I first learned of this book and its author from a Canadian wine enthusiast whom I met and with whom I exchanged oenologic interests on the train from Frankfurt to Trier for the first annual meeting of the AAWE. My interest piqued, I agreed to review the book for JWE.
The book can be classified as an autobiographic portrayal that highlights a series of unusual and often quite humorous experiences of a devoted oenophile.
The introduction, “The Making of a Wine Lover,” describes Natalie’s sharing a glorious glass of Brunello with her later to be husband, a wine lover and talented cook, who has served as such for the many dinner parties he and Natalie have hosted over the years. This experience was followed by an introductory course on wine where she first learned that 80% of wine’s essence resides in its aroma, and that the sense of smell is “the only one of our senses that connects directly to the brain areas responsible for memory and emotion.” It seems axiomatic that her wine career was already in progress.
Natalie is very critical of typical wine-tasting notes as in her phrase “… when I hear muscular, tight, or rakish, it’s hard to tell whether the critic is talking about wine or Brad Pitt. Legendary concentration is what I need to figure out my income tax return, and perfectly integrated is how I’d describe my son’s school. But opulent is indeed a legitimate wine descriptorit often refers to the price.”
Such ill-defined terms make us appreciate the wide variation in tasting notes for wines with some cachè, such as the 2003 grand Cru Chateau Pavie, selling for about $150 a bottle. As MacLean notes: Robert Parker waxes eloquently with: “An off-the-chart effort … a wine of sublime richness, minerality, delineation and nobleness … provocative aromas of minerals, black and red fruits, balsamic vinegar, licorice, and smoke … a brilliant effort … along with Ausone and Petrus, is one of the three greatest offerings of the right bank in 2003”… Rating: 96–100%.
Jancis Robinson, in distinct contrast, describes the same wine as: “Completely unappetizing overripe aromas. Why? Porty sweet. Oh REALLY! Port is best from the Douro, not St. Emilion. Ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux with its unappetizing green notes”… Rating: 12 on a 10–20 point wine rating scale.
The highly regarded British Master of Wine critic Clive Coates adamantly refused to rate it, while noting acerbically: “Anyone who thinks this is a good wine needs a brain and palate transplant.”
In “The Good Earth” chapter Natalie makes clear her preference for wines that reflect terroir over their high alcohol, fruit-up-front competitors. Her stance here resonates with this writer’s palate, as well. “Harvesting Dreams” documents the fact that the Zinfandel varietal is native neither to Italy nor to California, but probably originated from the Croatian grape “crljenak kastelanski;” and offers, among many other fascinating oenologic facts that, even when yields are low, it nonetheless requires close to 1000 grapes to produce a single bottle of wine.
In later chapters, Natalie focuses upon how champagne is made; why Canada provides an ideal terroire for ice wines, some of which consistently win Gold and Silver medals in worldwide wine competitions; and the suggestion that women may have better wine palates than men, based upon the views of both medical specialists and many male vintners she has interviewed who indicate that their wives or girlfriends are far better wine tasters than are they.
It needs to be stressed that Natalie never relinquishes an opportunity to inject her sense of humor into almost any oenologic context, no matter how somber. Concerning the indelicate act of expectorating into a bucket designed for just that purpose, Natalie says, quite straightforwardly, “… after you have tasted some wine, you just suck in your cheeks, purse your lips into a slightly open O-shape, lean close to the bucket (or mug), and expel in a steady stream. It’s considered bad form to dribble, spray, or have your wine ricochet back at you.”
In order to understand her gustatory appreciation of wine, in a much broader oenologic context, Natalie decided that she needed to perform other activities, such as: working as a vineyard laborer (one for whom having “toiled in the vineyard” now makes literal sense); and working a ten hour shift in a prestigious California wine shop-here she learns first-hand the serious economic problems that plague the small wine shop merchant. For example we learn that Costco, as of 2007, was the leading retailer of first-growth Bordeaux. Her deep sense of concern over this wrenching problem for the small wine retailer is evident. But as the evening approaches, with the cash registers building some much needed momentum, her humor returns. She observes “an amorous couple in their late twenties, a business man who seems jet-lagged, and a thin, heavily made-up woman whose affections seem to be negotiable.”
In order to appreciate the role of a waitperson with the daunting task of obtaining knowledge of thousands of wines, Natalie “apprentices” herself to the sommelier in an award winning Canadian restaurant in Quebec posing as an “undercover sommelier” in a chapter of that title; she also conducts very informative and humorladen wine interviews with: Randall Grahm, the imaginative and masterful wine maker of the famed California Bonny Doon Vineyards; in Santa Cruz, California; and with the famed novelist, Jay McInerney, author of Bacchus and Me and: A Hedonist in the Cellar.
In summary, this entertaining book receives high marks for its humorous and rather compleat account of the wine enterprise by one who has spent some time outside the realm of her laudable writing skills to obtain first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to produce, sell, and serve wine. I hope the readers enjoy her book as much as this reviewer.