Book review – The Finest Wines of California

The World of Fine Wine (WFW) is a magazine for thoughtful wine enthusiasts, launched in the U.K. in 2004.  It is a quarterly journal and features long articles written by an all-star cast of writers who know wine and happen to write very well about the subject.  These people are not journalists but rather skilled writers who have immersed themselves in the world of wine, often with very specialized areas of interest which they constantly study and interpret.  Many of these individuals started as editors and migrated into wine writing as a second stage in their careers. Most are full time in their pursuits. Most also happen to have been regional chairs at DWWA this past week.

One of these writers is Stephen Brook, a specialist in the wines of Bordeaux and California. Not a bad selection of regions, n’est-ce pas?  Stephen has written many wine and travel books over the past 30 years and these works are considered authoritative and highly readable.  He is a wine judge, an educator and a contributor to several wine journals, including WFW.  Stephen’s career followed the path I described above: he was educated at Cambridge, moved to the United States where he was an editor at the Atlantic Monthly and two publishers for several years.  He returned to England and continued to edit for a time before becoming a full-time writer in the early 1980’s.

Brook has authored a new title, The Finest Wines of California, released earlier this year by the University of California Press.  This is the most recent in a series of The Finest Wines of… books commissioned by WFW.  Other titles in the series include studies of Tuscany, Champagne and Bordeaux. In all cases true subject matter experts have been engaged to assemble the content for these titles and each book is commendable for its precision and packaging.  This is a series to watch, for general readers, travelers and students.

Over the past several years a number of books have been written that cover specific zones of California. This book is the first in many years which examines the state as a whole.  In my mind this is an overdue book – measured by the outdated California space in my wine bookcase – and it does what it has to do.  It addresses the history of the region.  It speaks extensively to the culture and the regulatory environment, such as it is. Brooks subtly makes it clear these topics are related when one considers California.  There is also an overview on winemaking, on varietals and the final chapter of the introductory section discusses evolving style in the region.

The reader then travels through the sub regions (Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Sierra Foothills, etc.) starting with a short description of distinctive aspects of the sub-region, followed by brief profiles and tasting notes for a personal selection of producers.  Some 80+ wineries are covered (including the iconoclastic, Sean Thackrey who is truly hors zone…).

I should explain the format of The Finest Wines of…books.  Each opens with an overview section which covers the context of the region under study: history, geography, social and cultural context, grape growing, winemaking and trends.  This overview delivers in the style readers expect in WFW and it sets the stage for the producer commentary which follows the overture.  While the structure is formulaic, the publisher intervention seems to end here. Content is the writer’s domain. I spoke to Stephen at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards judging and he was very clear that the selection of the producers is his, as are his remarks.

This book is exceptional.  It is well-written.  It is informative. It is readable and entertaining.  It features outstanding photography by Jon Wyand. It makes one want to get on a plane and go to the Golden State for an extended tasting tour. It paints a bullish picture for California and makes all of us who complain about California wine prices nod in agreement… now we understand (or at least we are empathic).  Land is in limited supply and is expensive, driven up by wealthy buyers who have the money and ego to spend what they have to, to acquire the property they covet. It translates into higher cost wines.

While Stephen is clearly a Cali-phile it is noteworthy that he calls it as he sees it.  He is matter-of-fact in tone throughout, even when waxing about wineries he likes. He gives you the information, sometimes unvarnished and lets you draw your conclusions. He calls some pricing practices garagisme, not a compliment. He is skeptical of the whole concept of AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas, designated by regulation) especially considering California still has to figure out what does best where (some call it terroir…).

Stephen is not judgmental and his style makes his thesis believable and one you accept: California is what it is.  Don’t compare it to Bordeaux.  It has its own styles and culture and the wines are of indisputably high quality as winemaking has evolved and as close interaction between grower and winemaker has become the norm. Don’t try to make it something that it can never be.  Rather, revel in its constant journey and as it becomes better along the way.

He is funny, as when he describes the beautiful and delicate Delia Viader as “…no Napa trophy wife”, going on to describe the number of advanced degrees she has from Berkeley and MIT. The editor in me would suggest there is a missing mere just after the no.

I believe this book is important and there is one fundamental reason for my conclusion: it is written by someone who is not American.  This said, Stephen has worked in the USA. He has travelled to California for many years.  He has tasted thousands of wines – in Bordeaux and in California.  He is knowledgeable but he is also arm’s-length.  He tells the story of California without a hype-driven agenda.  These factors make the book credible and make it one any wine-lover should read.

à bientôt…

Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2011.


Author: John Switzer

I am wine writer, educator and tour guide. From 2005 to June 2014 I published a bi-weekly newsletter, the Winesights Vintages Newsletter (WVN). This Newsletter was closed in July 2014 when the Government of Canada put in place the onerous administrative requirements of Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation. The legacy of WVN continues on this blog spot where I post wine-related articles as well as reviews of a small selection of best-value wines from each bi-weekly LCBO Vintages release. I hold the WSET Diploma, I am a WSET Certified Educator, I teach in the WSET program at the Independent Wine Education Guild in Toronto where I am the past Director of the WSET Diploma program. Since 2010 I have been a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards on the Rhône panel and I am a member of the Society of Wine Educators.

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