If you think the California wine you buy in the grocery/liquor store is the result of patient western farmers harvesting, pressing and fermenting the grapes they have grown on their own land, then bottling them for sale after carefully aging them in oaken casks, you are sadly mistaken. This may have been how things were in California 30-40 years ago, but not any more.
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.