What A River Runs Through It is to flyfishermen everywhere, The Heartbreak Grape is to viticulturists, winemakers and wine lovers. Simply put, it captures the entire winemaking experience clearly and poetically.
The book begins in the golden hills of California, specifically in the cellar of the Calera Wine Company. Shortly thereafter it flashes back to a cozy December evening when South African Marq de Villiers attended a dinner party at Mount Vernon, New York. A cork was pulled by an unnamed host and wine was served without comment.
"I remember that something struck me about its clarity, a brilliant red, like rubies under fire, and though my memory is probably colored by the warmth of the setting, I know I felt there was something...unusual...about it." The wine is Calera Jensen Mount Harlan Pinot Noir, 1987. The author continues by "...dipping my nose into the glass and inhaling slowly, then taking a small sip. It was rich and complex, with a maddening hint of chocolate and violets. I groped for descriptives, as wine people do, without much luck."
What then follows is quite extraordinary. The author embarks on a journey west to California to discover how this exceptional bottle of wine came to be. But it is not just the story of a particular wine, it is the story of a particular grape, of a particular winemaker, of a particular way of making wine, of interventionist politics, of bureaucracies and critics and complex economics.... It is a broad canvas painted from a rich palette, and in the end the reader is delivered as the final arbiter of the art.
This is a fun book to read. It is both revealing and irreverent. From the primogeniture system in Bordeaux to the endless subdivision of land in Burgundy, de Villiers slices through the layers of tradition and bureaucracy to find the wisdom and practices that have resulted in some of the finest wines the world has ever known. To this stage set Josh Jensen, a young American student who had only recently decided he really enjoyed wine. He travels to where the best wines are made, and begins his education by picking grapes. He hangs around the wineries and translates for non-French-speaking visitors. In the end, he learns the Burgundian style of winemaking and takes it back to the United States, where he finds himself at odds with the then prevailing high-tech methods taught at UC-Davis. What ensures is a 15-year struggle to find the right soil in the right setting to grow the right crop so he could make the right wine from the most fickle of wine grapes, the Pinot Noir--the heartbreak grape. The proof of his success is evidenced not only in the French delegations sent over to find out how he did it, but also--no, especially--in the wine itself.
If you grow a few grapes, make some homemade wine, or simply love to drink the stuff, you'll enjoy this book.