9780061802522; ISBN10: 0061802522; Imprint: William Morrow ; On Sale: 10/16/2012; Format: Hardcover; Trimsize: 5 1/2 x 8 1/4; Pages: 272; $24.99

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

 

image from www.randomhouse.com

The conflict of growing up in Alaska defined life for me well into my thirties when I warned a friend, “this summer I’m likely to start speaking as if I want to move back. When you hear this, you have to remind me, don’t.”

The place for me carried the intense devotion of family, or family like connections. Our ancestors and the people my parents knew spread across the entire state, and even to every stop along the West coast of the United States we ever took (we’d bump into people my dad knew in the middle of no-where-we-knew California as likely as we would in downtown Anchorage). It felt as though family was everywhere. When it came to literal family, my great grandparents were the people I felt I’d do anything to help. They’d cared for me every summer till I was 10 when I started commercial fishing full time. Their presence also provided a constancy and sense of protection that comes with having older generations near by. When they entered their 80s still living alone, though by then one blind and the other almost deaf, I called the high school in their town of less than 600 to find out what it would take to graduate there so I could move in with them and help. (They moved into Anchorage with my parents and I instead.)

At the same time I grew with a deep thirst for science, literature, art, and culture that I felt was deeply alien to Alaska. That was likely unfair on my part. It’s not that these things weren’t there, but the ways I wanted to find them I couldn’t locate in my hometown. I had a hunger to travel and live elsewhere that wouldn’t leave me. The truth is, though I feel devotion to my sisters and parents too, when my great grandparents died in my early 20s I realized one of my primary goals was to stay away from Alaska long enough to find for myself a sense of clarity  amidst the tension the place had established inside me.

Something I strove to articulate during my graduate work in philosophy, and my brief tenure as a creative writer too, was the formative attachment to place that arises out of living a culturally Native lifestyle. Though my family spent 3/4 of the year in Anchorage, we based the foundations of our lives in the force of the land–not just the simple ground but the broader environment of climate, and seasons, and tidal influences, and people too. It is not that only Native people live this sense of place (indeed the French idea of terroir I take to be something partially resembling it), but that this robust sense of place is somehow definitive of what it means to really understand the term indigenous. That is, indigenous as a claim of being fully both from and of somewhere.

So, for someone with my particular background, setting a goal of staying away from a place that so thoroughly defines my roots and way of being is a kind of personal abuse even as it is simultaneously a demand for personal freedom.

In dealing with the continual pull I’ve felt through my adult life to return to Alaska, I’ve developed too a fault of arrogance–a sense of pride in being the one member of my family that has lived away for decades.

It’s funny, then, now to finally take my sister Melanie’s advice and read Jay McInerney‘s recently published book of wine writing in the style of wine travel memoirs plus smart wine reflection. Funny because, in my arrogance, I consistently rebuffed her suggestion, skeptical I’d like it, and she steadily encouraged me to consider it anyway. Funny too because it is in realizing she was right, I’m forced to see the pride, and, in the same moment, watch it de-puff a little (thank god).

(To be fair to myself, my resistance to his book largely arose out of my own need to recover from over a decade of life spent in intensive textual analysis because of my career in philosophy.)

In reading McInerney’s book, The Juice: Vinous Veritas, I found myself smiling, intrigued, and lured in by that projective fantasy offered by the best writing, of imagining I somehow know the person. In his brief accounts (each based on columns from the now defunct House & Garden, or the more recent Wall Street Journal), McInerney manages that delicate balance of narrative focus blended with intelligent revelations of the wines themselves. To put it another way, he presents a collection to be enjoyed from which any of us can also learn.

The truth is, McInerney’s book has also earned scathing critique, much of it reading as a sort of retaliation against his perceived cult of personality, rather than as substantial disagreement with the quality of the book itself. Though moments when the critique has verged on disagreement with the quality, I’ve been inclined to push the question of the book’s purpose. That is, it is only in recognizing what sort of book McInerney is offering that we can really judge how well he’s succeeded in the project.

There is some portion of The Juice that is likely possible because of his well-known personal history, and other portions dependent on his own thirst for the rich side of American life (cars, travel, and attractive women, though honestly what’s wrong with any of us that don’t appreciate at least two of those). That said, what works in this writing is its narrative focus. McInerney’s style is not that of a wine textbook, or even that of a wine critic. Instead, he invites the reader to share in his experience of discovering new wines, or going deeper with others he’s encountered before. In his version of the experience, the context deeply counts. The point here is not to remove himself from the story to give an apparently objective analysis of wine, nor to teach the reader wine knowledge, but to go another other way by delving further into the subject and subjective both–McInerney drinking wine. It’s, as I said already, wine memoir. What makes this approach work though is the narrative’s grounding in wine facts. While heavily taking that memoir approach, McInerney is sharing, what my sister would call, kernels of insight into each of the regions, or varieties, or wine makers he writes about. You leave each column charmed, and with at least a piece of information too to take away. If your goal is to learn everything you can about wine, this is not the right book. If your goal is to read about wine, and also take it easy, McInerney is for you.

McInerney’s stories here include a full section of wading into Burgundy; an escape from the big names of Napa through visits with more cult-like figures of the region including Schoener of Scholium Project, and his buddy up the road, Matthiasson, along with the steady figure Petroski; a charming reflection on a career of travels with fellow House & Garden alum Lora Zarubin; a visit through the seemingly contradictory stylings of Santa Rita Hills chardonnay–and that’s when it hits me…

I’ve planned my entire summer of writing about wine, and its regions in the United States, for my own sake, surely, but more deeply out of some sort of devotion to Melanie, and her very particular loves in wine. Most of the trips I’ve decided to take are those she’s either lived in herself, or wished to better understand in wine. I’m even returning to my family’s fishing grounds in Bristol Bay, the home of my great grandparents, to walk (and weep, I’m sure too) in the quiet place of half my family’s history all the way back. I’ll be there during the fishing season, to take pictures and write about the work my family still does, now five generations deep.

Growing up, Melanie would excitedly give me a gift for a birthday, or holiday, or whatever, and she’d tell me just after I opened it that she’d chosen it, yes, because she thought I would like it, but also too because she knew she did. I always understood this as a deep compliment to me on her part. Still, it took me years to be able to explain it to others. For Melanie, the joy is in the sharing of appreciation, even if the person isn’t physically there with you right in that moment, though often better if they are. Just like in wine. Just like in McInerney’s approach to wine writing.

***

McInerney, Jay, 2012. The Juice: Vinous Veritas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pages. $26.95 hardcover.

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Thank you to my sister for putting up with me.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com