Editor’s note: Wine writer Jess Lander is writing from South Africa, while she waits to get a flight home.
I don’t know about you, but in between the constant stream of news and Netflix binge sessions, I’ve been escaping into books during this ‘station in place’. My last two reads were both fantastic wine books, one fiction, one nonfiction, and I thought my fellow wine lovers might be interested in them too. I also encourage you to order through one of our local bookstores, including Napa Bookmine, Main Street Bookmine and Copperfield’s Books, instead of Amazon, which are taking online orders for shipping.
‘The Lost Vintage’When I heard this was like “The Nightingale” — one of my favorite reads in the last few years—but with wine, I was sold.
This novel by Ann Mah is many things at once. A wine story. A war story. A tragedy. A love story. Set in Burgundy’s famous Côte d’Or, the book shifts back and forth between two perspectives: Kate, a San Francisco-based sommelier preparing for her Master Sommelier exam in the present day and the diary of a young woman in wartime, trying to survive and protect her family’s estate. Eventually, their worlds collide, but I won’t spoil how.
It’s a fantastic look into what it was like to be a wine producer during World War II, the death and famine, the internal battle between doing what is right and survival, and the clever ways in which vignerons historically tried to save their most precious vintages from the Nazis. In the present day, it shines a light on the common struggle between the older and younger generations of these historic, Old World wine estates.
“The Lost Vintage” is a page turner that will pull at your emotions and make you question everything you thought you knew in the previous chapters. I found this to be an especially poignant read during our current global crisis. It provided some much-needed perspective during these times to realize that things could be much, much worse and served as a good reminder to simply stay inside, curl up with a good book and hold your loved ones tight.
‘Godforsaken Grapes’This is a book for the wine lover who is sick of all the pretentiousness that often surrounds wine, for the wine lover who believes there is so much more to wine than Robert Parker’s gospel. In fact, the very title of this book pokes not-so-subtle fun at an infamous Parker rant about the book’s topic: extremely obscure grape varieties.
Did you know there are 1,400 grape varieties in the world, but 80 percent of the wine we consume is made from just 20 of them? Author Jason Wilson takes the reader on a global journey far beyond the noble grapes in search of near-extinct varieties — most of which you won’t be able to pronounce or remember later, but that doesn’t matter — filled with an intriguing cast of wine industry characters, culture, food, vineyard landscapes, and what must be hundreds of glasses of wine.
His discoveries are depicted in such detail that this wine book easily doubles as a travel memoir; you can picture every vineyard, every barn, and practically taste every single glass, for his tasting notes are not boring, but illuminating. One description reads, “It tasted like eating fresh cherries while smoking a clove cigarette and burning leaves in the backyard.” Another: “super...just...well, weird; bitter almonds with hints of bong resin.”
But Godforsaken Grapes has a secondary storyline. Wilson exhibits a refreshing self-awareness about his profession (drinking and writing about booze) and weaves in important and relevant commentary about the state and evolution of the wine industry. He isn’t afraid to question or challenge “the stuffy wine Establishment” and its sometimes archaic values and standards, its obsession with scores and certifications, or its proclivity to take itself so seriously.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from “Godforsaken Grapes”:
“Wine is not a ladder to climb, as we’re so often taught. Not even close. Wine is a maze, a labyrinth, one we gladly enter, embracing the fact that we don’t know where it will take us, and that we’ll likely never find our way out.”
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