Book Review: Vertical – Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail – Rex Pickett

There can’t be many people interested in wine that haven’t seen or aren’t familiar with the 2004 film ‘Sideways’.  Starring Paul Giamatti (Miles) and Thomas Haden Church (Jack) as old college friends who go through US wine country ahead of Jack’s impending marriage, the film (and book that it was based on) was a love-note to the Pinot Noir grape and managed to change real-life perceptions of the variety whilst forcing negative light on Merlot.

What’s perhaps less known is original author Rex Pickett penned a sequel to Sideways; Vertical, which was originally self-published way back in 2010.  Following some ‘pruning and adjustments’ to the content and with a bit more funding behind it, the book is now about to be re-launched to a wider audience.

Vertical

In a strange blending of art imitating life imitating art, the previously downtrodden character of Miles (a depiction of Pickett) is now the successful author of a book called Shameless.  This novel, which is clearly the same as the real-life Sideways, was then made in to a successful film (in both the book and real life).  Miles is now scouting for ideas for his new book (which has technically already been written as the book Vertical).

Vertical follows Miles as he heads off to a speaking engagement at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon and, roping along Jack for support, they are also joined by Miles’ ailing mother Phyllis and her carer Joy.

From the detail and attention that has gone in to such things as the passing scenery, the driving routes they take, and even which way the wind is blowing, it feels that Pickett is writing first-hand about his own trip to Oregon off the back of the success of the real Sideways. Rather than read it as a first-hand Pickett narrative, given how much Giamatti and Haden Church absorbed and became the characters of Miles and Jack in the Sideways film, I chose to read the book with their voices in my head, rather than treat them as simply the Martin and Jake characters who star in the Shameless film.

I read the first half of the book, almost in one go, whilst the sun was streaming in through a window.  Such was the beautifully composed narrative I was immediately transported to the blue skies of wine country, ready to jettison my life and head off on such a wine adventure myself.  Even at 10am in the morning I was thirsty reading it.

I’m always wary of any book that carries a back-page review that says ‘laugh-out-loud funny’, but there were several moments throughout their road trip I did indeed laugh out loud.  Clearly imagining the chilled-out Haden Church delivery of Jack, one whole story arc is a joy to read.  I won’t spoil the details, but suffice to say I’m now well aware of what priapism is!

I’d also be willing to get the Kickstarter fund going to make the movie, just to see the moment that the brake comes off of Phyllis’ wheelchair on a vineyard terrace and she goes tumbling down through the steeply sloped vines whilst Miles, Jack and Joy chase after her.  Or where Miles gets dropped in to a pool of his despised Merlot!

The comedic situations in the book mean that you’ll enjoy it even with no prior wine knowledge, but there’s plenty of references here for those in the know, even if a few do seem a little superfluously thrown in (e.g. “I didn’t know very much….relying heavily on Jancis Robinson’s brilliant encyclopedia on the subject, The Oxford Companion to Wine”).

There’s certainly enough detail for you to make your own wine pilgrimage to match that of the book which, after reading it, is exactly what you’ll be wanting to do.

A great read, and well recommended.

With thanks to Loose Gravel Press for providing the review copy of this book.

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WSET Diploma: The theory of everything

Study Guides

This week saw me sitting my final exam for the Wines & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 4 Diploma. After 3 years and 7 exams, I’m within touching distance of completing this notoriously hard course. The exam that I sat was the feared Unit 3 ‘Light Wines of the World’ Theory exam. The description ‘Light wines of the world’ means the exam can be about any aspect of winemaking in the vineyard or in the winery, of any number of different wine styles, produced anywhere in the world.

Ergo, it’s HUGE.

There’s several textbooks (not least the massive Oxford Companion to Wine which runs to nearly 800 pages), but not only that, when you dip in to these textbooks it also tells you to check out a further selection of other books. And then to go online. And don’t forget to keep up with the trade magazines.

