Book, Film, App Review

For the Love of Wine

Alice Feiring For the Love of Wine

My great grandfather died in the Spring. He was buried in remote Alaska. At his request, we clothed him in the gilded robe he wore as reader for the Russian Orthodox Church, a role he prided himself in, assisting the Priest during service.

His funeral was held in the Orthodox tradition. Incense burned during prayer and filled the air with the scent of amber and smokey beeswax with blossoms. At the graveside, Aleut and Yupik women from the oldest generation sang prayers in a language whose words I couldn’t understand. The tones of grief, and spiritual hope were familiar to me. We lowered his coffin and threw clumps of dirt on top. The first handfuls from the family hit the lidded metal box with echoing thumps.

My grandfather’s part of remote Alaska has long been an intersection of Alaska Native and Orthodox traditions. By now the two are so intertwined I have a hard time telling them apart. Some of my stories of Alaska Native life I cannot distinguish between traditions of the Church or traditions of the people. For my family the two were the same.

This is the way with older ethnic cultures, an inter-braiding of traditions that is the texture and life breath of every day. It’s a layering and complexity that differs from newer cultures like the mainstream United States. In a global economy we are greeted by flavors and imports from around the world. It’s a dynamic process that means our culture can seem complex, but the difference is a matter of what we hold onto and live through daily life, versus what we greet as yet another flash of another something new.

Alice Feiring‘s new book, For the Love of Wine: My odyssey through the world’s most ancient wine culture, offers us intimacy, albeit in the temporary way of a well-invested traveler, with a long-standing culture. Through her writing she shares an intricately inter-braided world, the culture of Georgia in which food, wine, farming, friendship, Orthodox religion, mysticism, a turbulent long-term and recent history, economic struggle, the effect of totalitarian politics, resilience, its grief and its stamina all weave as the textural richness of everyday life. In this way, her writing in this book is brilliant. At the same time, it also feels new.

Feiring brings to her writing on Georgia a simultaneous freshness and refinement that surpasses that of her previous books. Through it she has not lost the self-certainty and sense of righteousness that can flare in her other writing when she stomps against the homogenizing force of industrialized winemaking or the dumbing influence of globalization. It is that here the love that fuels her willingness to fight has deepened and we are seeing Feiring even more honestly than before. It is through her judicious use of memoir to deliver the story that we discover our intimacy with the place of which she writes.

For the Love of Wine follows Feiring through a series of visits in Georgia. Chapters, loosely speaking, showcase a different producer and a different region of her discovery. Each installment, then, becomes a kind of character study of the producers of Georgia, as well as Feiring’s travelogue, at the same time that she delivers facts on the country’s history and winemaking. Finally, each chapter ends with a recipe.

The recipe: it’s a move that in most cases, when used as a chapter endnote like this, becomes the marker of a less serious book. A moment when we find the writing is charming, and leave it at that. But Feiring pulls off the risk. Here in the recipe chapter-close the stories she tells us become tangible. We as readers peer through the distance into the meals she shares with winemakers and their families, and then are invited into the experience by seeing how to make the food they ate. In most cases wines to pair are also suggested, either by implication via the chapter’s content or directly. Whether we choose to execute the dishes or not, Feiring has, in a sense, offered us a way to bridge the gap of distance. The winemakers have not just poured her their wine, and shared their stories, they have given us the warmth of their own traditional recipes. And here I find an implicit tension in Feiring’s writing.

By sharing the culture of Georgia, Feiring seeks to help preserve it. In this way, she mobilizes a kind of cultural jujutsu using the force of globalization — writing a book that will be read internationally, encouraging international distribution of artisanal wines, inspiring international tourism by sharing insights of a unique place — to help make the winemakers’ economy strong enough to support its own local aims and afford its long-standing traditions. Where her writing before has rallied against the homogenizing force of globalization, here she has found a means to use that power for the sake of what she believes in.

Feiring is not naive to the gamble.

