An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California Hardcover – Jun 10 2011
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From the Back Cover
From the author of the acclaimed Angels’ Visits comes an inside look at how a handful of ingenious winemakers has transformed—and been transformed by—the California wine industry over the past four decades.
In the 1970s, a group of idealistic baby boomers was attracted to the seemingly romantic world of winemaking. Over the course of nearly forty years, however—as competition from abroad increased, wine eclipsed beer and spirits as American adults’ beverage of choice, critics came to control the marketplace, and corporatization took over the industry—these young aesthetes would learn that wine is an unforgiving business. They would have to be clever to survive in an increasingly cutthroat atmosphere, and no one was more innovative than Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard—the court jester and bleeding conscience of California wine, its most original and amusing figure. But Grahm is only one of the restless visionaries who, having chosen wine as the vehicle through which to fulfill their dreams, ended up changing the rules of the industry by adapting to its demands. From high technology to hardball entrepreneurship, from handicapping scores to holistic farming, each vintner operates by his or her own definition of an ideal wine.
In this lively, sweeping account that spans the early seventies to the present day, David Darlington employs a sharp journalistic eye to profile a group of wine pioneers. A tale of vision and disillusion, brinksmanship and pragmatism, nature and business, politics and culture, An Ideal Wine is a fascinating look at an ever-evolving industry that reflects the values of our society and our civilization.
About the Author
David Darlington is the author of four books:In Condor Country,Angels' Visits(published in paperback asZin),The Mojave, andArea 51. A special correspondent forWine & Spiritsand a recipient of a 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for Writing on Spirits, Wine, or Beer, he also won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest in 2009. He lives in Berkeley and Mendocino County, California.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Wine enthusiasts know the story: in an unthinkable upset to the status quo of French wine dominance, two Napa Valley wines came out on top in the red and white wine categories. "An Ideal Wine" picks up the story from that point, in effect -- relating the tidal wave of change in the California wine industry that reverberated from the revelations of the 1976 tasting.
The "...One Generation..." description in the title is somewhat misleading, for while Darlington describes the efforts of the new generation of California winemakers of the mid-'70s and '80s to produce wines that would rival those of the French wineries (while making a profit--no easy task...), he focuses on two in particular, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards and Leo McCloskey of Ridge Winery, and later his own wine analysis firm, Enologix. Other players in the field are mentioned somewhat in passing, with only two, Dick Graff of Chalone Vineyards and Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery, being dealt with in any detail.
This rather laser-like focus doesn't detract from the story Darlington tells, however -- in effect it condenses what might otherwise be an untenable task into a manageable effort by "bounding the problem" -- the apposition and comparison of the stories of these two very different winemakers bookends the range of approaches to winemaking quite neatly, highlighting the wide array of styles and techniques used by the disparate group of new-to-the-industry California winemakers of that time by concentrating on two who define polar-opposite approaches to the task.
Randall Grahm personified the holistic, terroir-based, biodynamic farming approach to winemaking; McCloskey's style was the Chem-101 approach: gas-chromatographic analysis to compare a wine's characteristics to known 91-point + wines, guiding winemakers in synthetic manipulations of their product to achieve saleable characteristics (and profitability) by conforming to the preferences of the wine critics who defined the standards to which wines were held.
The period of the mid-1970s and 1980s was a fascinating time in the wine industry, an era when the number of wineries and the acreage planted in grapes, in California and around the world, mushroomed exponentially. Fortunes were invested, and sometimes lost; skilled vineyardists and winemakers moved from job to job, plying their trade for ever-increasing salaries in the competition between wineries; deals were made and broken -- and the wine consumer was presented with a bewildering number of labels, varietals, and appellations from which to choose.
It was a heady time, and Darlington tells the complex and fascinating tale of the biggest agricultural boom since the 17th-Century's tulip mania in a manner that is straightforward without being over-simplified. If you are at all interested in the development of winemaking in the New World's "boomtown" era, this book belongs on your bookshelf, right next to "Judgment of Paris".
