The Best Wine Book of 2004

John Haeger has written a book that many of us, who believe Pinot Noir is the purest expression of fermented grape juice, have been waiting years for. And given that Pinot Noir inspires such cultish devotion, it is rather odd that there has been so little writing devoted to the Queen of Grapes.

Haeger’s “North American Pinot Noir”(University of California Press) offers a state-of-the-grape overview. It’s not the tale of the winemaker that Marq de Villier gave us in his 1994 “Heartbreak Grape”. Rather, it is the state of the art that Haeger delivers. From his discussion of the origins of clones to his coverage of the various areas where Pinot has shown its best colors, Haegar has given us history with a point, genetics that matter, contextual artisan profiles, and pull no punches discussions of pitfalls and disappointments.

Perhaps one of of the most interesting, and bravest, part of the book is the chapter: “Burgundies and North American Pinots Compared”. Without giving away his conclusions, I will tell you that Haeger believes comparing Pinot from Burgundy and North America is not only fair, but advantageous to anyone wanting to understand the grape better. Still I must give you a taste of the way Haeger gently handles the fray that is Burgundy vs American Pinot:

More nonsense is written about the comparative age-worthiness of Burgundies and American pinots than about any other single subject. The received wisdom is that, however charming or delicious an American Pinot may be in its youth, it will not age like a Burgundy. This fallacious generalization is sometimes hurled against the ensemble of North American Pinots or reserved, depending on the speaker, either for Oregon or for California exemplars. Burgundians are found of repeating allegation, especially in the wake of some tasting in which one or more young American pinots have bested one or more young red Burgundies….Writers complicate the issue by presuming that any good red Burgundy will age flatteringly they write approvingly that a hard, young Burgundy “needs time.” And they make the converse presumption about a North American pinot: if it is not good young, it will never be good, so they are critical and mark the wine down comparatively.


At 445 pages, “North American Pinot Noir” give full breath to the subjects it covers. The section on Key Producers is comprehensive and includes old hands such as Carneros Creek and Calera as well as the new stars including Dutton-Goldfield and Littorai. While the profile section takes up 200 pages, you shouldn’t expect a mere listing of names. These are deep profiles of winemakers, their viticultural and winemaking philosophies as well as discussions of their wines’ styles.

My only gripe is the one I have with most wine books: the maps. While topographical, they only place the location of the winery. This holds little value. We want to see the location and lay of the vineyards. A map section outlining in detail the great North American Pinot Noir vineyards would have been more interesting.

But this is a slight quibble, overcome by depth of the book.

Without comparison, the best wine book of 2004.

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