Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A Very Good Year
There is a scene in the fictional movie Sideways in which Maya, the female lead, defines her character through her thoughts on wine. She says “I like to think about the life of wine, how it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing……..what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if its an old wine, how some of them must be dead by now……..”. It’s a moving personalization of one individual’s intimacy with the life of wine. It is also a rare display of appreciation because the majority of wine lovers drink wine for the sensory and hedonistic pleasures it provides. Very few think about what it took to get the wine into the bottle they are pouring and enjoying.

This is not true of Mike Weiss, or perhaps more correctly his wife Carole Rafferty who asked “Did you ever think about all that goes into a bottle of wine?” From that simple question came a multipart series in the San Francisco Chronicle and then a book by Weiss. Entitled “A Very Good Year” this rather extraordinary volume traces the life of a California wine from vine to table. The wine is the 2002 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc and for those interested in a general overview of the aspects of vineyard care and winemaking that produced this wine there is sufficient detail scattered among the 280 or so pages to hold one’s interest. And it is useful knowledge for those wanting to lean about how a wine is made, but “A Very Good Year” is more than about making wine.

Fermenting along with the wine are a number of other stories. Unintended as they may be it is the contrasts that draw you into this book and keep you reading page after page. There is, of course, The Story. It can make or break a wine and the Caranos have their story. More than just a family with wealth from Reno gaming looking to own a bit of Sonoma, there is a passion to succeed, to produce quality wine. Flip the gaming token and you have their Mexican vineyard workers laboring with their own desire to succeed for their families a distant border away. Weiss’s depiction of the lives of the vineyard workers and their families is the most vivid story behind California wine. And even then he has probably only scratched the surface.

The making of the 2002 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc is also about underlying personality clashes, a protective winery owner criticized for his favoritism, a wine maker with an almost paranoid approach to his craft that is not shared by the junior staff, and a marketing maven with a monster ego. There is even a Deep Cork to provide the odd anonymous insight or two. And, perhaps ironically, there is also human birth, disease and death during the span of vine budding to cork pulling. “A Very Good Year” is very compelling reading for those who want to read about the lives that make a bottle of wine.

The only thing missing in “A Very Good Year” are some of the photographs that must have been snapped by the photographers that Weiss mentions several times in the text.

A Very Good Year: The Journey of a California Wine from Vine to Table by Mike Weiss (Gotham Books, 2005, 288 pages, $26.00USD Hardcover).

Disclosure: A complimentary copy of the book was supplied to me by Gotham Books.

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