Tag Archives: Hugh Johnson

Wine Books I Recommend

Following is a highly selective list of books that I’ve read or consulted that I consider particularly worthwhile.  If I haven’t read or consulted a book, I do not recommend it.  Alas, there are more that I’ve not read than have—I’ve only 120 books on wine in my library, and some are still waiting to be read, though nearly all have served as references.

Grapes, Wine, Wineries, and Vineyards

There are seven general wine books that one should own in order to be truly well- and completely informed:

1.  Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. (2015) is just indispensable, with a comprehensive coverage of just about every topic bearing on wine that one can think of, a true Abbocatto to Zymase encyclopedia.  All articles are signed, all cited references noted.  Robinson was both the editor and a contributor.  The 4th edition adds 300 additional, new terms, though many will only be of interest to wine professionals.  For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.

2.  Equally indispensable is Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, 7th ed. (2013).  How else could one find the way around the vinicultural regions of the world, including NY State?  The maps are in full color, ranging in scale from street-level for the Champagne towns and the lodges in Oporto, to 1:45,000 and larger for wine regions.  The text for the many regions is the very model of pithy, clear writing.  For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.

3.  In 2013, two new, serious reference books on wine—sure to become indispensable and classic are:  Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s American Wine:  The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States (a very useful feature is its summary of each AVA, including the best grapes grown, and listing the top wineries by category); the other must-have is Jancis’s encyclopedic Wine Grapes:  A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours, written in collaboration with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz.  See my post, The Three Indispensable Wine Books, for a complete review of Wine Grapes.

4.  Emile Peynaud’s vital and perennial The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation (trans. Michael Schuster, 1987).  Originally written in French as La Goût du Vin in 1983), it is considered definitive by many in the field.

But then, there is always Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste (2000), which is both a how-to for tasting and a guide to the aromatic and gustatory sensations of the different varieties and how they can differ from place to place (i.e., from terroir to terroir).  Robinson’s is certainly the more approachable for most readers.

5.  WSET students and graduates, anyone interested in wine certification, and indeed, even winemakers can benefit from David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology:  The Science of Wine Explained, 3rd ed., which has been required reading for all WSET students, is a very clear and lucid explanation—in laymen’s terms—of what goes on right down to the molecular level of yeasts, viruses, and chemistry generally.  It’s also a very good read.

6.  I very much enjoyed and admired Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine:  toward natural and sustainable winemaking (2011), which has many really interesting insights into what really goes on in a vineyard, a winery, and what it takes to be a sustainable winegrower and producer.  Much food for thought, though some may cavil about a few of the authors’ conclusions.

7.  If one wanted to carry as much information about wine in a portable package, there’s one that I cannot live without:  Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2016.  It is pithy, witty, thicker than ever, and claims to be the Number One Bestselling Wine Guide, which it deserves to be.  I’ve bought every edition since the very first one, published in 1977 (it was rather slim then).  Also available as a KIndle Book from Amazon.

New York and East Coast Wine

Long Island Wine Country:  Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is an indispensable guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries.  Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves.  In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though it would be followed geographically. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, which is still reasonably up-to-date as of 2013, given that it was published in 2009. One should bear in mind though, that already important personnel changes have taken place: Richard Olsen Harbich left Raphael in 2010 and went to Bedell Cellars, Anthony Nappa is now Raphael’s vintner, Kelly Urbanik Koch is winemaker at Macari, and Zander Hargrave, who was assistant winemaker at Peconic Bay Vineyards, is now unemployed, as Peconic Bay has closed its doors.  A new, major winery, Kontokosta Vineyards, opened in June 2013 in Greenport.
Louisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery. One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal.  Now out of print, it may be available, used, on Amazon or AbeBooks.

In Marguerite Thomas’s Touring East Coast Wine Country:  A Guide to the Finest Wineries (1996) we have the first important guide to the wines and wineries of the East Coast, from Maine to Virginia, replete with useful insights and a good background on the history of the viniculture of each state. It also provides biography capsules of some of the most important or interesting winemakers. Given that the book was first published in 1996, a good deal of its information is now more of historical interest, and it needs, and deserves, a new edition.
More up-to-date than Marguerite Thomas’s East Coast guide is Carlo DeVito’s East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia, published in 2004. Still, even this needs to be brought up-to-date, but its value lies in its own take on East Coast wineries, with listings of the wines offered by each estate with brief descriptions, recommendations and excerpted tasting reviews of the wines. Let’s hope that, like Thomas’s guide, DeVito’s will also receive a new, updated edition soon. For the serious wine tourist, one guide complements the other, so why not buy both?
Vital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history of LI viticulture and winemaking–is the excellent if outdated Wines of Long Island, 2nd edition (2000) by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo.  It includes profiles of many of the most important personalities in the LI wine world, descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines–both past and present–and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region as of the end of the 20th Century.  Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines, but it has long been out of print, though Amazon or AbeBooks may still offer it, “pre-read”, online.  It is currently being brought up to date by me, with elements of the series on Long Island wines in this blog being incorporated into it.  We hope to bring out the 3rd edition by Spring 2017.

An interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries.  A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region.

Organic and Biodynamic Viniculture

Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method, is the foundation text of the biodynamic movement. A compilation of eight lectures delivered in Germany in 1924 provides, in Steiner’s own words, the basis for what he called a new science based on the natural rhythms of the world and the cosmos, as recovered from the traditional practices of the peasant farmers of yore. It is meant as a healthy antidote to the rise of farming methods based on industrial chemicals and fertilizers. Many leading vineyards are farmed by this method, from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy to Shinn Estate in Long Island. You owe it to yourself to read the lectures if you wish to really understand what Biodynamics is about.
Nicolas Joly is a leading proponent of Biodynamic viticulture, and he practices his preaching at one of the greatest vineyards of the Loire, the Coulée de Serrant. Joly’s Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine, is a true believer’s panegyric to Biodynamics.  His ideas and those of the founder of Biodynamics®, Rudolf Steiner, are put into practice at two vineyards that I know of:  Macari Vineyards and Shinn Estate.
Lon Rombough’s The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture, is an excellent introduction to how to grow grapes organically. It’s also very practical, as the guide is really intended for the novice who wants to start a backyard vineyard or even a commercial one. It takes the reader step-by-step on establishing an organic vineyard, imparting along the way a good deal of knowledge and savvy advice.
Other Wine Books of More than Passing Interest (or Not)

Tyler Colman, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (UCal Press, 2008).  I highly recommend this book for its clarity and scholarship.  The subject of politics in the wine world proves to be fascinating, and the author chose to approach it by comparing, for example, the AOC laws of France (and by extension, much of the EU) with the AVA regulations promulgated by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau).  There are surprising insights  into how and why wine is grown and made in different countries, why labels look the way they do on each side of the Atlantic, and the effects of custom, religion, crime, regionalism, nationalism, and so forth on the wine trade.  Eminently worthwhile for the serious wine-lover.

  • John Hailman, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (UMiss Press, 2006).  Another book that is based on sound scholarship and research, also well-written, but one may wish to skip all the tables and lists, which are difficult to grasp at times simply because the wines of Jefferson’s period (1743-1826) varied so much in name, currency, weights and volumes, that clear comparisons with our own period are so difficult to make.  Still, if one has the patience, there is reward in seeing how all-encompassing were the interests and tastes of the first great oenophile of the United States of America.

 

  • Thomas Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade (Thunder’s Mouth Press, NY, 2006)  A work with great potential written by someone who has long been in the wine trade but whose sense of history is lacking in scholarship and critical acuity.  Some of what he writes is couched in such vague or confused historical terms as to be virtually useless, especially when dealing with antiquity and the Middle Ages.  The writing style is breezy and casual, but it lacks polish and lucidity.  Such a shame.
  • A far better foray into wine history would be the classic Gods, Men, and Wine, (1966) by William Younger, or the more recent Story of Wine (1989)—or the New Illustrated Edition (2004)—by Hugh Johnson, both of which are better-written and historically more reliable.  Neither of the latter books is available in Kindle versions, but they do enjoy the virtue of been on real, durable paper bound in hardcover.

 

  • A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage (2005), is more than just about wine.  It tells its story by means of six beverages: beer (Mesopotamia & Egypt), wine (Ancient Greece & Rome), spirits (Colonial America), Coffee (Europe in the Age of Enlightenment), Tea (the British Empire), and Coca-Cola (Modern America and the Age of Globalization).  It’s both amusing and informative, but I’d put the emphasis on the amusement.  Unless you’ve utterly uninformed about wine or the other beverages, this is really History 001, rather lightweight.

