Decanter book reviews
The Makers of American Wine Thomas Pinney University of California Press, £24.95
North American winema kers often chafe at the description ‘New World’, as if it denigrates their fine-wine ambition. In truth, it’s a good reminder that there’s a wealth of detail about their rich, fascinating history within fairly easy reach – and also that history doesn’t need to be ancient to be interesting.
Award-winning historian Thomas Pinney proves that point nicely in this collection of profiles of some of the people who charted or shifted the course of American wine over the past 200 years. It’s not a chronicle of the oddballs and eccentrics who have drifted into wine (that would be a longer, and ultimately less interesting book) but it does show that marching to a different drummer can provide a lively procession.
Certainly, many of those pioneers were almost obsessively eager to bet on long shots: John James Dufour, a one-armed Swiss grape grower determined to make American wine from American grapes (in Kentucky, of all places), failed spectacularly, but propagated an idea; Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy banker who adorned himself with ‘to do’ notes on his clothing every day, established the Ohio wine industry – America’s largest by far in the mid-19th century – and then ran through his fortune trying to save it from native diseases; Kohler and Frohling, two musicians who turned the chaotic anarchy of Californian wine into a thriving industry, had never seen a vineyard before going into the business.
In modern times, some of the colour fades. Pioneers Robert Mondavi and the Gallo family are here, but quietly; their achievements in perspective but at a distance. Feisty Konstantin Frank, who proved European grapes could thrive in New York, adds some colour, as does winemaker Cathy Corison, shouldering the ‘woman-in-a-man’s-world’ burden. Among the unsung heroes is Maynard Amerine, who helped establish the winemaking school at the University of California at Davis, and was forever chagrined at inventing a numerical scale for evaluating wine that was transformed into a pseudoscientific toy for innumerate hedonists.
Good history, like this one, abounds in surprises; good history well told, like this one, is a rare pleasure.
Brian St Pierre