Integral to the tone of the entire book is the intricacy of grief. For the Love of Wine is dedicated to her brother, who we discover early in the text has been diagnosed with cancer. Through the course of Feiring’s travels we come to know the story of their relationship, and follow the progression of his illness as she comes to know it herself. At its first introduction, the inclusion of such a private matter comes as a starkly personal incursion in the midst of a book apparently written about wine. But as the story continues, the feeling of Feiring’s grief begins to echo the bass note harmonic that thrums in the background of any such long-standing culture.

A people that have survived wars, famines, epidemics, and colonization by an outside power forever hum in their song the chord of grief. It becomes not a mere burden but an even inspiring part of the culture’s life force. Inspiration — the sixth stage of grief after acceptance, when that bass note harmonic thrums us, not loose, but back into living. Feiring’s willingness to let us grieve with her, then, actually helps us more readily recognize the feeling of Georgia.

Ultimately, it is here in the thrum we find Feiring drinking in her love of wine. For it is the thrum that makes wine more than merely part of a meal. We see this in the Christian tradition where communal wine becomes the blood of Christ thus offering us new life through the forgiveness of sins. Or, as Feiring points out, in Jewish tradition, where wine serves as the blessing in a meal “from weddings to births” (43). Or for Georgians, where “the strength of the Georgian wine” rises from “the blood of […] ancestors” (21). In each case as we raise the cup, or in the case of Feiring and her friends, the Georgian horn, we enjoy not merely wine, but a drink that contains tradition, friendship, forgiveness, blessing, food, history, elixir.


For the Love of Wine
My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture
Alice Feiring
208 pp
19 recipes, 22 illustrations, 1 map

This book was received for the purpose of review from the University of Nebraska Press. 

Copyright 2016 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


In Gratitude, For Tom, with thanks to Karen

“The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard

Paul and Anna Chukan, my great grandparents

Paul and Anna Chukan, my maternal great grandparents. Photo by my sister, Melanie Brown

I’ve spoken before about my life change. In 2010 I won a year long research fellowship at Dartmouth College. I’d done doctoral work at McGill University in Montreal and had a professor position in philosophy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Dartmouth paid me to work in residence on the projects I already had in place. My presence there was meant to support my own work as much as it was to enlarge the already vibrant conversation occurring at Dartmouth through outside influence. While there I contracted pneumonia. At its worst I couldn’t stand and speak at the same time. I visited the emergency room three times, and went through three rounds of antibiotics before recovering two months later. In the midst of it I realized it was time for me to leave academia. I’d devoted my entire adult life and a doctoral program to that career but recognizing the need to leave, I gave myself a year to get out gracefully. I assumed I’d have a new career in place by the end of the year. I returned to Northern Arizona University to do one more year teaching in a town I loved.

The day I turned in the keys to my office and my final grades, thus closing my contract at Northern Arizona University, my daughter, Rachel, was in Alaska visiting our family. The house was empty. I returned home having left academia for the last time and sat on the couch. The house was silent. It was winter so the light was low. And I was alone with no plans before me. I had begun drawing my wine illustrations but did not yet know that would become the basis of a strange new career. At Dartmouth I recognized a path of academic life blazing before me clear and bright. I’d established myself in that profession in a way that delivered clear options before me. Now, it was as if I stood in an open field. No path or trail cut of direction reaching to the horizon. Nothing leading before me. No others standing beside me. No guidance. The terror of that moment was profound. I felt there was nothing to do but let the terror come. Everything in me felt still and quiet while the immeasurable mass of the unknown crashed over me and then crashed over me again. I had walked away from a career I’d devoted myself to and done well in, given up something I was good at simply because my intuition said it was time. It was clear the best thing for me to do was sleep. So I went to bed and slept 14 hour nights for a month.

Tom Wark posted yesterday about Karen MacNeil‘s recent keynote address at the Wine Blogger’s Conference in the Finger Lakes. Karen spoke at the Wine Writers’ Symposium here in Napa Valley in February. There she shared a story about the challenges of beginning her writing career – how long it took to have even one article accepted; how little money she had in the meantime. The contrast between her clear success now and the starkness of her writing roots then was inspiring. There is power in such perseverance. In telling the story of her path it was as if she shared that power with all of us.

