This holiday season, I curled up with The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine. Written by Todd Kliman, the first line of this tale paves the way for an adventure that entwines the life of an obscure American native grape, the Norton, with the lives of those obsessed with resurrecting it. “Clouds of dust drift through the open window of my rickety Toyota as it shudders along the gravely path of Champe Ford Road like a washing machine on spin cycle, stirring up sticks and pebbles.” I felt as if I were sitting alongside Kliman as he describes his car ride to a vineyard in Virginia’s wine country where we first meet Jenni McCloud, a winemaker-grape grower whose personal journey, much like the Norton’s, is one of rebirth. Considered the cornerstone of the Missouri wine industry, the Norton stirs up much emotion in the many characters whose lives it touches—from Dr. Norton who cultivated the grape in the early 1800s, Prohibitionists who nearly obliterated it, to present-day champions such as McCloud and others who grow the Norton in the Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic States, and northeastern Georgia.
Here are some of my other favorite wine tales.
There are a number of stories about World War II and its heroes. Unique among them is the battle between the French and Germans over France’s most treasured commodity—wine—and the courageous vintners who fought to protect it from German plunder. In Wine & War, authors Don and Petie Kaldstrup weave a narrative through the stories of five prominent winemaking families from Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Champagne. These men and women risked their lives and livelihoods to save the French wine industry—from building giant walls to hide their prize vintages; collaborating with the French Resistance to sabotage the Germans’ attempts to pillage Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau d’Yquem and Romanee-Conti, among others; to reclaiming half a million cases of stolen wines from Hitler’sEagles Nest at the end of the war. Wine & War truly is one of World War II’s untold stories.
The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
The Billionaire’s Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace, begs the question, “Did he or didn’t he?” At a heated auction at Christie’s of London a 1787 Lafite Bordeaux, allegedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, goes for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. The wine’s procurer, Hardy Rodenstock—a prominent wine collector, connoisseur and trader—ultimately becomes the prime suspect of what is suspected to be an elaborate fraud. Rodenstock never reveals the location of the Jefferson Lafite, or that of most of his rare finds. From one great city to the next, Wallace retraces Rodenstock’s life and the histories of these rare wines, all the while recounting the time Jefferson spent in France and deciphering the techniques for faking wine.
A Tale of Two Valleys: Wine, Wealth and the Battle for the Good Life in Napa and Sonoma
While A Tale of Two Valleys chronicles the feud between Napa and Sonoma over which valley is the soul of wine country, it’s the story of the chickens of Sonoma that, for me, remains forever chicken-scratched on my mind. The chickens are just one absurdity of life author Alan Deutschman uncorks in this tale of eccentric characters and oftentimes jaw-dropping stories of the Napa Valley, a bastion of prestige and wealthy excess, versus Sonoma Valley, a bohemian backwater comprised of a motley crew stubborn to the core. Deutschman’s depiction of the black-and-white differences between the two cultures will leave you laughing, crying and cheering for either side, or perhaps both.
Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar
If you want to explore the world of wine, pick up Bacchus and Me, by Jay McInerney. Each chapter is its own tale—from reds, wine and food pairings, and oenophiles to more—therefore you can start where ever you please without losing sight of the narrative. One caution: McInerney is a bit full of himself. If you can get past his ego—which rears its head throughout—and both his perceived idolization of Helen Turley and disdain for Chardonnay, McInerney is nothing but informative and entertaining, using colorful metaphors, anecdotes and satire to ruminate on wine culture and wine. I recommend reading this book in conjunction with watching the documentary Mondo Vino to put into perspective the many places, people and wine McInerney mentions along his personal journey.
A Cultivated Life: A Year in a California Vineyard
Typically, I would not recommend an out-of-print book, but A Cultivated Life is worth seeking out. Written by Joy Sterling—then CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol and daughter of the winery’s founders Barry and Audrey Sterling—A Cultivated Life was not what I expected. I was prepared to read a banal, blow-by-blow description of viniculture and viticulture. What I got, instead, was a colorful account of what happens in the vineyard from bud break to harvest to dormancy, not to mention the hoops through which the family jumps to negotiate Mother Nature. A Cultivated Life not only refers to a life of agricultural cultivation, but also a life of personal growth. The Sterling family was Parisian expatriates for five years, traveling the French wine regions and cultivating a life of French wine, art, cuisine, entertaining and more. In her book, Joy gives readers a big dose of winery life, recounting each seasonal moment.