 

  • Questions of Taste:  The Philosophy of Wine, edited by Barry C. Smith (2007), with essays by experts such as Paul Draper, Jamie Goode, Andrew Jefford, and others, with an enthusiastic Foreword by Jancis Robinson.  The contributors also include a couple of philosophers and a linguist.  The language of wine as presented in this book is clearly academic. A worthwhile but challenging book, well worth the time to read.

 

  • Wine Wars, by Mike Veseth (2011), which, with chapter headings like “The Curse of the Blue Nun,” “The Miracle of Two-Buck Chuck,” and “The Revenge of the Terroirists,”  is an interesting and amusing way of treating the effects of globalization on the modern world of wine.  It is also rather informative, and occasionally provides some surprising nuggets of information (such as the fact that Trader Joe’s is actually a German company).

 

 

The Three Indispensable Wine Books

In my view, were one to be forced to choose the three most indispensable reference wine books published in English, they would be these:

  • The Oxford Wine Companion, 4th ed., edited by Jancis Robinson, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson. The World Atlas of Wine: A Complete Guide to the Wines of the World, 7th ed. London:  Mitchell-Beazley, 2013.
  • Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, & José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours.  NY: Harper Collins, 2013.

Some may quibble that The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia: The Classic Reference to the Wines of the World, 5th ed., 2011, by Tom Stevenson would be preferable to the Wine Companion, but I feel that the Wine Companion together with the World Atlas make for a more comprehensive exploration of the world of wine.

NOTE:  None of these books are for the wine neophyte, for that I’d recommend Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course, NY: Sterling Epicure, 2014.   One of the great advantages of Zraly’s approach is that he explains how to taste wine in some depth.

As one can see, all three books are by British writers, with the exception of Vouillamoz, who is Swiss, and a highly respected ampelographer and vine geneticist.

One reason for the very high standards of style and scholarship has to do with the fact that Robinson, Johnson, and Harding are all Oxbridge stuff.  The other reason the standards are so high is because it’s the Brits who have been writing about wine almost longer than anyone, certainly in English.  It helps, as well, that they are not given to hyperbole or chest-thumping, just really good writing and scholarship.  It is also a fact that Robinson and Johnson are perhaps the two most-widely read authors in the wine world, certainly in our language.

I choose these three books because I consider them to be comprehensive and complete, with top-of-the-class expertise, quality layout and printing, and very high levels of scholarship.  For example, the Washington Post, in its review of the first edition of the Wine Companion, referred to it as the “definitive guide to the world of wine.”  This remains true today, with the 4th edition just published in 2015.  The new edition is substantially revised and updated.

I do not propose to review the Oxford Wine Companion or The World Atlas of Wine, which was newly published in a 7th edition  in October 2013.  I’ve already said something about each in my post, Wine Books that I Recommend.  Suffice it to say that both books are widely recognized as indispensable and essential wine references.

This is particularly true of Wine Grapes, published as a hardcover edition with a slipcover and a beautiful layout, with scholarship galore to support one of the most difficult subjects in wine.  It is expensive:  on Amazon .com it can be found for $102, a substantial discount from its list price of $175.  However, if one is truly serious about wine, as a wine-lover, wine writer, or a professional in the trade, it behooves one to get this book.  It’s entirely worth the price.

Review of Wine Grapes

Robinson had already ventured into the subject of wine grapes with two earlier books, both for the “popular” press rather than for specialists:  the first was Vines, Grapes, & Wines: The wine drinker’s guide to grape varieties, published in 1986, followed by her compact Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes, in 1996, based on the grape entries in the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine (1996).  Her only serious competition in English was Oz Clarke, who published Oz Clarke’s Encyclopedia of Grapes: A Comprehensive Guide to Varieties & Flavors with Margaret Rand in 2001, which was later updated as Grapes & Wines:  A comprehensive guide to varieties and flavours in 2010.  All of these books primarily were aimed at the sophisticated wine consumer, and though all are highly informative, amply illustrated, and enjoyable to browse or do basic research, none was suitable for a professional audience nor offered the level of intellectual insight that Wines Grapes does.

The definitive reference for professionals, until now, was the great  magnum opus in seven volumes, published in French, by Pierre Viala and Victor Vermorel:  Ampélographie, between 1901 and 1910.  It covered 5200 wine and table grape varieties, with focus on the 627 most important one, accompanied by over 500 paintings depicting the grapes as bunches with their foliage.  A selection of those paintings was incorporated into this volume under review.

