Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Review: Romancing the Vine -- Life, Love, and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo

Allan Tardi's Romancing the Vine: Life, Love, and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo (New York, St. Martin's Press) is a working man's version of Edward Steinberg's The Making of a Great Wine: Gaja and Sori San Lorenzo (Hopewell, NJ, Eco Press) with a number of contrasting wrinkles which serve to blur the similarities.  Both books follow the Nebbiola grape through the viticultural and vinicultural procesess of a single year -- 1989 for Steinberg, 2002 for Tardi -- with Steinberg focusing on a single vineyard (Sori San Lorenzo) in the Barbaresco DOCG and the powerful owner of that vineyard, Angelo Gaja.  Tardi's tale is cast, contrastingly, in Castiglione Falleto, a little village in the Barolo region -- about 10 miles from Barbaresco -- and covers the author's experiences with a small vineyard (Le Munie), a small winery (Parusso), and the inhabitants of the village.

Tardi may have tried to do too much in the 316 pages of this book.  It is foremost a book about journeys:  the journey of the grape from vine to wine, and then on to grappa and vineyard fertilizer; his journey from American citizen to dual American-Italian citizensship; his journey from acclaimed New York City Chef to Barolo cellar rat; his journey into the heart, and bed, of Ivana, his self-described polar opposite; and, finally, a journey into the heart of a small Piemontese village and discovery of its inhabitants and their rituals.

The wine story in the book is tame and unscintillating and suffers from Tardi's diversions into the other journeys previously described.  For example, at the conclusion of the chapter on Harvest, he launches into a discourse on terroir and tasting terroir before going on to the activities in the winery.  It seemed misplaced.  Where Tardi excels is in his description of the local haunts and characters and the festivals that are so much a part of the Piemontese summer.  His descriptions of the Festa della Bussia -- a 5-day food, music and wine festival -- and Fair of the Fat Bull, give us a Langhe-eye view of life in this region. 

The author has a disconcerting habit of placing recipes at the end of a chapter closest to where he himself experienced that food item initially.  This is almost nuisance-like in that recipe-reading entails a different mindset than the pleasure-type reading that one applies to a book of this type.  Reading  a recipe is work.  I think that readers would have been better served if the recipes had been collected into an appendix at the end of the book.

The book ends rather abruptly.  Prior to the end, the author had been engaged in deep thought about his working future as well as the future of the relationship with Ivana.  To the extent that those thoughts were explored, I felt that they would be resolved in some fashion prior to the close of the story.  They were not.  The journey is incomplete, both for the reader as well as the author.  While Steinberg's tale has clarity and depth -- diamond-like -- this book has unresolved issues.

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