Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review: The Curious World of Wine

On the eve of the Decatur Wine Festival, I brought Richard Vine's The Curious World of Wine (Perigee/Penguin, 2012) with me to Café Lily in case I had time to read the end of it before meeting a friend.  Allen Sanders, the wine expert, noticed it, and we had a great conversation about Zinfandels.  So, if you want to look like you know something about wine:  buy this book.

Those who actually want to know something about wine are in luck, too.  I've played trivia a few times with friends, usually in pubs for prizes or credit, and the secret of a good trivia team is each person has a specialty area like sports, popular culture, etc.  I don't feel very competent in any one area, although I'm a decent fill-in for addictive substance-related science questions like "What does THC stand for?" and "What is the maximum International Bitterness Unit level the human palate can discern?"*  After reading The Curious World of Wine, I feel able to offer a trivia team more wine-related knowledge.

This one little book covers a range of topic areas from wine history to people to expressions.  I had a few "oh, so that's where that came from!" moments such as when reading about the Chateauneuf de Pape region of France.  I like wines from this region because it's fun to say.  This was a perfect example of how bits of knowledge floated around my brain but never got connected until I read this book.  Anyone familiar with Church history remembers that in the early 1300's, the Pope moved from Rome to Avignon, and it took the influence of Saint Catherine of Siena to get it all straightened out and move the pope back to Rome in 1376.  I took French in high school and know the words Chateau (house or home), neuf (new), and Pape (pope), but I never connected the Chateauneuf de Pape – or "new home of the Pope" – name with the Avignon papacy period.  The hills around Avignon overlook the Rhone River and grow Syrah, Grenache, and other reds, and now I have an interesting historical tidbit to relate in addition to the fun of saying Chateauneuf de Pape.

The book is loosely organized into chapters, some of which have clever titles like "French Connections."  However, I sometimes found my head spinning a bit with the time-hopping within the chapters better organized by topic area (e.g., different wine areas in France).  For example, the Chateuneuf de Pape story came after a World War II champagne story.  It was kind of like if disorganized time-traveling British science fiction character Doctor Who decided to lead a wine tour.**  That said, when dealing with this kind of material, it can be tough to figure out the best order, and I appreciate Dr. Vine's challenge. 

On first glance, this handsome little hardcover is appealing, and it's apparent someone spent a lot of time making it look pretty.  Upon opening it, I couldn't help but think they couldn't decide whether to go with a regular nonfiction format or a coffee table book.  The text inside is presented in double columns, which I found annoying until I got used to it, and bordered by nice little designs in the corners.  The enclosed text boxes with very short items are in regular format.  Illustrations add to the text without being distracting, and the editing was almost flawless with no typos.  An index would be nice for when I'd like to reference these stories in future blog posts.  As it is, I'll have to flip through the chapters to find what I'm looking for.  If you're not looking to use it as a reference, this will probably not matter as much.

Although the text is presented like a textbook and written by an academic, it's very easy to read, and the tone is light and conversational.  The humor contributes to the stories without prompting eye-rolling or groans.  After reading it, I would love to go to dinner with Doctor Vine and hear more of his wine stories, especially ones related to his experiences researching this book, and to find out what he couldn't include within the time and space restraints.  I thank him for providing a resource that will help with my blogging, my own dinner parties, and, of course, impressing random wine experts and trivia teams.
FCC Disclosure:  This was an advance review copy (ARC) provided to me free by the publisher.  This did not affect my opinions or review in any way.

* Answers:  THC, the active molecular component of marijuana, stands for Tetrahydrocannabinol.  I know this from my required psychopharmacology course in graduate school.
IBUs are the measure of how bitter beer is, and typically this flavor comes from hops.  The human palate can discern levels up to about 90.  My palate can tolerate levels up to about 25.  Yep, I'm a wine drinker and hop wimp.

** I would totally sign up for this.

Top:  The book on my wine rack nestled in between a couple of bottles of Canadian wines, which, sadly, are not mentioned in it.
Above:  The inside of the book.  Yes, it's blurry.  If you want to read it, please buy it.  

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