Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Oz Clarke's The History of Wine in 100 Bottles

I recently read, and reviewed, what I hold to be one of the most comprehensive and insightful histories of wine written in the recent past -- spanning, as it does, the period from the posited discovery/invention of the beverage in the neolithic to its recent expansion beyond the shores of Europe and its ever-widening acceptance, by expert and neophyte alike, as the go-to beverage for the accompaniment of pleasure and cuisine. This sweeping tome was Paul Lukacs Inventing Wine. It was with great anticipation, then, that I recently procured a copy of Oz Clarke's The History of Wine in 100 Bottles: From Bacchus to Bordeaux and Beyond (Sterling Epicure, 2015).

After all, according to ozclarke.com,
Oz Clarke is one of the world’s leading wine experts, whose formidable reputation is based on his extensive wine knowledge and accessible, no-nonsense approach. His passion for the subject dates from his student days at Oxford University, where he won tasting competitions at a precociously early age.
Secondly, with Lukacs' book having recently hit the shelves, my thought process was that someone looking to cover the same topic would feel some pressure to "take it up a notch." And I would be the beneficiary of this "upward notchiness."

Even though the major title indicates that the book will tell the history of wine in 100 bottles, Mr. Clarke disabuses us of this in the Introduction. In the first two sentences he states that (i) this book is not a history of 100 bottles and (ii) that it is more than a history of wine. Later on, in that same introduction, he comes to terms with himself: "So I suppose it is a history of wine, but I unapologetically admit that it is my version of history -- it's the events and the people that I find interesting or amusing, or both." That was somewhat disappointing for me. I had been hoping to build on what I had learnt from Lukacs but Clarke was telegraphing that this was not going to be history: it was going to be his stories.

The approach used throughout the book was for the author to choose a period (or year) and then wax eloquently on a topic within that period for one or two pages, and then go on to another topic. This was disconcerting in that every page felt as though you were starting a new story (actually you were) and you had to invest the time to come up to speed. And there was no continuity from one story to the next. Even if the time periods were close, the topics were significantly different from page to page (for the most part). And the topics covered were many, to include:

  • Regions
  • Countries
  • Wines
  • Bottles
  • Decanters
  • Closures
  • Packaging
  • People
  • Appellations
  • Pioneering civilizations

And they were all scattered willy nilly throughout the book with no linkage other than they were on a time continuum.

One of the successful aspects of the Lukacs' book was the way in which the author showed how one action/development in the wine world led to another. The book was a celebration of the relative linearity of the wine story post the Roman period. The current book is somewhat tiring, forcing the reader into 100 separate beginnings, middles, and, in some cases, endings. The book left me asking the question: "What is the value-added here?"

If you are truly interested in the history of wine, read Lukacs. If you are looking for something to peruse from time to time to get a brief overview of one of the topics covered by Clarke (and I must emphasize that this is not a comprehensive history by any stretch of the imagination; and the author mentioned that fact in the Introduction) then you may want to consider this book.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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