"An Ideal Wine" gives an in-depth look into the Napa Valley wine industry from the anecdotes and views expressed by Randall Grahm and Leo McCloskey. David Darlington tells a story about the factors that determine a wine's taste, such as the terrain where the grapes are grown and the timing for grape picking. He also discusses different techniques for growing grapes, aging wine, and the synthetic techniques used by many wine manufacturers to introduce different flavors into wine that the American public favors.
I found the discussion about Enologix, a California corporation that designs and markets uality analysis and models for predicting the taste of wine, to be particularly interesting. Before reading the book, I had never realized that many wine manufacturers have their wines chemically analyzed for taste.
Overall, though, I was disappointed in the book. I found it poorly organized. The chapter sequence did not flow well and the folksy nature of David Darlington's writing made it hard to follow the story that he attempted to tell. Furthermore, I would have liked the book to give more weight to a "generation's pursuit of perfection--and profit" and less to the individual anecdotes of McColsky and Grahm.
The wine business has become [mostly] just another form of factory farming in the US, with winemakers buying and blending grapes from all across California, swirling in a some optimally-shaped oak chips for a carefully spec'd duration, fermenting with bioengineered yeasts, ripping the wine apart by centrifuge and double osmosis to break it down into its constituent elements, then recombining the liquid in "just the right" chemical combination to satisfy the consumer consensus for a full-bodied cab or a lightly sweet chardonnay.
David Darlington brilliantly chronicles the journey that has grown California's wine industry from a patchwork of Napa farmers to a multi-billion dollar food chemical industry. And he does so by bouncing us back and forth between the yin and yang of this development: (a) those (few) who feel wine is all about spirit and terroir ("opera in a bottle," one brilliantly puts it), about experimentation and dynamic interaction with the soil, and (b) those who see winemaking as primarily a commercial chemical process. The former (a) are represented by Randall Grahm, a brilliant and quirky winemaker of Bonny Doon fame. The latter by Leo McCloskey of Enologix.
But it is not a black and white battle of art versus science. For even the artisan wine makers pick and choose various scientific innovations to apply to their winemaking, within the rather strict regulatory bounds that California sets. And even those who are all about science claim they are just using the latest technology has to offer to make a better product: "Why wouldn't I want to use data to be a better winemaker and get my wine into the market where people can enjoy it? I want to use every tool at my disposal. I think this is a logical end to agricultural endeavor."
In fact, as Darlington show throughout, it may be more the data than the science that has hijacked the wine industry. As the documentary Mondovino and the feature film Bottle Shock indicate, the industry is dominated by pursuit of high ratings, especially the 100-based score popularized by Robert Parker, whose taste more than any other has influenced (and homogenized) the American wine industry. By the early 1990s, obtaining a 90+ score from Parker became the near singular pursuit of winemakers, a Holy Grail that could make or break a multi-million dollar winery.
And then there is Randall Grahm, for whom Darlington certainly seems to have a soft spot, bucking the trend and eschewing riches in order to pursue his dream of making a truly great pinot noir. Colorful and charismatic as he is, however, he seems sadly alone in an industry that is become more about marketing than terroir, more about blending a perfect $9.99 wine for the masses than creating "opera in a bottle."
Darlington has written a thorough, engrossing account of the American wine industry's loss of innocence. And if at times he digresses into a mind-numbing discussion of chemical compounds and their influence on a wine's development, it is simply a reflection of the industry and it certainly shows the author knows his stuff. In short, if you have any interest in wine, and want to know what you are drinking and why, uncork a bottle or three, and sit down to read this superb book.
