The New Standard of American Wine
Where the topic of American wine is concerned, there are really only three approaches to writing a book on the subject: 1) Telling the history of American Wine, 2) telling the history of a palate’s interaction with American Wine and 3) describing the current state of American Wine.
A new book set to be published by the University of California Press on February 1st, American Wine, takes the latter and probably most useful approach for the vast majority of consumers of American wine. Written by the renowned British wine writer Jancis Robinson and respected and experienced American wine writer Linda Murphy, “American Wine” is the most up-to-date snapshot now available of what is a remarkably vibrant American wine industry.
“American Wine” is no history of the subject. Frankly, those are much more difficult to write. Additionally, any history of American wine will have a far slimmer potential audience than a book, such as Robinson and Murphy’s, that attempts to give the reader a “lay-of-the-land” introduction to the subject. The historical approach provides the reader with context for the current state of affairs. The Robinson/Murphy approach provides readers with actionable, up-to-date information. Hence the larger potential audience.
What American Wine does not do is rate, rank, judge or score individual American wines in an attempt to guide the reader toward what to buy and what to drink. This is the third approach to writing about American wine and it has the slimmest potential audience of all three approaches outlined above. This approach boils down to a history of a palate that has sampled liberally the product of the American wine industry. While it might provide an individual’s own guide posts for what might be a worthy purchase in the future, it really only tells the reader what was worthy of drinking in the past. Collectors will find this information interesting and useful. And I suppose one could look at a collection of such books from a historical perspective and form opinions about which wines have sparked interest and gained accolades over time (an interesting project that would be).
This is not what Robinson and Murphy set out to do at all.
American Wine takes the most logical approach possible to its subject: surveying the state of production on a region by region basis. What is most striking about this approach is that half of the 280 pages are devoted to non-Californian wine regions. In fact, more than a third of the book is devoted to wine industries outside of California, Washington State and Oregon.
Past attempts to survey the world of American wine have generally brushed over all but California wine, with a few pages devoted to Oregon and Washington and perhaps a chapter devoted to “other winemaking states”. If nothing else indicates the recent explosion of winemaking vibrancy across all the United States, it is this large measure of devotion Robinson and Murphy pay to “other winemaking states” in their new book.
On a more granular level, American Wines approaches its subject matter on an AVA by AVA level. American Viticultural Areas are federally recognized geographic areas that the folks back in Washington, D.C have determined, after reviewing petitions arguing for the creation of the AVA, are worthy of recognition. There are many of them. Some are without merit as a means of determining what to expect from wines made with grapes in the AVA and serve mainly as marketing tools. Others are far smaller and compact and actually possess a specific climate, soil profile and other unique aspects that will play a key role in shaping the character of wines produced from grapes grown within the AVA’s borders.
Each American Viticultural Area gets the same treatment from Robinson and Murphy. We learn about its origins, the natural elements of the region (terroir), the type of grapes tending to be grown, a profile of important wineries and growers in the AVA and the occasional profile of important figures connected to the region.
The only attempt in American Wine to guide readers to particular wines comes in the “snapshot” box associated with each AVA profile. In these short, well, snapshots, we learn how much vineyard acreage the AVA possesses, the most common varieties of grapes that are planted, the most common varietals produced and the number of wineries located in the AVA. But additionally, Robinson and Murphy identify a select few wineries and categorize them under the headings of “Trailblazers”, “Steady Hands”, “Superstars” and an occasional entry for “Ones to watch”.
It’s very hard to argue with any of the wineries that are placed in these different categories. They are all, for the most part, quite spot on. But the existence of these categories and the wineries placed in them don’t rise to the level of recommendations or ratings. They really are more observations.
My sense is that this new book will serve as a terrific and probably the best and most useful survey of American wine for a good number of years. It will eventually be replaced by something else or updated. Despite the dynamism of the American wine industry and the spread of wineries into nearly every state, this industry develops slowly.
As you might expect if you’ve read any of the books with Jancis Robinson’s name on them, the writing here is very straightforward, well crafted and succinct. It’s difficult to know where Robinson begins and where Murphy takes over, another compliment I can serve up. I suspect that Linda Murphy, who has lived in California wine country for many years and who once edited the wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle and won two James Beard awards in the process, had a fairly large hand in this project.
Finally, the books is absolutely beautiful. Its 280 pages are full of beautiful photos. Its layout is simple, intuitive and makes the book very easy to navigate. The extensive index is a gift.
The marvel of this book is that it is perfectly suited for the absolute beginner just now desiring to undertake an education in American wine as well as the well-informed, knowledgeable student of American wine that will find this text a wonderfully put together basic reference on the subject of American wine.