This book discusses the 1,368 varieties that are still in commercial production, however small the plantings or the production.  For every single variety, it lists its 1) principle synonyms, 2) varieties commonly mistaken for said variety, 3) its origins and parentage, 4) other hypotheses [if any exist], 5) viticultural characteristics, and 6) where it’s grown and what its wine tastes like.  I’ll take, as an example, the entry for Baco Noir:

“Dark-skinned French hybrid faring better across the Atlantic than at home.”

Berry Colour: [black]

“Principal synonyms:  Baco 1, Baco 24-23, Bacoi, Bako Speiskii, Bakon

Origins and Parentage

“Hybrid obtained in 1902 by François Baco in Bélus in the Landes, south-west France, by crossing Folle Blanche (under the name Piquepoul du Gers) with Vitis riparia Grand Glabre.  It is therefore a half-sibling of Baco Blanc.  However, as noted by Galet (1988), since V. riparia Grand Glabre has female-only flowers with sterile pollen, Darrigan considered this hybrid to be Folle Blanche x V. riparia Grand Glabre + V. riparia ordinaire, which suggests that Baco used a mix of V. riparia pollen taken from two distinct varieties. . . . .

Viticultural Characteristics

“Early budding and therefore at risk from spring frosts.  Best suited to heavy soils.  Vigorous and early ripening.  Good resistance to downy and powdery mildew but highly susceptible to black rot and crown gall. Small to medium bunches of small berries that are high in acids but low in tannins.

Where It’s Grown and What Its Wine Tastes Like

“Baco Noir was at one time planted in France, in regions as diverse as Burgundy, Anjou, and its home in the Landes, but the area has dwindled considerably, down to around 11 ha (27 acres) in 2008 . . . .

“The variety has fared better in cooler parts of North America since its introduction in the 1950s.  New York crushed 820 tons in 2009 (almost double the amount for 2008) in both the Hudson River and Finger Lakes regions and in southern Oregon . . .”

But even before one gets to the profiles of those 1,368 varieties, there is the excellent Introduction, with subject headings such as:

  • The Importance of Grapes Varieties, which covers the background of how varieties came to take such a prominent place in a wine world that had once only paid attention to regions, such that the French, with their AOC system would identify a wine as from Pauillac, and the knowledgeable imbiber would know that this was a claret or red wine from Bordeaux—varieties be damned; in the USA wines were made that were identified merely as Claret or Burgundy, though the varieties could be anything but those from Bordeaux or Burgundy.  There is even a box that clarifies the difference between variety (the grape) and varietal (the wine).  There is also a chart showing the climate-maturity groupings of varieties.
  • The Vine Family, discussing some (but not all) of the vine species used to make wine, with emphasis on V. vinifera and its two subspecies, sativa (the cultivated vine) and silvestris, the wild or forest vine.
  • Grape Variety, Mutation and Clone, a fascinating discussion that explains how a vinifera variety comes into being, as well as explaining the differences between mutations and clones.  One of the most interesting observation is the discovery that Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc are all genetically identical according to standard DNA profiling, and are only distinguished by a single gene that changes the amount of anthocyanin that imparts color to the grape skins.   This section also dispels some myths about varieties and there tendency to mutate.
  • Vine Breeding, which explains how the domesticated vine has been deliberately bred for particular characteristics, often by selected intraspecific crossing (vinifera with vinifera) or by interspecies crossing (e.g., vinifera with riparia).  It also discusses successful vs. unsuccessful results, as in the case of the effect of the German Wine Law of 1971, which caused breeders to aim for varieties that would produce high sugar levels regardless of the overall effect on the quality of the resulting wines.
  • Pests and Diseases, an important category in any discussion of vines and vineyards, provides a background of how certain diseases and infestations were spread thanks to the intervention of human activity in the transportation of unwanted guests that often accompanied vines transferred from America to Europe for experimental plantings in order to see how American vines would do in European soil.  Perhaps it would improve them.  Alas, along came downy and powdery mildews and the charmless, almost invisibly tiny, parasitical mite that came to be called Phylloxera devastatrix, which nearly devastated the vineyards of France, Germany, and Italy.
  • Rootstocks, Grafting, and Fashion, a brief account of the significance of rootstocks—which could deserve an entire book in their own right—grafting, and how fashions in taste can be mollified for a time (remember the days of ABC—Anything But Cabernet/Chardonnay) by the simple expedient of top-grafting, rather than uprooting the entire vine and waiting three years for it to begin to bear fruit.
  • Vine Age, an explanation of how older vines offer the vineyardist a two-edged sword: higher-quality grapes at reduced production levels.
  • Changes in Vineyard Composition, discusses how vineyards are moving away from field blends (multiple varieties in a vineyard plot) to monovarietal cultivation as well as the resurrection of nearly extinct varieties that are still of interest for winemaking.
  • Labelling and Naming bears primarily on the marketing of wine. Where once Europeans rarely mentioned varietal names on the label and emphasized regional origin instead, the success of varietal emphasis in the New World eventually was accepted as the standard for all but the most traditional, expensive wines offered—say a Château d’Yquem (Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle anyone?) or La Tâche (Pinot Noir, period).
  • DNA Profiling, is about the shift from ampelography (the identification of a vine by its leaf and bunch characteristics) to the use of DNA to establish parentage and sibling relationships.  Throughout the book there are family vines (trees) to show the relationship of, say Pinot to Syrah (!), no matter at how many generations removed.  DNA profiling can’t answer all these questions, since a parent variety that is now extinct or unknown cannot be linked to its supposed progeny, so question marks abound in the charts.