In Tom’s article on Karen, he admires her resilience and then also considers a conundrum. How do we invest in a job that seems so unimportant as writing about wine? How do we find our inspiration?

Stephan and Malquay Ivanoff, my great grandparents

Stephan and Malquay Ivanoff, my paternal great grandparents. Photographer unknown

My work as a philosophy professor was something I believed in utterly. My doctoral dissertation investigated the question of what it means to be indigenous. The inspiration came entirely from my own family. I am an Aleut and Inupiat woman from Alaska that was lucky enough to be raised with extended family, our traditional foods, and a multi-generational blanket of family stories. During my doctoral program I discovered I was likely the first Aleut to pursue a doctorate in philosophy. The relevance of that was clear. In doing any of my work I felt my great grandparents, my grandparents, my late uncles, my distant cousins, and generations of ancestors I’d never met standing quiet and strong behind me. Their spirit was there to help push my work forward because I was there, in a sense, doing it for all of us. Any time I sat at my desk to write they were there. If I spoke in front of groups or when I was teaching they were there. Their presence gave me a power to do my work. The most difficult aspect of leaving my career rested there. I had, without meaning to, become a metaphorical conduit for my people. Whether I wrote about my family or not, my family in some way saw my work as about them. For me too, it was. They were a reason for me to invest completely in what I was doing. In leaving my career I was also choosing to leave that role as a sort of intellectual elder, and to risk losing that sense of all my ancestors beside me. When I closed my contract I walked away from work that was for all of them and for the first time stood in that open field alone.

It took time for me to recognize I’d begun a career in wine. In the meantime, it was simply something I was doing because I am a person built for projects, and wine gave me one. I poured all of my energy into building that project. For two years I visited as many vintners as possible for intensive one-on-one tastings and conversations at least five days a week without a break or pay, sharing much of what I was doing online. Posting my project online via this blog and social media was in its origin simply a means for me to circumscribe my own work. I wasn’t attempting to build an audience. Instead, I needed a way to recognize progress. In graduate school I’d developed a process of researching a subject then writing an in depth summary for my supervisors as a way of maintaining a conversation. Without a supervisor in wine, sharing an account of my vintner visits online gave me a way to imagine something like that conversation and see an accumulation of work. It was a way to hold myself accountable. Eventually I looked up and realized I’d built the start of a new profession. My blog writing eventually spread into writing for magazines both online and in print, as well as giving talks or leading panels. In a sense those aspects of the work I do look very much like what I’d done before in academia. My new career has depended very much on the online sharing I’d been doing initially only for a sense of perspective.

In responding to Karen’s key note address, Tom considered the idea of family and how they can serve as an inspiration for our work. In leaving my career one of the things I left behind was the weighty sense of obligation I’d carried for my extended family. I didn’t lose the dedication I have for them, and in a sense the drive I have for excellence (in whatever form) rests deeply in that dedication to them. What I let go of was the expectation that I could ever do something that would fulfill the path of my ancestors. I would no longer be the only Aleut in philosophy. I couldn’t carry my ancestors with me there. It’s hard for me to explain the sorrow of that for me except through that image of for the first time standing alone.

5 generations of my family, photo by my sister

Five generations of my family five days after the birth of my niece, photo by my sister Melanie Brown

Unexpectedly, it is precisely there, in the starkness of that change that I now find my inspiration. Leaving a career I’d invested everything into, including my imagined ancestors, was a moment of erasing all expectations. I could no longer rely on a prescribed path of a recognizable career, nor on the sense of feeling generations beside me. I had no promise of the future. Though my perspective on such change has continuously shifted, in a way that sense of standing in an open field without a promised future hasn’t. The gift of such bareness has been that every wine visit, every written article, every magazine connection has arrived as an unforeseen bonus, an unexpected delight found in an open field. For me, it is there I find a source of immeasurable gratitude. Still with most visits I count myself profoundly lucky to simply listen to their stories, as if they are sharing their ancestors with me and I can see those ancestors standing strong and quiet beside the person I am listening to. Sometimes their ancestors have as much to tell through what the person doesn’t quite say as the person through what they do.

