Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: In Search of Bacchus

Having built up great respect for George Taber based on his two previous works (Judgement of Paris and To Cork or Not To Cork), I was vey excited when I was informed by a friend that he had written a third book called In Search of Bacchus.  I took immediate steps to obtain a copy.  The book, published by Scribner, and subtitled Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism, is the story of the authors' exploration of "... wine tourism in twelve of the world's most interesting wine regions."

The book is structured as a series of 12 essays, each covering a wine region, with each essay followed by a two- to three-page accounting of a unique experience the author had had while in the region.  For example, the author bungy-jumped while in New Zealand and went to a "Black Tie in the Bush" event while in Margaret River, Australia.  Bookending these essays are a Prologue and a Conclusion.  The book deals with wine and wine tourism in the twelve wine regions but beyond that there is no connective tissue that ties it into a cohesive whole.  The use of an individual named Zimmerman in the Prologue as the jumping-off point for the entire book seems somewhat contrived.

In the Prologue, the author says that he set out to explore 12 of the world's most interesting wine regions but does not indicate why he settled on the number 12 nor did he define interesting.  In the discussion on the Bordeaux region, the author mentions that determining the best wine region in France, for the purposes of the book, was the hardest of the wine region decisions that he had to make.  This seems to indicate that he selected the best wine region in each country for inclusion in the book. If that is so, why is Margaret River the area selecetd for Australia?  Further, why is Georgia covered in the book and Austria, Romania, and Greece not included?  Why was China, the seventh largest producer, and sixth largest consumer, not included as the Last Frontier (the section in which Georgia was covered)?

While the author does not provide any insight into the structure of the book, or the order in which the essays are recounted, the internal structure of the essays are, for the most part, fairly consistent.  The essay generally begins with a historical overview of the wine region and its grape-growing experience and then launches into a discourse of the wine-tourism experiences of selected wineries in the region.  Within this overall framework, the author drops "rice grains" regarding places to stay, eat, drink, and visit.

The book begins with a fascinating discussion of Napa Valley and the prominent role that the late Robert Mondavi played in the development of wine tourism in the valley (the author has the disconcerting habit of referring to it as "the Napa Valley") as well as the battle between grape growers and wineries in Napa to define what was a winery and what activities a winery could undertake.  The outcome of this battle is the main reason that wineries do not, for the most part, have hotels and/or restaurants on their properties.  In the Napa Valley essay the author had particularly harsh words for Darioush ("Darioush Winery is a monument to Khaledi's homeland and its culture, but an insult to the wine culture of the Napa Valley") and Castello di Amoroso ("... might look fine in Tuscany, but stands out in jarring juxtaposition to its surroundings in the Napa Valley") wineries.

After discussions on South Africa (Stellenbosch) and Argentina (Mendoza) , the books begins to become formulaic and that detracts from the telling of the stories. It almost becomes less of a book for immediate consumption and more of a reference which one would consult before going on a trip.  The book continues with Chile (A Colchagua Valley), Australia (Margaret River), New Zealand (Central Otago), Spain (Rioja), Portugal (Douro Valley), France (Bordeaux), Germany (Rheingau and Middle Mosel), and Georgia (Kakheti).

When I first encountered the book, I thought it was going to be a pure travel book covering the author's travel in the regions and reported in the first person.  Such a book would be aimed at the wine tourist and would have the journey and experiences as the connective tissue.  Those first person experiences have instead been relegated to after-thought status at the end of each essay.  It is not clear whether the audience for the book is a tourist, tour operators, or wineries who have not drank the Kool Aid of wine tourism and I think that this lack of laser-like focus on the consumer (of this book) diminishes it slightly.

The historical narratives in the book are excellent and informative and Taber's writing style is easy on the senses. Based on his prior works, I think that Taber's strength is his methodical research (historical in the case of Judgement of Paris; technical in the case of To Cork or Not to Cork) and that skill is in evidence in this book in his historical treatments. Taber takes us up close and personal with some of the leading winemakers in these regions and even allows us to see them in unexpected situations as when Santiago Achaval, the founder of the Achaval-Ferrer winery grabs a guitar and provides the entertainment during an asado in Argentina. In the conclusion he tries, with some success, to impart the lessons learned, some of which could be applied by the adventurous tourist in order to improve the experience. 

During the narrative, I tried to make a note of every wine Taber mentioned.  This soon became tiresome, however, and I allowed my list to lapse.  You can imagine my surprise and pleasure when I got to the Appendix and saw that Taber had compiled that list for me, arranged by region and price in $US.  Sweet. While this book does not approach the prior two in stature, it probably should be in every wine tourist's backpack.

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