I will admit that this isn’t my first time sitting the exam (it is my 3rd attempt) but unlike, say, a driving test where people are fairly protective of whether they passed first time, there’s no shame in admitting that you didn’t pass this one. Indeed, many of the people I spoke to on exam day were re-sit students. On the first attempt of this final exam you are expected to do a 3 hour written exam straight after a 2.5 hour tasting exam. No small task in itself.  Frustratingly my first re-sit came mere points away from a pass and, because of a silly misunderstanding when reading the question which cost me the pass, I will never ever think of New Zealand Pinot Noir in the same way again!

Anyway, here I was, giving it what I currently view as perhaps my last shot at this final test. They only do one sitting of the exam every six months, and so attempting it just 3 times can eat up nearly 2 years of your life (it takes 10 weeks for the final results to come through).  You’re given seven questions, of which you must answer five of them. A standard pass for each question requires you to write circa 3 sides of A4 of concise information, in just half an hour, and of course you have no idea which questions will come up.  Questions this time ranged from comparing three different wines from France in respect of the difference in grapes, styles, quality and price, to being able to articulate the advantages and disadvantages of making bulk and premium wine in South Africa.

Time will tell how well I’ve done, so roll on August.

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Painting a picture

By way of introduction to my upcoming series of articles on the history of Dom Pérignon, I thought I would offer up some general notes on the Champagne region from the start of the 20th century, leading up to the first release. Hopefully this will act as a primer for the general mood of France at that time.

Champagne remains a by-word for special occasions, celebrations and good times, but travelling back in time 100 years shows the region ravaged by war, vine disease and poor harvests. Today, all of the big Champagne houses produce a Prestige Cuvée, a showcase for their top wines blended to perfection, and made in limited quantities. Back in the 1930’s it was unheard of. Dom Pérignon was the first and is arguably still the King of them all. In such a time of austerity, why were Moét & Chandon even thinking about launching such an extravagant product?

The harvest of 1899 had been excellent and spirits were high. The next two harvests produced pleasingly large yields, but the resulting grapes lacked the acidity needed for ageing and thus produced wines suitable only for short term consumption. Subsequently, the prices paid to growers began to tumble, all the way down to the level paid for grapes destined to make simple ‘Vin Ordinaire’. Fluctuating quality across each of the Champagne houses meant that the good wines had to be sought out amongst the bad, and consumers began to rely on their personal stocks.

With the notable exception of 1904 which produced a bumper crop of slow maturing wine, and a ‘good’ vintage in 1906, the next few years all produced failures at vintage time. This came to a head with the 1910 vintage, which was severely blighted by insects, mould and mildew. The net result of this was that, instead of producing the usual 30 million bottles of Champagne, they only produced circa 1 million. Producers needed a good vintage to stay in business, and they certainly got that in 1911, but the good fortune would come at a cost.

The Champenois are notorious to this day for protecting their brand, and it was around this time that the first formal land classifications were being drawn up as to what vines could be included as part of Champagne. Without any Grand or Premier Cru sites to its name, the southern area of Aube was excluded as being of a second standard. Soon after, the Government passed a bill to this effect and the understandably angered Aube vignerons went in to revolt around the rest of the region, destroying whatever came in to their sights. Needless to say, a worried government hastily annulled the original bill, but not before several people lost their lives, and land and vines had been burned. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their primary function to this day is rounding out Champagne blends, existing as something of a minority partner.

No sooner was this internal conflict coming to a conclusion, the shadow of war arrived, bringing four years of massive destruction. France’s involvement in the First World War in 1914 came towards the end of a blisteringly hot summer, and the Germans had reached the vineyards before the first grapes had been picked. The vineyards initially survived the early part of the war intact; such was the belief by the invaders that they would soon be the owners of the land. Following two average years, the harvest of 1914 was desperately needed, but again came at a price.

Continuing business as usual meant that just being in the vineyards was dangerous work, and many women and children lost their lives there whilst the men were fighting and dying at the front. At the conclusion of the war, Champagne had lost half of its residents, literally wiping out a generation, and forty percent of its vineyards were ruined or poisoned from shelling. Now in desperate need of physically rebuilding itself, Champagne was also financially ruined with the treasuries having been looted.  In addition, many thousands of bottles of champagne had been destroyed – either being given to French soldiers to boost morale, or drunk by the invading army.