Over time, I have also found a different source of power, one much like I felt in Karen sharing her story. Her being willing to share so honestly the challenges of her upbringing in wine stands as a way of sharing a new form of freedom. New because her path of challenge and success is one different than our own but reveals through its details new insights any of us might choose to continue forward ourselves. Freeing too because of the humanity witnessed through storytelling. In admitting to her own difficulties, Karen offers us a way to see we are like her. That someone we admire has challenges too, so our challenges perhaps are not so unusual or so insuperable.

In writing about Karen’s keynote, Tom concludes with the point that he found the story of her path inspiring, that it makes him want to do better work. I would say that what I find in Tom’s post is the sense that through Karen’s speech he has found a new strength. Ultimately, it is there too that I find my inspiration, the discovery that in persistence and vulnerability we have the opportunity to share strength with each other.


Karen MacNeil has just completed the 2nd edition of her groundbreaking book, The Wine Bible. The new edition will be available October, 2015. It reflects over five years of work traveling major regions throughout the world, tasting over 10,000 wines, and doing thorough research to then write a fully updated book. The new edition is an invaluable reference for any wine lover.

For more information on the new edition you can visit Karen’s site here

To read Tom Wark’s blog post on Karen’s talk:

With thanks to Tom Wark.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

Brown Bag Wine Tasting

As some of you know, I’m a fan of William Shatner‘s OraTV show Brown Bag Wine Tasting. It’s a perfect way to make wine accessible, fun, and bite sized – by channeling it through shorter segments that are a lot about personality.

Last season, Shatner interviewed all sorts of quirky folks from juggling clowns, to a sober marijuana dealer that had never tasted wine, to famous Hollywood actors.

This season, he’s brought the wine world into the heart of his wine show. He’s interviewed Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor of Food & Wine.

Ray Isle and William Shatner are both a ton of fun on camera so this is sure to be a good pairing.

Check it out!

For the complete episode:

Excited to see the new episodes!



The Essence of Wine: A Book by Alder Yarrow

The Essence of Wine

image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow’s book, The Essence of Wine, brings together striking photographs of 46 iconic wine notes — cherry, lime, honey, paraffin, among others — with alluring prose of the same element — photographs of strawberry coupled with writing on the same, for example.

While the series at the core of the book appeared originally on Alder’s highly regarded wine blog,, holding the coffee table book in hand changes the experience for the reader.

Side-by-side the photographic representation of the note with Alder’s writing offer the reader an opportunity to feel the visceral impact of the writing and imagery more directly. That visceral experience is at the heart of the book’s strength. Together, the thought of tasting notes becomes a sensual experience unexpected from mere print.

The Essence of Wine offers the reader a unique opportunity to enliven their experience with wine. Ultimately, it’s a chance to become a better taster. For the connoisseur, reflecting so singularly on one wine element at a time brings greater clarity. For the newer wine lover, understanding.

To read more on, or purchase The Essence of Wine here is the link on Alder’s site:

I asked Alder if he’d be willing to meet to discuss ideas implicit in the book more throughly. The transcript from our conversation is below.

Together, we discuss how the book took shape, the role that visual representations — photographs and illustrations — of wine notes have in understanding wine, and the experience at the core of wine appreciation.

Imagery and text blocks from The Essence of Wine appearing below are all courtesy of Alder Yarrow.

Tasting the Visual: A Conversation with Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna, April 2013, image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Elaine: Can you tell me about how the three of you – the photographer, Leigh Beisch, the food stylist, Sara Slavin, and yourself – worked together for your book, The Essence of Wine?

Alder: I approached Leigh with the idea. I would run across people, as I am sure you do too, that say, I read these tasting notes, and I have never tasted something like, you know, lychee. Is that some kind of metaphor, or do they really mean that they taste lychee in the glass? And I’m like, no, really! there are wines that taste like that! So, that is something that I wanted to help people with.

Early in my wine tasting and appreciation that was something I wanted and needed. I’d see these tasting notes that talked about wines that taste like chocolate but I’d never had a wine that tastes like chocolate, and I wouldn’t have known where to start if I wanted to. So that was the idea. And Leigh was great. She said, I have an art director that I think would be perfect for this. She works with Sara on her more commercial shoots.

