Wednesday, May 4, 2016

First Big Crush: Book Review


Eric Arnold set out to write a wine book...the hard way. He essentially volunteered to live in New Zealand and do whatever work was needed at a winery, Allan Scott. Winery life gets glamorized by many but most of the work is farming - not only unglamorous but full of long hours of backbreaking, dirty labor. Perhaps Eric's best passage in the book is toward the end of a chapter called Labor Pains:
"I have no idea why, but many people who drink wine think that making it is some sort of relaxed, cushy lifestyle. And I don't understand it, because I've never eaten a juicy steak and imagined how romantic and luxurious a life I'd have if I started raising cattle in Wyoming. Similarly, I've never met anyone who got a massage and moved to Sweden or shot heroin and moved to Afghanistan."
It is this fresh look at the wine business from an outsider invited inside that makes this book worth reading. You will need to wade through crude, sex-obsessed writing about sophomoric behavior and drunkenness. Although I found it to be a bit too much in some spots, it is indicative of behind the scenes activity in the wine business. The beginning of the book contains the most intensely focused crassness but it returns throughout. Brace yourself if you're sensitive but give it a shot, the book is well written and full of insight and information.
Allen Scott winery is the focus of the book but he explores many other New Zealand operations in less depth. I kept my expectations low and prepared to make all sorts of notes à la a particular Lettie Teague book (read my reviews of that mess here) but I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of what he discussed and also the way he explained it - generally with the expected wine word(s) then with a more relatable reference.
Beyond the unique approach of a wine neophyte struggling through all sorts of arduous tasks Mr. Arnold has some brilliant insights. For example, "[The] idea that a winemaker has to be dirty to be making good wine isn't entirely right, because there are plenty of aspects to the job that don't involve being dirty. But he or she does have to love making wine. The wine won't taste good if they don't, just as this book wouldn't be much fun to read if I didn't enjoy writing it."
When he got to the inevitable conversations about screwcaps he excelled. Chapter 5 (Part II) is called Seriously Screwed and is full of wonderful turns of phrase which also clarify this subject. His paragraph about oral sex employed to help explain his indifference to the way a bottle is sealed will make you laugh or grimace, but you'll remember it. Wine is filled with decisions that most people never contemplate (read my take on some of that here) a tasting of two bottles sealed under different kinds of screwcaps at the end of the chapter might blow your mind.
Overall, the book is entertaining and a fun way to learn about wine without feeling like you're in a classroom. It reads well and even the parts that get a bit technical are explained in ways that will make sense to any reader paying attention.