Chapter one introduces the reader to Leo McClosky, a famous vintner who created a company called Enologix. Enologix analyzes the fruit (grapes) with solvents and tests, using a high performance chemical chromatagraphy system which measures selected secondary compounds, known to exist in wines that have a high appeal on the "ideal" wine index. It is fascinating to learn that Enologix has a data base for "70,000 wines, the largest file of its kind in the world, including information about soil, climate, prices, equipment, viticulture and vinification practices, along with archived sensory analysis and critical scores, all of which can be cross-referenced by computer ..." [page 19]. Their index is based on the taste and appeal of an ideal digitalized cabernet wine. The tested wine is given a score based on a point system where above 90 points meets criteria for having the qualities which appeal to custumers. It is presumed now that wine is measured on both objective and subjective terms, where the objective is deemed the main criteria due to measurability. The 100 point scoring system was first created by Robert Parker, a well known wine critic and writer for the magazine "Wine Advocate". It has now become the standard of excellence by which to praise a good wine and is used by most magazines including "Wine Spectator" and by experts who evaluate wines. Any wine getting a score over 90 (the closer to 100 all the better) when highly praised by these two prestigious magazines, will increase in market value and can ask a larger price accordingly. The scoring system which Robert Parker conceived was based on subjective taste; the scoring system developed by Leo McCloskey at Enologix was based on objective criteria, chemicals which are related to taste. Somewhere the two meet in that the main criteria for vintners is a successful product, one with high sales, which is the bottom line in any industry. Leo McCloskey claims that scientific criteria is the best technique for selecting superior wines.
In the second chapter, the author introduces the reader to Randall Grahm, a highly successful and innovative California vintner who in the 1980s became known as "the Rhone Ranger" for his ability to popularize the grape varieties from the Rhone River Valley of France and grow them in California. These grape varieties were better suited to the California climate than the more well known varieties from Burgundy and Bordeaux. Grahm bought grapes that no one then wanted and from them created great wine. He also marketed the wine under fancy graphic cartoon-like labels, the first of its kind which caught on like wild fire. All of his first efforts were intially directed toward creating a great pinot noir wine in California. He was convinced it was the best red wine but when his efforts were unrewarded, he turned to other more original endeavors. The author does an outstanding job of interviewing this vintner and giving the reader a rare glimpse into the romance, myth, and love of grape growing, along with the hard work of marketing and producing a good tasting wine. The ups and downs and vagaries of the wine industry are clearly evident in the stories associated with Randall Grahm's rise to fame and fortune as well as the challenges he faced along the way. Despite his love of Old World Wine and particularly that of France, where vineyards had been cultivated in the same region for centuries, Randall Grahm has faced serious problems associated with growing grapes in California, where vastly different conditions and challenges face the vintner. In the 1990s, Grahm owned his own vineyards, near the Santa Cruz Mountains close to Bonny Doon, until his vines died of Pierce's disease. Despite his love of French wine and its association with "terroir", the irony is, many of his most recent products are blended wines from grapes that he obtains from multiple vineyards in areas where he is satisfied with the fruit produced. Yet, Grahm is devoted to the concept of biodynamics and in love with the Old World wines for the synergistic relationship of the vines, soil, and sun that evolved over centuries to produce the unique characteristics which can identify the wine from any specific growing region of France. The author quotes essays, thoughts, and ideas from Randall Grahm that are a joy to read by anyone who is fond of a glass of wine. How to achieve the ideal wine as defined by Randall Grahm is very different from that defined by Leo McCloskey.
Much of this book delves into the history of the California wine industry from the 1970s to the present. It is a highly detailed review of the lives of many important persons who helped this industry evolve into its present state. I thoroughly enjoyed learning how Randall Grahm became an entrepeneur in the wine industry. Much of this book is devoted to his evolution as a vinter, his background and education, at University of Californa at Santa Cruz. Many prominent vintners took their degrees from various branches of the University of California, most popular was the Davis campus. The author also delves into the life of Leo McCloskey and his early start in the wine business. It is fascinating to read how his life evolved into the current highly influential position as creator/owner of Enologix. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the pioneers of the California wine industry who had vision, courage, and "put their money where their mouth is" so-to-speak in that they dared to invest their personal resources of time and money to make their dreams come true. This book is not an easy read, as it does not follow a standard time line and jumps from topic to topic based on the author's own concepts and ideas of importance. Erika Borsos [pepper flower]