Elaine: Yeah, I was looking through her site, and it looked like they work together a bunch.

Alder: Yeah, and Sara was on board with it. So, she said, give us a list. What should we shoot? So I made a list. I wasn’t sure how many of these they were going to be willing to do, so, I started with some core flavors and aromas, and I squished some together. So, rather than do raspberries and pomegranates and strawberries separately, I decided, okay, well, we’ll just do red berries.

E: Right. Or, like, tropical fruits I saw you put together.

A: Yeah. Exactly. And so they would just come up with a vision and one of two things would happen. At first I was in the studio frequently with them just sort of watching them do their thing, and, when they wanted an opinion, offering it. Occasionally, they would ask for clarification. They would say, okay, Alder, you gave us raspberry, pomegranate, cranberries, red currants… is one more important than the other? And I’d say, oh yeah, raspberry is the more important here, focus on that. Then they would shoot, and I would get 3 or 4 candidates from Leigh’s shoot, and I would select the one I wanted. Often there would be only minor variations. With the lemon shot, the variations I got were, like, one drop of lemon juice, or, two drops of lemon juice on the mirror. I can remember the green bell pepper I was like, these all look like the same images? And Sara’s all, oh no! One of them definitely has more water drops than the other!

Green Bell Pepper without water dropletsGreen Bell Pepper with water droplets

two examples of Green Bell Pepper images chosen between for use in The Essence of Wine
(Alder selected the image with water drops)
courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: That’s so funny. Really specific and subtle.

A: Yeah!

So, most of the time they needed very little direction from me. And I was content, as a beggar that can’t be a chooser, to let them express themselves. And they understood from the beginning that the idea was to create an archetypal image of this fruit, or foodstuff, or flavor that was not clichéd.

E: The thing that struck me about the book is how well the two work together – the language and the imagery.

A: The imagery always came first. They would create the image. They had a long list of flavors and aromas, and I never knew what they would be shooting on a weekly or biweekly basis. It was just a matter of what Sara found at the market or whatever.

E: Right. They did it seasonally, and the writing was inspired by the image?

A: Yeah. Basically, that week the image would be strawberry, and I would ask myself, well, what have I got to say about strawberries? Sometimes I would take cues off the image. A lot of times it was just trying to get myself into a particular mindset. When we say something tastes like strawberry, what does it really taste like without using the word strawberry? Or, what are the associations or connotation that these fruits, and flavors, or foodstuffs have for us? And then, where did they come from? How do we have limes, and where do they come from, and how long have they been around, and do they have meaning beyond their flavors? Then other things were just research. Like, is there cultural significance to mint? and where did that come from? and that sort of thing.

E: I really like that in both the photography and the writing there are a lot of textural elements. The one that comes to mind is blueberry, and cherry too. In both you talk about the feeling of the skin, but then as you pop through that, that creates this flavor. Then, immediately, there is the flavor of the meat, the fruit inside, and that’s a different flavor. There is this real visceral feeling to the writing rather than just flavor notes.

A: That was me really trying to think about actually experiencing one of these fruits. But there is also an analog to that experience in the world of wine. For me, plum is a great one. There is such a distinct difference between the flavor of the skin, and of the fruit for me, and wine somehow manages to capture both. There is that really distinct sour flavor of the skin, and that sort of snap to it as your teeth go through, and, then, the rushes of sugar and sweetness, but also acidity as you get the flesh and the juice in your mouth. That experience, I think that is why fruit appears so many times in tasting notes. The experience of eating fruit like that and the texture, and flavoral journey that you go through just in taking that first bite, wine does the same thing on our palate. You get astringency at a certain point, and you get sweetness at another point, and you get that kick of acidity inside your mouth at another point.

E: Yes, that makes sense. I feel like the more you read the book the better taster you can become. Elin McCoy’s review said it was the perfect gift for a connoisseur or a newbie. I really agree with that. There is such a crisp clarity to each note that I found myself better understanding what it means for me to claim I taste or smell that in a wine. It was this really nice opportunity to really take in the imagery and the writing, but also to more deeply understand what it means to talk about wine in this kind of way.