The next chapter, four pages of text and three of charts, is Historical Perspective, with the following headings:

  • Grapevine Domestication: Why, Where and When?   This covers the various theories that have been put forth by various scholars.  The first one, the ‘Paleolithic Hypothesis,’ holds that sometime in pre-history spontaneously-fermented wine was tried and produced the proverbial euphoria we all know so very well.  This oeno-archeologist, Patrick McGovern, was a bit of a wag, referring to this drink as “Stone-Age Beaujolais Nouveau.”  It had to be consumed immediately upon release lest it turn into vinegar.  This is followed by the “Hermaphroditic Hypothesis” which argues that in the Early Neolithic, when societies began to settle down, early attempts to cultivate wine grapes quickly eliminated the planting of male vines, because they could never reproduce; female plants could only reproduce if there were male vines nearby; hermaphroditic vines, which today comprise the vast majority of cultivated vines, needed only themselves, and reproduction was virtually guaranteed.    Then there is the issue of where the domesticated wine vine was first cultivated, and while the answer is not entirely certain, there are various ideas as to where, and it largely centers on the regions near Anatolia, Georgia, the northern Fertile Crescent, and so on.  The when actually depends on actual archeological finds in that general region, which suggest as early as ca. 8000 bce, with other proposals holding that it may not have been until ca. 3400-3000, again depending on which evidence is most generally accepted.
  • Western Expansion of Viniculture covers the general peregrinations of the wine vine from its ancestral home to Mesopotamia, then Egypt, and then Greece, Italy, France and on into Germany, Spain, and Portugal.  Eventually, first with Spanish missionaries and later with immigrants to what would become the United States, cuttings and seeds were brought to the Western Hemisphere.  Chloroplast DNA studies are cited as evidence of a possible secondary domestication of V. vinifera silvestris, but even this is in dispute.
  • Ampelographic Groups is a really interesting section that deals with what is referred to in the book as the “eco-geographical groups” or proles, first proposed by A.M. Negrul in 1938 and again in 1946.  Although some of the proles varieties may, thanks to DNA fingerprinting, belong to another group than that originally proposed, for the most part it seems to hold up, with three groups proposed:  Proles occidentalis Negr., Proles pontica Negr., and Proles orientalis Negr.  All wine-grape varieties emanate from one of these three groups, with Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay in the western group, Rkatsiteli and Furmint in the bridging group, and Chasselas and Muscat Alexandria, for example, in the eastern group.  An accompanying map shows the geographical distribution of these eco-geogroups in France, along with a table listing the ‘sorto-types’ of the different varieties in the larger classification.  Complex, isn’t it?

This is followed by a list of the Varieties by Country of Origin, and here we learn that the single largest group belongs to Italy, with 377 varieties, followed by France with 204 varieties; the USA has 76 native varieties, and the UK has a single one, Muscat of Hamburg.

Thence, the alphabetical listing of all 1,368 wine varieties still in production at whatever scale.  The example of Baco Noir has already been given.  Pinot, with its great clonal diversity, includes 156 varieties in its family (shown as a 3-page chart), which includes Teroldego, Savagnin, Gouais Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and so on.  All this is based on DNA analysis, which, given the many lost or extinct varieties that belong in the tree, leaves open questions of parentage or sibling relationships.  For example, If Pinot is one parent of Teroldego, which variety is the other parent?  With the various members of the Pinot family that includes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Teinteurier, and Pinot Noir Précoce, the entries for the Pinot family go on for 17 pages.

