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Best wine books not always about wine

Dec 6, 2019 5:50 AM

New York

THE BEST wine book I read this year was not about wine. It was about cider, though not entirely. It was really about trees and places, agriculture and culture, and the tension between nature and industry. All of which is about wine and a lot more.

Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider and the Complicated Art of Making a Living (Chelsea Green, US$24.95) is by Andy Brennan, a New York artist who with his wife, Polly Giragosian, decamped from the city in 2008 to buy an old farmhouse with the intention of planting an orchard and making cider.

They chose not the fertile Hudson Valley, but hardscrabble Sullivan County in the Catskills, an area that agriculturally, he writes, "became as valued as Baltic Avenue on a Monopoly board". He planted an orchard, but it failed. Modern orchards, with their reliance on dwarf trees, varietal selections, clonal rootstocks and chemically supported monocultures, are weak and practically require industrial crutches. He wanted to farm organically.

Desperate for apples, Brennan discovered that Sullivan County was a trove of old apple trees, both wild and pre-industrial orchards long abandoned, buried behind brambles or hidden in dense forest growths.

He set about foraging these apples and, as the proprietor of Aaron Burr Cidery, began to produce wonderful examples of what he calls "locational ciders," meant to convey the nuances of the different places from which the apples were gathered.

Through these experiences, Brennan, who describes himself as "an obsessed, introverted farmer/cider maker," gained a deepened wonder and love of apple trees, particularly those that have been permitted to follow their wild nature rather than trained as undignified cogs in industrial orchards.

Brennan's ideas are important, but he and Aaron Burr Cidery occupy just a small place in the growing cider industry. For context, Jason Wilson's new book, The Cider Revival: Dispatches From the Orchard (Abrams Press, US$26), is an excellent place to start. Wilson is a wine and spirits writer who has recently become obsessed with cider. Not one to simply accumulate bottles, he goes out on the road to visit some of the most interesting figures in what he rightly calls the cider revival, the rejuvenation in the last decade of what was America's original favourite beverage.

Focusing on the North-east, with stops elsewhere in the United States and in Europe, Wilson outlines the tensions in the cider world between big and small, modern and heritage, dry and sweet. Should the motivation be primarily business or upholding traditions? Or somewhere in between?

These sorts of culture wars have been fought in wine for decades. It's illuminating for wine lovers to see them from another perspective, and more than a few readers will want to try some of the ciders enjoyed by Wilson along the way.

Sommeliers have assumed a starring role in the wine industry. But much of what is understood about their job comes from glamorising tasting competitions and other reality-show equivalents.

In Becoming a Sommelier (Simon & Schuster, US$18), a slender volume that is part of the publisher's "Masters at Work" series, Rosie Schaap picks out two sommeliers working in New York City and examines their backgrounds, their lives, their reasons for getting into the business and what they love about it.

The two are a study in contrasts. Roger Dagorn is a legend in New York, a veteran who made his reputation in the 1990s at Chanterelle. Dagorn has influenced countless other sommeliers, and epitomises a kindly, avuncular devotion to his craft.

His counterpart is the much younger Amanda Smeltz, a poet who got into restaurants to support her education and found her metier in wine. She has worked in the informal, natural wine world of Roberta's in Brooklyn and at its polar opposite, the Daniel Boulud restaurant group in Manhattan. She now splits the difference as wine director of Estela and Cafe Altro Paradiso.

Schaap, a former drinks columnist at The New York Times Magazine, is clear and precise in her writing. She is not part of the wine industry, which permits her to avoid the usual preoccupations with tasting and labels. Instead, she is able to go more deeply into what the job entails and why her subjects are so good at it. If you are curious about life as a sommelier, this charming book makes an easy, nutritious appetiser.

Vignette: Stories of Life & Wine in 100 Bottles (Hardie Grant Books, US$29.99), by Jane Lopes, is a different sort of sommelier story, this one centred on a determination to compete for the coveted title Master Sommelier. While the book is ostensibly concerned with how one studies and absorbs the skills of service, knowledge and tasting, wine fades as other matters become paramount.

Community and character

Lopes, born in Napa Valley, California, was applying to graduate school when she got a job in a wine shop. She was so taken with the world of wine, food and spirits that she left behind her academic dreams to become a sommelier, a job that takes her from Chicago to New York and eventually to Melbourne, Australia.

She saw among her peers more than a few who were studying for the various stages of the rigorous master sommelier's programme, so she decided to do it as well. Eventually, she came to cherish the programme for the community she found and the character it helped build.

Yet Lopes faces an obstacle experienced by few of her colleagues: chronic, crippling anxiety that disappears and re-emerges unpredictably. So many sommelier stories have focused solely on acquiring the necessary practical skills that it's almost shocking to instead be privy to a sommelier's emotional and mental-health turbulence.

Lopes is an appealing character, and I found myself rooting for her through her struggles, emotional and romantic. Robin Cowcher's illustrations are sympathetic and equally engaging.

The 100 bottles? Each chapter has a thematic beverage attached, though the linkage is often tenuous. Bits of wine education are threaded throughout and are easy to digest, though in the end it's Lopes's story, right to the shocking postscript, that keeps one engaged.

If you enjoy armchair exploration, you will love Wink Lorch's new book, Wines of the French Alps: Savoie, Bugey and Beyond, With Local Food and Travel Tips (Wine Travel Media, US$40).

These Alpine regions are a hidden source of lovely farm wines that have slowly gained popularity in the United States thanks to their drinkability and value. They are made from little-known grapes such as altesse, mondeuse, persan and gringet, and come from equally obscure appellations.

This book is part textbook and part travelogue, with gorgeous photographs. Lorch, who published a similar book on the Jura five years ago, is an engaging guide with deep knowledge of the area. Her writing is companionable, and her opinions are clear, though gently rendered. While the book satisfies vicariously, it will make you want to see the real thing.

The first book I recommend to anybody starting a wine library is The World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley, US$65), by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. The new eighth edition is just out, and it's widely revised, with new sections on China and England, to name two, and updates in just about every other region accounting for the endless churn and stretching of boundaries.

The Atlas is so good in so many ways, with concise sections on the history of wine, how it's grown and made, climate change and how to store and serve wine. But the maps are the thing, along with the brilliant descriptions of terrain and terroir. A great way to learn about wine is to open bottles and read this book. NYTIMES