Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Book Recommendation

The problem I have with books about beer, wine, and spirits is that too many of them are just guidebooks. They'll list a bunch of different brands or producers, include a brief blurb about the history of the brand or producer and maybe something about what makes them different or special, and have a bunch of tasting notes. There is certainly a place in the world for such books -- there are a lot of different alcoholic beverages out there, and most of them aren't exactly cheap. Everybody wants some good advice about what to buy. But it gets tiresome that virtually every book about beer, wine, and spirits takes this format; and it is very refreshing to find one that is not. That's why I like, for example, Andrew Jefford's Peat Smoke and Spirit, about the whiskies of Islay and the people and distilleries who make them and have made them. And that's why I like David Darlington's Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel. It was originally published in 1991 with the title Angels' Visits: An Inquiry Into the Mystery of Zinfandel and had been out of print for several years before Dacapo retitled it and reissued it. I'm glad that they did because it's a very good book. It's really several books in one. On one level, it attempts to answer the question about where the Zinfandel grape came from. On another level, it discusses the various styles of Zinfandel produced over the years. On a third level, it's a dialectic about the differing philosophies of winemaking by the two dominant producers of red Zinfandel at the time the book was written: Ravenswood and Ridge. Ravenswood specialized (and still does specialize) in making big wines ("BIG! BRAWNY! HEDONISTIC GOBS OF FRUIT!") from 100% Zinfandel (either discarding or refusing to buy the carignane or petite sirah that was grown in the vineyards that they bought their Zinfandel from). Ridge wines are typically not so forward (but let's face it: there's just no way that Zinfandel can be a shrinking violet). Paul Draper, the head winemaker at Ridge since the late '60s, is a believer in two things: balance, with all the elements of a wine -- alcohol, tannin, fruit, etc. -- being in harmony throughout its life, and the value that blends of grapes from a single vineyard can bring to the party. Ridge's wines are rarely 100% of anything, and this is especially true for their Zinfandels. In many years, Ridge's two flagship Zinfandels, Geyserville and Lytton Springs, don't have enough Zinfandel in them to be labeled as Zinfandels legally. Much of Zin is composed of dueling chapters where Darlington interviews, accompanies, and works with alternately Joel Peterson at Ravenswood and Paul Draper at Ridge in an attempt to understand and appreciate America's wine grape. It reads like an extended feature article in the New York Times Magazine -- and that's not a bad thing. If reading this book does not enhance your appreciation of Zinfandel specifically and wine in general, you probably just aren't a wine person.

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