A: That’s great. I take that as a huge compliment. I think the book for me was a little bit of a journey in trying to tease apart, to puzzle out my own sensory appreciation for wine. Why it’s so magical to me.

It’s not just that this wine tastes like these individual flavors. It is that this wine also evokes cherry. I mean, there is a difference between perception and evocation, and there is a difference between pure sensation and the meaning that that sensation has for us. As you saw, I had a great deal of fun with some of the nostalgic aspects of some of these flavors, like, watermelon. For anyone growing up in the United States watermelon is summer, and the freedom of childhood. It is just unabashed pleasure. For many of us, that is as much what watermelon tastes like as the greenness of the rind that moves to the bright berry sweetness of the flesh, and all that stuff.

Graphite for The Essence of Wine

Perhaps if you were well-behaved or maybe just lucky, your teacher sent you to the edge of the classroom with a tightly clasped fist of yellow, where you had the pleasure of producing those wavy ribbon-like curls of beige and gray that litter many a school day memory. There may come a time when, like the clack of a typewriter or the stutter of a rotary phone, children do not recognize the smell of a freshly sharpened #2 Ticonderoga or FaberCastell. But for now, the scent of shaved or pulverized graphite brings instant recognition.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: Your book helped me think more too on something that I do – the difference between writing about versus drawing about wine, because it parallels in some ways the presentation of your book with photographing a flavor note and writing about that same note. For wine lovers reading about wine can be so alienating. There is an immediacy to tasting wine that reading about the same wine just doesn’t have.

A: Right. Writing about wine is never better than the real thing. You can never write anything about wine that surpasses the experience of the wine itself.

E: Yes, I so agree. I would love to hear your thoughts on the challenge of writing about wine. My thought is that wine lives in the senses, so to speak. The experience of drinking a glass of wine is visceral, and immediate, all about flavors, aromas, texture, and even the color of the wine. But when you are just focusing on the writing side of it, you take wine out of the senses, so to speak. Philosopher Merleau-Ponty talked about how analyzing something alienates you from it. Writing about wine alienates it from the senses. I think that is part of the challenge of writing about wine. That you have this visceral, lived, sensory thing, and now we are pulling it into the abstract to write about it, trying to make it live there in abstraction, but it doesn’t.

Something people tell me about my illustrated tasting notes …I bring them up just to reflect on the experience of your book’s photographs… I have had people say, when I see one of your drawings I know if I’ll like the wine or not. When I read a tasting note I can’t tell. I think that because drawings are visual, or, our reception of drawings is visual, there is an immediacy to them that parallels the immediacy of the nose and mouth when we taste wine. So there is a way in which a visual representation of the notes of wine keeps wine in the place wine belongs – immediate sensory tactile experience. Does that make sense?

A: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that operates probably in a number of levels. I am just speculating here. I think as organisms we are still triggered by things in our external environment that are matters of survival for us, or used to be. Like, when you are learning to appreciate wine, figuring out what you taste is very difficult, and there is a physiological reason for that. When we smell, that sensory stimulus bypasses the language centers of your brain. So when you smell something, it goes right to your amygdala. When we were apes roaming the savannah we needed to be able to smell something and know instantly if we were going to die because we ate that meat, or be fine because we ate that meat. There are lots of other environmental cues for that too, and those sorts of cues are encoded in the physical structures of our brain and our physiology.

I think we have archetypal information in the structures of our brain about food. Like, a ripe piece of fruit triggers us in a way that is non-verbal, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if representations – photographs or drawings or otherwise – did the same thing for us. If being able to see in one of your visual tasting notes thyme, and tobacco, and graphite, and cherry, and licorice root didn’t conveniently, and helpfully bypass conscious narrative thought, and reinforce whatever else we may be doing in the process of appreciating those aromas and flavors in wine in ways that are very helpful to us as organisms. That’s my way of agreeing with you. That I think there is probably real power there that is very different than the spoken and written word.

