Curious books on wine, part 1
We're self-taught winemakers. Nowadays, that means we spend time on YouTube, but it also means we do a lot of reading. There are some seminal textbooks on the practice (take, for example, the Handbook of Enology or Principles and Practices of Winemaking), which is where we started our journey, but you can only be reminded of how inadequate your freshman chemistry class was for so long before you need some lighter reading and a bit of context.
Wine writing falls into many categories which include memoirs, travel writing, history, and technical books. Because wine is a business, an art, and a social phenomenon, we think learning to make wine is more than memorizing a series of steps in a recipe. Wisdom is passed down from generation to generation, shared between farmers and winemakers, between one country and the next. Words aimed at wine have changed the industry completely more than once (think Parkerization or responses to it). Regular columns, a deluge of coffee table books, cookbooks, textbooks, reference books, autobiographies, topographies, and scratch and sniff guides cover the topic from every angle (and sometimes, as is the case with Burgundy, a single topic may be covered by hundreds of books and tens of thousands of entires in shorter forms). There' s even a secret society (well, not so secret) called the Wayward Tendrils who collect and share as many historic wine books as they can get their hands on.
This is all to say engaging in "wine" requires both a broad and deep library.
Author Neil Gaiman describes reading as a way of mentally composting: all of the books in your brain's library have a way of decomposing into a fertile mixture of ideas that inform the way you think and write. We see wine reading the same way. We're not necessarily looking to emulate anyone, but we think it's important to understand as much about wine as we can so we can enter into its history and present with respect and humility.
With that preamble out of the way, here are nine books about wine from our mental compost heap. More to come (and always will be)!
By Jamie Goode
One of the best, most well-rounded takes on what it means to make "natural" wine and why its not just a trend. More valuable than anything, this text introduced us to the term terruño, which is the Spanish variant of terroir. While the French term (with no true English translation) roughly means all of the things a place gives to the wine made in its climate and from its soils, the Spanish term adds that the great wines of place are made by people who belong to the land, not people to whom the land belongs. When we started thinking of making wine from the Mojave Desert, this concept got us very excited.
by Jason Wilson
A fun trip through the world with notable stop offs in Switzerland and Austria. I first learned of the concept of a "Heuriger", which is a convivial, open-air, often home-based, seasonal wine bar in Austria where local winemakers sell the harvest's newest wines. They also serve simple foods and sing traditional songs. You know a Heuriger is open when they hang evergreen branches from their doorway. This concept, compared to the stuffy tasting rooms of California sounded like a much more fitting model for a future Herrmann York outlet.
by Jamie Goode
An excellent, balanced take on what constitutes a fault and what doesn't. Over-oaking and brett both obscure the flavor of wine, and thus are both faults. Different factions are more accepting (and may even seek out one over the other), but if the goal is to make wine that expresses the best version of a grape and its place, the goal is not to eliminate all faults but be honest about the faults' affect on the wine and understand them in context. The book introduces the term "wabi-sabi," which is the Japanese concept that beauty is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" which means faults, in some ways, actually contribute to a wine's beauty.
by Alice Feiring and Pascaline Lepeltier
This book is an exploration of wine, not by region, variety, or production method, but by the soil in which it is grown. Feiring's argument is that there is perhaps nothing more important than a wine's typicity or ability to evoke its place, and soil is the main contributor to tipicity. Wines that have it are great and wines that don't are not. Each soil type offers something different. Through the eons, vignerons across the world have paired the right grapes with the right soil and the result is transcendent wines. As a powerful voice in the natural wine world, Feiring has some clear beliefs about what is and isn't natural and which regions (and sometimes winemakers) are making mistakes.
by John Bonné
A simple, short book which essentially says open up your eyes, be honest, and "drink the rainbow."
by Clark Smith
A very compelling read. Smith is neither a natural winemaker, nor a conventional one. He challenges the idea of wine being a solution, which is to say that it is merely a liquid into which particles are dissolved with some being beneficial and some being damaging. If this were the case, he argues, then the key to proper winemaking would be to simply eliminate the damaging particles and increase the beneficial ones. This clearly isn't the case however, because wine is more about its structure and the relationships between its elements than it is about the percentage of any particular element on its own. Proof of this is the relationship between total acidity and residual sugar—if one increases, it allows more of the other without significant perceptibility. Starting from this premise, he then argues that wine is about structure and balance, and winemakers should not limit themselves to using certain technologies because of their historical context. Industrialization ushered in a new era of soulless wines following WWII. The offending technologies include refrigeration, inert gas, stainless steel, and others. The affect of all of this is wines that don't see enough oxygen at the right time. Additionally vineyard and cellar practices like extended hang time and maceration introduce oxygen at the wrong times and result in wines of limited shelf life and relatively homogenous personalities. His solution is (1) micro-oxygenation, (2) the use of oak chips in place of new oak, (3) the use of reverse osmosis to remove excess alcohol, and (4) radical honesty about vineyard and cellar practices without fear of judgement by more hardline sects of the winemaking community.
by André Hueston Mack
A walk through a personal life in wine from an acclaimed sommelier. Starting with a bottle of OE 800 and ending with his own sparkling rosé, this book gives most insight into restaurant culture. Starting in San Antonio, Mack moved his way through the ranks and education to jobs at The French Laundry and Per Se, ultimately "graduating" from restaurants to being a restauranteur and winemaker himself. Lots of axes to grind, but also lots of thanks to give and great stories to tell.
by Jeffrey Lamy
An insightful take on the business of wine. If you're interested in the down-to-the-unit prices of starting a winery, this is the book for you. The financial models painted in this book don't really reflect the Herrmann York reality, but it certainly is helpful to see just how much winemaking and selling costs in various regions of the world. The book takes a decidedly business-centric approach (even in the sections focused on winemaking), so this isn't really a guide to how to make wine, but rather all of the little things you should account for before diving in. It's important to keep in mind there are alternatives to all the models presented in this book. Many things—like organic farming and neutral oak—are not considered, but Lamy couldn't create a model for every possible situation. That's not this book's purpose. RIP Jeffrey.
by Mark Matthews
This has been one of the more influential books on winemaking that I've read. It's certainly controversial, but more importantly, it got me questioning inherited wisdom in the wine world. Why would we simply believe that there is only one way to grow wine? Are big grapes inferior to smaller grapes? There is no evidence to support the idea. Does late season water affect grape quality? Yes, but not in ways that are as simple and obvious as the wine press would have you believe. Do larger yields mean lower wine quality? Not necessarily. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. Can soils actually communicate their specific flavors and "minerality" to wines? Not physically. Soil and climatic influences on wine are complex and unique to every individual situation and can be influenced by something as large as water availability and soil drainage to something as localized as the canopy microclimate around a single cluster. Is phenolic ripeness something we should base our picking decisions on? Well, the term itself doesn't really mean what most well-meaning people intend when they use it. Because the book is ultimately scientific, it does not provide specific recommendations, but rather reviews the available literature on a limited number of topics and uses data to encourage winegrowers of all stripes to challenge assumptions and explore their own vineyards and wines for truth.