So it goes for all the varieties described, running 1177 pages, followed by a Glossary and an extensive Bibliography of 20 pages in length.  References go from Acerbi, G., Dele viti italiane ossia materiali per servire alla classificazione mongrafia e sinonima of 1825 to Zúñiga, V C M de, 1905, on Tempranillo.  The bibliography is  up-to-date to 2012. Every variety under discussion has its citations from the bibliography.

Occasionally it passes up a nice nugget of information, such as the fact that in 1982 it was discovered that vines identified as Pinot Chardonnay were actually Pinot Blanc, but it took a few years for the newly-planted vines to produce fully-developed leaves, which allowed Lucy Morton—a viticulturalist who translated Pierre Galet’s book, A Practical Ampelography: Grapevine Identification, from French to English—to correctly identify the vines as Pinot Blanc by the shape of the vine leaves.  (Incidentally, what was called Pinot Chardonnay—on the assumption that Chardonnay is a member of the Pinot family—is now called just Chardonnay).  This little nugget could have been found under either the entry for Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc, but is in neither.  Also omitted is any mention of the red vinifera variety Morenillo, which although “extinct” is actually still producing small quantities of wine in the Terra Alta DO.  These are rare lacunae for such a thorough book.

This is not only a supreme work of scholarship, scientific research, and historiography, it is a remarkable accomplishment and an essential addition to the English world’s library of wine books.  If you can afford it, buy it.  You can’t afford not to.

 

Viniculture in LI, Part III: Palmer Estate

Based on interviews with Miguel Martin & Josh Karp on 12 & 22 October 2010

Palmer Vineyards was opened to business in 1986 when Bob Palmer, a New York City advertising and marketing executive, purchased farmland on the North Fork of Long Island in 1983, built what was then the most modern winery on the island, and planted a vineyard. Before long, using his marketing savvy and travelling worldwide to promote his new venture and its product, Palmer became one of the best-known LI wineries.  Since then many other vineyards and wineries have been established on the East End, some of them even more modern and larger. Yet Palmer is still one of the largest vineyards, at 100 acres planted to vines (in two parcels, each of 50 acres), with an annual production of 10,000 to 12,000 cases, including red and white wines, a rosé, and a traditional-method sparkling wine.

Palmer’s winemaker is Miguel Martín, who was hired by Mr. Palmer in 2006 to succeed Tom Drozd as winemaker. Miguel is an experienced and highly knowledgeable vintner who had previously worked at, amongst others, Robert Mondavi in California, Caliterra in Chile, and Gonzalez Byass in Spain. While living in Barcelona (he worked in the Penedés wine region of Cataluña) he and his wife, Ellen, who is from the Hamptons area, saw an ad in a trade publication for a winemaker in Long Island. When Palmer took Miguel on he was told that he had free rein to do whatever he deemed fit to run the winery and make wine. It was an offer Miguel could not turn down, so he moved back to the Island with his family and took over winemaking at Palmer. He has done exactly as Palmer told him to do, making very good, often excellent wines, and constantly extending Palmer’s offerings: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, and new this year—Albariño wine.

The vineyard manager is Josh Carp, who works very closely with Miguel. Josh is from Staten Island, and his interest in wine began when he was given an old wine press when he was a teenager. His own experience also took him around the world, first earning certification in viticulture and winemaking from UC Davis, working at Martha Clara Winery, then at Cloudy Bay in New Zealand before returning to LI where he eventually took on his position as vineyard manager at Palmer in June of last year. (An excellent profile of the two men at work is to be found in “Hours of Toil Precede the Wine”, by Paul H. Dudley.)