Understandably, the vintages between 1914 and 1918 had all fared as either modest or poor, and produced less than average yields. Nearly three quarters of the best vineyards no longer existed, and what vines hadn’t been destroyed outright were dying a slow death, through either lack of labour, or materials such as fertiliser. Whilst the vineyards were ripped up and replaced, the difficulty of exporting any Champagne out of France meant that there was no shortage fulfilling the thirst of post war euphoria, and both the 1919 and 1920 vintages were immediately consumed. The build up of stocks further continued due to the loss of sales to a post-revolutionary Russia, and would soon be further affected by an America dry under Prohibition (1919-1933), and then in financial straits following the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The 1920s only managed a handful of excellent vintages – The 1921, 1928 and 1929. All three of these years would eventually be made in to the first commercial releases of Dom Pérignon.

 

Recommended Further Reading:

‘The Great Wine Blight’ by George Ordish

‘Champagne – How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times’ by Don & Petie Kladstrup

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Oldies and Goldies

The world of wine moves fast.

Sure, there’s nothing ground-breaking about that statement, but just recently I’ve reached the point where I’ve started re-buying books for my wine library. Books I kind of already own. Even many published as recently as the 1990’s are now only useful when drawing historical companions, or accessing information that gets dropped from newer texts.   Grape varieties mentioned have long since been pulled to the whims of fashion, and locations and even countries not talked about, are now merrily creating great wines.

It was whilst reading a book on the USA, studying up for an article, that I finally took pause for thought. The book was a weighty tome, ‘fully revised’, but authored in the late 1980’s, so wasn’t new, but still within the lifetime of someone yet to reach 30. Whilst delving through a wealth of detailed statistics, it dawned on me that I was, basically, wasting my time. The USA to all intents and purposes went through a wine reboot in the early 1990’s when Phylloxera came back for another crack. Plantings on a compromised rootstock (AxR1) left them susceptible to a new strain of the killer louse, and what came after – the grape varieties, the vine densities, the sites – were now being started from scratch. I’d need to buy a newer book.

At around the same time, I managed to pick up the first edition of the leading UK wine magazine Decanter. Although the cover price was a mere 40p, I managed to purchase it for just £4 thanks to a leading online auction site – Inflation aside, that’s less than the cover price of an issue today. For a publication first hitting the shelves in 1975, I was expecting to view the 40-year old content with a mild curiosity. What struck me was that a number of things still remained true to this day. Articles answering the question “How can I drink good Bordeaux without paying too much per bottle”? Wine loving celebrities (in this case, Michael Caine) putting their money in to wine futures. Regional profiles, the latest auction news. Even Hugh Johnson was there! Aside of the current vogue for extensive tasting notes, scoring systems, and good deals for weekday wine drinking (did such a concept exist in the 1970’s?) the spread of articles was very similar to today. Maybe not so much has changed after all?

To tie these two anecdotes together, I’ll move on to the Decanter Book review page – another publication stalwart. Within the titles listed one stood out, mainly as it had a half page and picture devoted to it. The book – ‘The Great Wine Blight’, the subject – Phylloxera. Using my internet purchasing skills again it wasn’t long before a cheaply purchased copy came through the letterbox, and a thoroughly enjoyable read it was too, sparking all sorts of ideas on a future article on Phylloxera. For all the bad that it has done, costing vast sums of monies to prevent and putting smaller growers out of business, surely it must achieved some good things too? Vignerons were no longer tied to the crops that they had, and could potentially turn to fashionable grape varieties. Replanting could also take in some of the newer ideas such as density planting, vine training, and site/aspect location.

It was pleasing to me that a publication from 1975 was still bringing new knowledge and insight to this reader some 40 years later. The final irony is that I have since had to buy a newer book on Phylloxera, as the older one didn’t have the details of the 1990’s invasion. I’d need to buy a newer book.

n.b. An abridged version of this post was published in Decanter magazine in September 2014

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