So you've seen the film Sideways and know how geeky wine aficionados can get about their favorite grape. Hey, you've been there too after a few glasses of Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Once upon a time you felt pretty slick about your wine savvy, but now you're curious to learn more. How is wine made, anyway? What happens during the harvest? Are grapes stomped, Lucille Ball style, by humans standing in a large wooden cask, or is it a mechanical process?
Duly motivated, you zip off to the store and find dozens of books detailing how wine is made. Yet after skimming the dry, dense, detailed paragraphs that remind you of your high school chemistry textbook, your eyes glaze over.
Enter Eric Arnold, whose new book, First Big Crush, is a colorful, laugh-out-loud funny account of his tenure during a New Zealand grape harvest, filled with wacky real-life characters. Of course, I should have figured as much. The first time I saw Arnold, on a WineSpectator.com video clip, he was cleaning the interior of a wine tank, gangly jean-covered legs waving in the air. This guy, I thought, is up for anything.
What first brings Arnold, then an unemployed editor, to Alan Scott Wines in New Zealand is the prospect of getting paid to lazily drink wine in the sun. Very quickly, Arnold discovers winemaking is real work, and dangerous at that. One day, he shows up for his assigned task without boots, expecting to simply push a button. To his surprise, he's expected to kick a half-ton container of grapes, and nearly loses a toe. Instead of sympathizing, Arnold's New Zealand colleagues taunt him, asking why he's walking like a girl.
Arnold's first-person voice is candid and bold, his literary style so lively you won't feel you're reading text as much as you are experiencing the harvest at Arnold's side. In one scene, he is told to walk through the rows of grape vines with a bucket and randomly grab fistfuls of grapes. What activity could possibly be more repetitive and boring? Arnold must have thought long and hard about how to make the process of grabbing grapes colorful and descriptive for the reader, for here is how he chronicles it: "Essentially, you're simulating the world of a machine harvester, which doesn't discriminate, ripping everything off like it just got out of prison and the vine is the dress on a twenty-dollar whore."
In the course of these hilarious 245 pages, you also learn a great deal about Arnold and his twenty-something, slightly slacker-esque, and very male way of viewing the world. For instance, when discussing his relationship with a French girlfriend, he writes, "I'm afraid this isn't the part where I tell you that she took me back to France and taught me everything there is to know about Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. She had so little interest in food and wine - plus she didn't smoke and she shaved her armpits - that they must have kicked her out of France for not being French enough."
First Big Crush is a highly entertaining but solid primer about the wine making process, told from the vantage point of a likable and very direct narrator. If you've ever wondered how wines are judged in competition, or what factors influence the pricing of wine, you'll see the process through Arnold's eyes. And if you ever fantasized about what it is like to work the harvest but didn't want to get wet and dirty, you can get the vicarious experience right here.
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