Each year at this time, I recommend my favorite wine books published in the previous 12 months. In this year of coronavirus and isolation, we have more time to read, stoke our thirst and even plan our next wine country visit once we can travel again. My choices for 2020 span history from biblical times to the present, as well as wine’s role in modern politics, and a lively memoir from a winemaker who shares his blueprint for success.
I was thrilled to learn this year that the Academie du Vin Library was reissuing Hugh Johnson’s seminal work, “The Story of Wine: From Noah to Now.” First published in 1989 as “Vintage: The Story of Wine,” this book and its companion television series still influence the way I write about wine as a reflection of our history and culture. Every wine lover should read this book, and if you read it 30 years ago, reread it. This is a history of Western civilization viewed through the prism of a glass of claret, minus the wars and boring treaties, but full of culture, commerce, art, literature and religion.
This edition does not include much about the past 30 years. In a new preface, Johnson explains that he was reluctant to tell the story of how wine has since “joined the tedious world of luxury goods.” Yet he also explains why the story he so beautifully wrote remains timeless.
“Every culture that has left a record of using wine has shown it special respect, elevated it in philosophical discourse, in poetry, into a royal privilege, even the ultimate religious symbol, God’s blood,” he writes. “It has played a unique role in advancing civilization, in medicine, in art and simply in facilitating and inspiring our mutual intercourse.”
The Academie du Vin Library imprint was launched last year by the British writer Steven Spurrier to ensure that timeless (mostly British) writing about wine was not consigned to the out-of-print dustbin of history. Its first publication was a reissue of Michael Broadbent’s “Wine Tasting.” It followed up with a barrage of books, including new works about sherry and the iconic Lebanese winery Chateau Musar, plus compilations of writings about Bordeaux and wine in general. Spurrier’s own memoirs were reissued this month. The books are available on the company’s website and on Amazon.
So you want to have your own winery? Better read Michael Browne’s new memoir, “Pinot Rocks: A Winding Journey Through Intense Elegance.” Browne co-founded Kosta Browne, a Sonoma-based label that rose to cult status with its pinot noir wines, including Wine Spectator magazine’s top wine of the year in 2009. This is not your normal vintner-in-harmony-with-nature story. Browne was an inquisitive youth with a “try anything” attitude that didn’t always work when he was fiddling with muskets and gunpowder, or when he joined a circus and volunteered to ride a bicycle across a high wire. But he persevered, and when he and Dan Kosta decided to start their own wine label, they succeeded by sticking to their goal even without formal training or large financial backing.
Browne’s hilarious, cringeworthy accounts of harvest logistical quandaries and late-night winery blunders that ruined thousands of dollars’ worth of wine are not unique, but they do illustrate the hard work involved in winemaking. His formula for success: Develop a plan, stick to it and learn from your failures. When at the top of your game, sell the company and start a new one. (Browne doesn’t discuss the sale of Kosta Browne, but his new label is called Cirq.) Then write a rollicking, “I can’t believe this actually happened” memoir and have the audiobook narrated by William Shatner. Mic drop.
Politics junkies who love wine will want to reserve space on their coffee tables for Frederick J. Ryan Jr.’s “Wine and the White House: A History,” published by the White House Historical Association. Ryan, the association’s chairman and publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, was a White House staff member under President Ronald Reagan. In short vignettes in this massive book, he illustrates how successive administrations served wine as a subtle element of diplomacy. Selections went from fine French bottlings to show American savoir faire toward U.S. labels as domestic wines improved in quality and stature. Ryan also describes toasts given by various presidents at diplomatic functions in the White House or abroad.
There’s a subtle message here: Pomp and circumstance matter. Protocol and ceremony have roles to play in international discourse, and wine is an important part of them. If we break that tradition, we sever a thread woven through our very history, one that extends backward from now even to Noah. Think of that when you raise your glass to toast your loved ones this holiday season.