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Wine Books to Savor

Two new wine books will ignite your passion for wine and reading. They take different approaches to the story of wine. But each offers unique perspectives on the wine universe.

Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California by Frances Dinkelspiel (St. Martin’s Press, 2015)

Even if you don't like wine or like to read, pick up Tangled Vines and see what happens. You will most likely not be able to put it down. Thoroughly researched and totally readable, this book presents multiple story lines on California wine.

The Story
The ostensible topic of Tangled Vines is the fire that broke out in the Wines Central wine warehouse in Vallejo, California when 4.5 million bottles of California’s finest wine worth more than $250 million, were burned and lost. Starting with this largest loss in the history of wine, Dinkelspiel weaves in the tale of six vintners who lost one or more vintages—or their total inventory. Some, like Delia Viader, reeled financially from the loss. I watched Ted Hall, owner of Long Meadow Ranch, choke up when Dinkelspiel read an excerpt of his story at a reading at a book event at the ranch’s Farmstead restaurant.

But what makes the book most compelling is the author’s personal mission to uncover the story the 175 bottles of port and angelica made by her great-great grandfather Isaias Hellman in 1875. Hellman was the topic of Dinkelspiel’s first book, Towers of Gold (St. Martin’s Press, 2010).  Hellman started his career as an immigrant banker in the mission-town of Los Angeles. He bought land outside of town and developed the Rancho Cucamonga vineyard and began making wine. After moving to San Francisco, he became the head of Wells Fargo.

By layering in Hellman's story, the author adds more sub-plots to the wine mystery with the high drama and murders which took place on the early rancho vineyards in Southern California as men battled for control. The California Wine Association, a little known but huge player in the state’s wine industry, eventually bought out the southern Calif. vineyards and controlled 80 percent of the production in the early 20th century.

Yet with all the intrigue and conflict, the book is filled with poignant moments. The author shares the experience of tasting one of her great-great-grandfather's bottles of port not stored at the warehouse with a master wine taster, and how the moment connects her with her family’s vinous history. She also characterizes the heartbreaking experience of her cousin who was custodian of the Hellman wine and lost it all.

Why read it

Dinkelspiel pulls all the threads together by drawing back the curtains on the glamor of Napa Valley to show the evil side of a select few in the wine business and how the others aim to maximize the glamour and celebrity side of the wine industry. Once you start to read, you will view the California wine industry with a different eye.

Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry by John Winthrop Hæger (Univ. of California Press, 2016)

Haeger wrote a compelling book on pinot noir in 2004, American Pinot Noir (Univ. of California Press, 2004).  This year we get to read his perspective on Riesling, one of the most rewarding and complex grapes. The author regards riesling from all the angles—the styles, the tastes, the place and the people who produce riesling  in North America and Western Europe.

The story
The riesling predicament is eternal. Is it dry or sweet? Agreeable or simply drinkable? The author begins with the grape itself. He describes the grape’s characteristic acidity which manifests as a wine with stability.

The best part of the book is the history of the riesling. Haeger sets the stage in the Rhine Valley producing mostly off-dry by the end of the 19th century. The evolution to dry and sweet is head spinning with the New World producing much off-dry with Germany back to dry styles.

With a historian’s clear eye for illuminating detail, Haeger describes how riesling is made. He stirs in a section on clonal differences. Then he digs into the habitats of riesling through its renowned sites from the Rhine Basin, the German Rhine regions, the Danube basin and lower Austria, plus the Adige basin of Alto Adige. In the U.S. Haeger zeroes in on Finger Lakes, the Okanagan Valley, Washington, Oregon and the Central Valley. The author then outlines the top producers in each region. The maps are especially useful. And no surprise, Haeger is a dry riesling kind of guy.

Why read it

This book is more of a reference than a sit-down-and-finish  book like Dinkelspiel’s. But as a go-to book for understanding—and selling riesling to others—Haeger’s language and thorough research skills can’t be beat.








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