July 08, 2005

Review: A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss

I just finished reading the recently released book A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss, the story of one vintage of Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc from its origins in the vineyard through the winery and into the marketplace. Fume Blanc of course being a marketing term typically used in California for oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc.

Weiss is a fine writer who, despite being an admitted wine neophyte, captures pretty accurately the trials and tribulations of modern wine production in California. Yet the book is puzzling more for its inspiration than its delivery. The story of Ferrari-Carano is hardly inspiring. Rather, it’s essentially the story of a con, where the producer goes to great lengths to create the illusion of hand crafted, limited production wine produced in an setting of old world grace when the truth is anything but.

Wealthy from the “gaming” industry, Don and Rhonda Carano brought their vision of El Dorado from Reno, NV, to Sonoma County, CA, in the 1980s. The quickly established a reputation for noteworthy white wines, particularly Fumé Blanc that has since become ubiquitous in fancy restaurants the world over. Years have passed and now there’s a Villa designed by Rhonda for quasi-high class hospitality. But there’s conflict underneath the easy appearance of wine country living.

Weiss admirably tells this story through the people of Ferrari-Carano. We meet the vineyard manager and his crew of Mexican laborers who travel north each year from their homes in Mexico. We meet the winery staff, led by an exacting if slightly paranoid head winemaker. And we meet some of the operations staff, and of course the owners, Don and Rhonda. But even with some unexpected drama during the year, not much really happens and this reader at least is left wondering – why a book about Ferrari-Carano at all?

Maybe if the Caranos truly focused on quality instead of telling a fake “story” that leaves out the mechanical harvesters, manipulative winemaking practices, and year over year mediocrity, or should I say consistency, they’d have more to be proud of and less seemingly to hide. I’d start by cropping less than 7 to 8 tons of grapes per vineyard acre. It’s no wonder they fret endlessly about quality and end up canceling their plans for a “Reserve” Fumé Blanc when most of their production is, in one former winemaking assistant’s word, crap.

I commend Weiss for writing neither a puff piece for the wine industry or some two-bit hachet job. He clearly wants to expose the reality underneath the romantic façade of wine production, and he succeeds. But why not tell the story of a bottle of handcrafted wine through a more honest vehicle? Or tell the story of the wine business through a more compelling example? Ferrari-Carano is neither, instead it’s just another wine you can find more and more at discounters that the industry uses to make average wine go away.

I won’t spoil the story (too much) except to ask, where did the title come from? It wasn’t a very good year at all, and despite being a perfectly decent summer read for the average bear, this isn’t a very good book. But strangely enough, if you want to read it for free and don’t have a blog to which publishers now apparently send review copies, check out http://www.sfgate.com/columns/grape/archive/ for the original San Francisco Chronicle 39-part series titled “Grape: The Making of California’s Wine” that was repackaged into this handsome Gotham Books edition.


Marshall Mannin said...

You mean all I have to do is get a free blog, post about twice a month, and people will send me free books and wine?

What a gimmick!

Vincent Fritzsche said...

It seems to be true, though there's not any free wine, yet. And it is no gimmick at all, things just show up. I think it's magic.

Thomas said...

Finally, I get the real answer to why people blog!

Vincent Fritzsche said...

But of course! Then again, I don't see any new plunder coming my way after the stony silence of the Gotham publicist. And that after my "handsome edition" plug...I guess they're wising up that these blogs are all they're cracked up to be. Still, I highly encourage everyone to blog in the name of free stuff. It's the American way!