I’d visited Palmer Vineyards a few times before this, but in mid-October I arrived at the time of the harvest. In taking me around the vineyard, Josh had me observe first-hand the work of a mechanical harvester—a $300,000 behemoth that is share-owned with another vineyard in order to make it more affordable. The harvester is used for collecting the grapes so efficiently that it can complete a 200-yard row in about 10 minutes or less, with little damage to the fruit, but of course without the selectivity that comes with hand-picking. Obviously, this is not the method the winery uses for producing top-quality wines with prices to match, but rather is one means of producing decent wines at affordable prices. In this case the vineyard lot in question was planted with Merlot, and a crew of experienced vineyard workers efficiently went through the rows to be harvested, lifting and fixing the bird netting to expose the grape clusters. The harvester straddles a row and using a set of mechanical beaters shakes the vines so that the ripe grapes fall to a conveyor belt of plastic cups that carry the grapes up to a collection grid that dumps the grapes into either of two mechanical arms—one on either side of the harvester—with bins large enough to hold about a ton-and-a-half of fruit each. When the bins are full—after four or five rows have been harvested—the harvester delivers its largess to a stainless-steel gondola with a capacity of five to six tons. Once the gondola is filled with grapes, it proceeds to the winery, where it is immediately hooked up, by means of a 4̎-diameter hose, to a pump that then feeds the grapes into a destemmer-crusher.

The destemmer-crusher is a compact machine that accomplishes two things at once: it removes any stems or leaves from the grapes by means of a steel rotating spindle with long steel pins, hurtling them out at one end of the machine while the grapes pass through, by gravity, to the crusher. The crusher does just that to the fruit, which is to say that it crushes the grapes enough to break their skins and allow the juice to flow out. (Pressing is a much more forceful way of getting the maximum juice out of the grapes, leaving behind only the pomace—but more on that at a later time.)

On a subsequent visit in late October, I observed a handpicked harvest, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were being selectively clipped, stems and grapes together, and delivered to the winery. This time, a crew received the bins of grapes and dumped them on a sorting table. Any bad bunches were removed and the rest pushed into the destemmer-crusher, which this time was piling the removed stems so quickly that they needed to be regularly removed by pitchfork and placed in a wagon. These grapes were destined for the high-end wines made at Palmer.

So, back at the winery, after a day’s harvest, I had a chance to sit down with Miguel and talk about another matter that is of special significance to this series of posts on viticulture in LI.: the question of terroir, which is something that has long been discussed, argued over, embraced as a concept of agriculture in France, while seriously questioned in the United States.

Here is a classic statement about it by one of its adherents:

‘The very French notion of terroir looks at all ‘the natural conditions which influence the biology of the vinestock and thus the composition of the grape itself. The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape. It is the combination of an infinite number of factors: temperatures by night and by day, rainfall distribution, hours of sunlight, slope and drainage, to name but a few. All these factors react with each other to form, in each part of the vineyard, what French wine growers call a terroir.’ –Bruno Prats, the proprietor of Château Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, as quoted in The Vintner’s Art: How Great Wines are Made, by Hugh Johnson and James Halliday (1992)

(One of the factors not named explicitly above is the human one: culture, politics, agricultural practices, even belief systems play a part in terroir. In other words, human intervention, such as the choice of varieties to be grown, the vine density, pruning and training methods, how the vine rows are laid out—e.g., to take advantage of sun or to deal with prevailing winds—etc.)

According to Miguel, the most important issue in LI is the climate (which includes the weather), as it is the one element that cannot be controlled, being highly variable and therefore the greatest challenge to both the viticulturalist and the vintner. In 2009, for example, the vineyard lost 10-15% of harvest due to heavy rains, but had to spend more in order to retain the fruit that was still hanging. Indeed, climate is definitely a controlling factor in terms of site choice, viticultural practices as mentioned in the paragraph above, and dealing with such issues as vine diseases and pests, which is particularly problematic given the high humidity that prevails in LI. Thus, virtually all vineyards on the North Fork , including Palmer, use double-cordon training with Vertical Shoot Positioning (which is explained in my introductory post to this series, Viticulture in Long Island, introduction to Parts 2-xx).

With respect to the soil as a part of the concept of terroir, Miguel is firm in saying that the effects of soil alone are exaggerated, and he cites for evidence an article published in The New York Times in May of 2007, by Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson, “Talk Dirt to Me.” The point is made in the article that what we like to call goût de terroir (taste of the earth), is in fact not at all the result of rocks and soil alone, but more the result of the fermenting yeasts and human intervention. “Plants don’t really interact with rocks,” explains Mark Matthews, a plant physiologist at the University of California, Davis who studies vines. “They interact with the soil, which is a mixture of broken-down rock and organic matter. And plant roots are selective. They don’t absorb whatever’s there in the soil and send it to the fruit. If they did, fruits would taste like dirt.” He continues, “Any minerals from the solid rock that vine roots do absorb — sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, a handful of others — have to be dissolved first in the soil moisture. Most of them are essential nutrients, and they mainly affect how well the plant as a whole grows.” This insight is a clarification of the soil factor in terroir, but would seem to put to rest the notion of a goût de terroir as something discernible in wine.

