January 07, 2010

The old Book of California Wine

I've seen the Book of California Wine many times over the years but for the life of me don't know why I never bought it, much less looked at it. This morning, a neighbor who's a local chef and a bit of a wine geek lent me his old copy of this Bible-sized tome, published by UC Press and Sotheby Publications in 1984. Looking it over tonight, I'm struck by how interesting it looks, on so many levels. It's no quick read, but I can't wait to begin wading through its dozens of articles by an amazing array of wine and food writers.

For now, some immediate thoughts on what's peaking my interest.

First, the price. The inside of the original dust jacket lists a price of $55, "until Dec. 1984." Fifty-five dollars. That must have been an enormous price for such a book back then. Was that just for the first edition? Did it go down after that? Very interesting.

Second, the three editors of this collection are Doris Muscatine, of the Park-Muscatine vineyard bottlings from Ridge no doubt; Maynard Amerine, the dean of winemaking in California at UC Davis; and wine writer Bob Thompson, a California legend. The foreward by Doris tells of making second crop zinfandel from her vineyard and getting help from Bernard Portet at Clos du Val for crushing and destemming grapes at home using chicken wire and foot treading. There's even an article on the subject of home winemaking. That's very cool.

Third, how about this for a sampling of the contributors:

M.F.K. Fisher with the preface
Hugh Johnson on an international view of California wine
Zelma Long and Carole Meredith on grape growing
Walter Schug on vinification
Tim Mondavi on barrels
Paul Draper on zinfandel
Darrell Corti on dessert wines
Alice Waters on food

There's extensive history of California wine from the mission period to prohibition, then to what was the modern day. There's consideration of geography and climate, cultivation and winemaking. There's an entire section of articles on topics like the literature of California wine, label art and tasting groups. There's even an article on the medicinal value of wine, written by no less than William Dickerson, MD, of the famous Dickerson vineyard in Napa Valley. This whole wine and health thing isn't new, you know.

Which gets me to a final point. Some people talk about older wine books as being out of date, and surely there is lots of information here that's understood differently now. Yet I read a book a few years ago called California Wine, a collection of interviews of the state's winemakers by Bob Thompson in the 1970s. You'd think it was out of date, but the information was so valuable, in part to learn techniques that have fallen out of favor in the name of advancement, in part because so many things haven't changed a bit.

I expect the same here. Lots of perspective that wouldn't read all that differently if written today, perhaps more valuable to me because I find I'm more interested in how the Californians were doing things 20 and 30 years ago, not so much lately. What better way to learn but read the thoughts of so many top people in the world of wine, even if the book is nearly 30 years old. So off I go to visit my native state in this document. I'll try to write up some thoughts as I go.

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