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Book Review – The Finest Wines of California, By Stephen Brook

By April 26, 2012No Comments

This is another release in the series of ‘Finest Wines of’ published under the auspices of the high-brow and excellent ‘The World of Fine Wine’ magazine, and follows the proven format of short profiles of a selection of the best producers in the region that is covered by the title. The volumes covering Champagne, Bordeaux and Tuscany have been successful and enjoyable, and released recently have been editions on Burgundy as well as Rioja and northwest Spain.

As with the rest of the books in this series, the author introduces the region here by describing the relevance of ‘sun and fog’, the all-essential sun for ripening and bestowing the warm and generous character of the wines and how they reflect the culture and life of the state. The fog, of course, moderates the sun and heat, enabling fine wines to be made. The introduction covers the history of Californian wine, noting prohibition and defining moments such as ‘The Judgement of Paris’, the culture and attitudes of freedom, rules and regulations, with explanations of AVAs, all of which contribute to the bases for setting California as the prime example of the ‘New World’ approach to wine as opposed to the tradition of the ‘Old World’. The hand of man, so influential in the former, and indeed the focus, is discussed in terms of grapegrowing, the varieties grown and how style is crucial in the resultant wines and the influences such as the wine critic as exemplified by Robert Parker.

The book then delves into each of the major regions, backgrounding significant history, geographical and geological features, sub-regions and AVAs, and the performance of styles and varieties. For each of these major regions, the pen-portraits of a selection of the producers the author regards as the finest are included. Each of these biographies introduces the people, their philosophies, track record, and status, as well as describing and assessing the wines that are produced. Viticultural and winemaking detail for most of the producers is discussed as well. Each biography has the author’s tasting notes of a collection of the finest wines. The districts covered start at Mendocino as the most northerly, moving to Napa and Sonoma, these two making the bulk of the book, to the southerly areas of Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

The final section of the book describes the vintages and wines from 2009 to 1990, concluding with ten lists, each being a ‘Top Ten’ of varietals according to district, thus resulting in ‘The Finest 100′.

The book is competent, covering all the ground necessary for a good overview of the California wine scene, and provides good insights to many of the leading producers throughout the state. However, the author’s approach and style left me a little disappointed. Stephen Brook is a highly respected writer and critic, and his great experience makes him qualified more than most to write this book. But his English and European approach has meant that a view from the heart is missing. Whilst Brook is fully conversant with the scene, his writing lacks the passion that a native might have in representing their own wine-growing area. Of course there is the danger that such a writer may not be objective, but I’d argue that a real sense of emotive drive is a positive feature. Brook admits that he is “a committed lover of European wines and worship[s] at the shrine of terroir”, and while he recognises the “lush textures, [and] generosity of fruit he doesn’t really love the hedonistic styles the state produces as its signature.

Maybe that is why the selection of produces seems incomplete. Some of the most recognised names are missing, to cite one – Screaming Eagle. Surely this is one label that is the essential caricature if the finest of Californian wineries? Brook also admits the selection process extremely difficult. “I have considered quality the most important, but not sole criterion”. Thus volume and track record with consistency have been incorporated in the decisions. This of course takes away from the meaning and use of the term ‘finest’, and immediately the book has in the selection of producers labels that are not the finest. This is evident especially in Brook’s tasting notes where wines that are clearly disappointing are often included. While this gives a sense of perspective and helps highlight the very best wines, the book therefore has wines which are not fine, thus reducing the credibility of the selections. I recognise that wineries are evolving and they can improve or deteriorate in performance, but it may have been better to tighten up and raise the bar on the producers included so that standards of quality are beyond reproach.

A minor, irritating point for me was the sense of disorder in the pen-portrait approach. Some of the essays covered the broader outlook and philosophical approaches, as well as the technical details of vineyard and winemaking. Others did not have all the material of the more complete profiles. It would have made the book more structured and complete if every portrait was presented to the same degree of specificity. This may not be practical in many cases, nor probably for the scope of the book, but an effort in this direction would have been significant.

On the positive side, the photography of Jon Wyand is evocative and captures the atmosphere of the region and the varied personalities selected and involved. The maps, while based on large scale, do show where almost all of the profiled wineries are located. The maps work in well with Brook’s descriptions of the geography and influencing climate.

The ‘Finest Wines of’ series is one that I’m collecting, and I’m very glad to have the Californian title, but it is a lesser book because of its European approach and bias, omission of key players, and inclusion of producers who may not make the grade of being among the finest. You’ll need to have other books and publications to give you what the title offers to supply.

The Finest Wines of California, By Stephen Brook
University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011, ISBN 978-0-520-26658-2
RRP US$39.95

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