In the Palmer vineyard, historically a combination of both natural and synthetic composts has been used based on soil needs, such as additional nitrogen or phosphate. The lack of either of these would be visible in the vine leaves by means of certain patterns of discoloration. Indeed, in what should be seen as a move towards a more organic viticulture, Josh wrote in an e-mail: “With some (much needed) advice from Barbara Shinn I have started a [natural] compost pile. At Palmer we always put the pomace back into the fields along with the prunings from the winters’ pruning but a [natural] compost I feel will affect the soil faster and with more nutrients.”

Palmer, like most East End vineyards, uses clones designed for late blooming and early ripening in its newer plantings, such as of Albariño, Viognier, and Muscat, in order to avoid the damages inflicted by spring frosts and autumn weather. Clover (which is self-seeding) is planted for ground cover between the rows, because it is low-growing and nitrogen-fixing. Copper-sulfate sprays are used up to one month before the harvest. One should only spray the foliates, not the fruit (there is a type of curtain spray system used for this—it has a trough that recovers and recycles dripped spray so that it doesn’t enter the soil, an important factor, as high levels of copper in the soil can be toxic to the topsoil biota). As harvest-time approaches, the copper sprays are put aside and alternative, more environmentally-friendly sprays such as Serenade or Stylet oil are used. (Stylet oil is a highly-purified white mineral oil which is extremely versatile and it functions as an effective insecticide, fungicide, and miticide.) Thus, if there is a late appearance of, say, powdery mildew, it can then be dealt with in a way that poses no risk to the plant, the fruit, the land, or the worker. Furthermore, said Josh: “Any product used is always being checked to see if it can be used less (fewer times used along with a lower rate) with the same effectiveness or can be replaced for a product that can be organic or that is considered less harsh.”

What this all means is that supervision of the vineyard is a constant, requiring that both Miguel and Josh are checking daily for signs of disease, pests, vine malnourishment, and so on. For example, overlapping canes lead to problems of rot, so must be corrected regularly by the vineyard workers in the field. Bird netting (seen in the picture wrapped and marked for the row on which each will be set) has to be carried, after veraison, into the rows of vines and set properly, otherwise birds would decimate the crop. (The nets do not trap the birds, but merely keep them from reaching the grape bunches.) That still leaves raccoons, deer, foxes, and other vermin to feed on low-lying fruit. Groundhogs need to be monitored too, for their tunnels and underground burrows can heave vines and kill them. One must love nature in a tough way in the vineyard. This year Palmer has installed both bat and owl boxes to help keep insects and animal pests under better control. Unfortunately, owls and bats seem to be rather particular about where they nest and the offer of domiciles has so far gone ignored. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t around, though. Both are among the vineyards natural friends, but there are also insect predators who feed on aphids, mites, caterpillars, moths, and so on. Ladybugs, for instance, are a natural control for aphids, which suck the vine leaves and can cause them to wither. In other words, to the extent possible, natural pest controls are used.

Again, Josh:

“At Palmer we are doing many things that are considered sustainable and adopting more each year. I feel it can not only improve the quality of the fruit and the vine health but can also reduce cost in the long run and be beneficial to the farm as a whole,” and also pointed out that “We have started to look into the Cornell’s Vine Balance program. I will be doing the evaluation given in the handbook and trying to improve where needed. . . . This year I will be trying to use one section of the vineyard geared to organic or as close as possibly organic; the problem is that that section would be Chardonnay, we have a lot of it; but Chardonnay can be problematic. The money spent in this section will be assessed as well as the quality of the fruit that comes out of this section compared to the others.”

Meanwhile, in search of new varieties to grow, as an experiment Miguel planted a small plot with Albariño vines three years ago, and this first harvest yielded enough wine for a very limited edition of perhaps 300 500ml bottles. Tasted out of the barrel, it was rich, complex and well-balanced, dry yet laden with fruit. It’s the first Albariño made in Long Island.

Bob Palmer died in January of 2009, and though the winery continues as he had envisioned it, his family has put the property up for sale.  Meanwhile Miguel intends to continue as he has been until there is a new owner. Then, one can only hope that Miguel and Josh will stay on to maintain continuity and continue experimenting with new varieties and innovative wines.

Palmer Vineyards

Aquebogue, Long Island, New York 11931

631.722.9436