E: Your book helped me think through that, but it also made me realize that by putting your writing and the photographs side-by-side it changes the power of the writing, and the imagery too. In your book, there is such a marked relationship between the imagery and the writing that together they become something more than they are on their own. The writing is lovely on its own, and the photographs are beautiful on their own, but there is a way in which something else happens when you put them side-by-side. You have the book open and there is this full page, full-blown image, and, like I said, the imagery is very textural because of how they’ve treated the materials that they’re photographing. Then, on the other side there is your writing, talking about the visceral feeling of breaking through the skin, and the bitter taste that comes to the mouth, and then a wash of flavor and juice. There is an immediacy in the imagery that then somehow, makes the writing feel not so abstract. It kind of allows the two to live together in a relationship that enriches both. The photographs, that already have a life of their own, take on more life, and the writing pulls you in even more. It feels more visceral too. The combination, it’s a way of bringing life back to wine.

Cherry from The Essence of Wine
Biting into a perfectly ripe cherry represents one of life’s perfections of flavor and sensation. The firm skin parts under a modicum of pressure, and a gorgeous melody unfolds on the tongue — high notes of juicy acidity, rich baritones of velvety sweet red fruit, an earthy alto bitterness of skin, and a tangy tenor quality burst in the mouth in a way that makes it all too easy to overindulge.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow & Leigh Beisch

A: For 20 years I have had this quote on my personal website by one of my favorite photographers named Frederick Sommer. The quote is, “Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones that put life into the stones and pebbles.” I guess I thought of that because what I hear you saying is that the image on its own… I mean, it’s over simplifying to say the text tells us what to look for in the image. I know that’s not what you’re saying, and I wouldn’t say that either. There is something more dynamic going on there, but I guess maybe one way of thinking about what you’re describing is that what the text does is force you to look not just at the image, but to look at the image in your mind’s eye of that thing. It makes a connection between those very real visual stimuli, which is like, look there are some cherries there, but then it also asks you to use that image as a jumping off point for your own memories, sensations, and appreciation for that thing. For me, the question would be, how does that work when there is a fruit or flavor you have never experienced? Like if you’d never had a lychee before would that additive quality still be there or does that only happen when you are accessing your own sense memories of the thing?

E: There is such a richness to the images in your book, and I think that is why the number of water drops, or the number of lemon drops are so important. It is aesthetic, but it is also about, how ripe do you want this to seem? Like, you can feel that even if you don’t exactly know the flavors.

Have you gotten comments or feedback from newer wine lovers, from people that are taking the book up as a first foray to learning about wine?

A: Yeah. I know people in the wine industry that have given it to their spouses, and I have subsequently run into their spouse and had their spouse say, thank you! I finally fucking understand what he or she is talking about! I get it now. That’s been really gratifying. And I have people I know from my day job that have said, I am really enjoying this. I am understanding better where these flavors come from.

E: That’s great. It’s an interesting way to approach it too. Focusing in on just a specific taste, and expanding how we think about each individual one, it’s a flip from how we normally think about this sort of thing. In the wine industry, we tend to start from the wine, and then come up with a list of notes about that, but your book reverses that, and says, no, let’s start with this single note, just cherry, just chocolate.

A: Honestly, isn’t that how we all start wine appreciation? If somebody hands you a glass of pink wine for the first time you’re like, uh, okay, and you taste it and you’re like, this is really good, it kind of tastes like strawberries. That’s always first I think. But we don’t often do enough to honor that aspect of wine appreciation. I mean, it’s funny how in the world of wine we very, very quickly leave that very sensorial world of flavor and aroma, and move into the idea that now you have to know something about who made it, and where does it come from, and what grape is it, all that stuff, when really most people are just like, oh! It’s dark and rich. I like that.



Alder Yarrow’s The Essence of Wine

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to


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

Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeronimage from website of Anthony Zinonos

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, 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


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:

For Brain Picking’s review:

For sample pages and more on where to purchase:


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


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

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:

For more information from the publisher, and an excerpt:

For Andre Darlington’s insightful review of the book:

For Fred Swans’s book review:


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

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

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:

To purchase tickets for the December 1 screening (some of the people interviews in the film will also be present at the screening):


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


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.


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:

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

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