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An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California Hardcover – Jun 20 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (June 20 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061704237
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061704239
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 794 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #676,899 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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 as Zin), The Mojave, and Area 51. A special correspondent for Wine & Spirits and 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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 29 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1976: California Beats France -- Now What? May 18 2011
By Gary K. McCormick - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
"An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit Of Perfection - and Profit - In California", David Darlington's story of the California wine boom that started in the 1970s, is (unintentionally, I'm sure...) an ideal companion/follow-on book for the California wine enthusiast who has already read former Time magazine correspondent George Taber's "Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine".

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".
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
An In-Depth View of Randall Grahm & Leo McCloskey's Views on Winemaking May 22 2011
By Wandering Hoosier - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I must admit that I enjoy drinking wine but would hardly call myself a wine connoisseur. That being said, "An Ideal Wine" is not written for someone who wants a simple overview of the business of making wine in Napa Valley. "An Ideal Wine" is much better suited for someone with an in-depth knowledge of wine who wants to read about the background of a few Napa Valley Wine Producers.

"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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Excellent look behind the curtain July 10 2011
By Paul E. Richardson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Revealing, but Uneven Oct. 2 2011
By Jason Chamberlain - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I requested this book hoping to get some insight into how things work in the Northern California wine industry. I did get that insight, but only indirectly.

The protagonist of the story seems to be Randall Grahm, who dreams of creating a great pinot noir. He has an idealistic view of wine and wants to produce something that not only tastes great, but exhibits terroir. To him, the way to do this is with biodynamic farming. For Grahm, there is a mystical connection with the land. I did not know that such farming practices existed before reading this book. I found this fascinating, particularly because I do not see a problem with fertilizers and pesticides.

In contrast, Leo McCloskey takes a scientific approach and has developed a method to do a chemical analysis of grapes which predicts the quality of the wine they will produce. This approach is also illustrated by the ways that vintners alter their wines with centrifuging, additives, and other manipulations. This book is really a discussion of the contrast between these two styles.

The villain of the story seems to be Parker and the Wine Spectator ratings. Grahm does not want to be a slave of the ratings. McCloskey knows what will get good ratings and wants to help vintners produce wines that will produce good ratings. The sense portrayed through the book is that there is a purity to producing wine "the right way," and that pandering to Wine Spectator ratings is akin to selling out.

I read this book in one sitting while flying across the country. Despite that, I still found it difficult to follow. The author uses terminology and references that only a wine aficionado is likely to understand. Also, the writing style and organization could be a metaphor for how Grahm operates. At times it is very clever, but it also meanders quite a bit. Perhaps there is no good way to tell this story as a straight narrative, but I have to think that an editor would be able to clean this up a little bit.

What you end up with is a lot of vignettes that the reader must put together into a coherent story. The story is compelling if you are at all interested in wine. I recommend it even with these flaws, but it is difficult to get excited about that recommendation.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Two Opinions on How to Make the Ideal Wine April 28 2011
By James Ellsworth - Published on
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
David Darlington has provided a very interesting read in 'An Ideal Wine.' The 'drama' in the volume is the contrast between two approaches to wine: the analytic/metric and the sensory/cultural. Of course, some mix of both approaches must be taken, and is taken by Darlington's protagonist, cult winemaker Randall Grahm, the force behind Bonny Doon Winery. His foil in the book is Leo McCloskey, the founder of Enologix and the developer of a proprietary software program to analyze a sample of grapes with the aim of guiding a winemaker from 'when to pick' through 'how to process.' Grahm believes that varietal selection and 'terroir' (land, climate and viticultural practices) are what must be expressed in 'an ideal wine.' McCloskey thinks the key is to assess consumer preferences and use technology to give the customer what they want. For him, place and varietal are less important than properly manipulating the product of land and vine to match a desired flavor profile. Both men are trying to do what they enjoy most and make a good living at it. The high-end 'California' retail culture is exemplified by Dennis Overstreet, creator of the Wine Merchant, who believes that even the best wine needs to be 'sold' by the creative force of a vibrant personality. David Darlington is along for the ride in what amounts to an extended interview with, particularly, Grahm and McCloskey.

The result tells you almost everything a wine drinker might want to know about every aspect of the wine business from selecting the ground to what to plant, to how wine is vinified through how it is marketed. If you are experienced in drinking a range of wines, you can almost taste along with Grahm and Darlington as they open bottles in the course of their adventures. "An Ideal Wine' is chock-full of insights, reads easily and conveys its content in lushly descriptive prose.

For me, the book does not deliver on its subtitle: 'One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection and Profit in California.' The few people Darlington emphasizes in the book do not make a generation. The profit motive is there but there is no real focus on the consolidation of small wineries under the pressure of increasing costs to 'play.' No attempt is made to explain the boutique wineries of Francis Ford Coppola, or Fess Parker and no mention is made of the generational hand over from Ernesto and Julio Gallo to Gina. Jess Jackson, of Kendall Jackson winery, has just passed away and his obituary made it clear that he built an immense wine empire during this same generation. Jackson, former longshoreman, former lawyer, turned winemaker has a story that is more revealing about the failure of small start-ups by enthusiasts and the survival of a man who discovered a genius for doing business in wine country. What this book is about is a closer look at two distinct emphases on the pursuit of 'perfection' in wine and winemaking. That is certainly enough of a story to justify a purchase of this book.