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American Rhône by Patrick J. Comiskey: Book review

William Kelley puts forward American Rhône by Patrick J. Comiskey as a great read for wine lovers and 'an important addition to North American wine literature'. Read his review below.

American Rhône Patrick J. Comiskey

Rhône grape varieties have thrived in North American soil since the middle of the nineteenth century, but it was only in the 1960s that winemakers began to seriously explore their potential and champion their merits. In the four decades of frenzied activity that followed, the American Rhône’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed.

Syrah, dubbed the ‘next big thing’ in the 1990s, has struggled to generate commensurate consumer enthusiasm in the new millennium; Viognier, after enjoying initial success as an exotic alternative to mundane, buttery Chardonnay, has ceded market-share to other, less mercurial grapes.

But such fluctuations notwithstanding, Rhône varieties, once the preserve of mavericks and eccentrics, are now a firmly established feature of North American wine: critically acclaimed, popular with consumers, and increasingly stylistically assured.  Patrick Comiskey’s important new book, American Rhône, tells their story.

One of the book’s most impressive achievements lies in Comiskey’s sensitivity to cultural history. A chapter which persuasively locates the American Rhône movement’s origins in 1960s Berkley, fomented by the importer Kermit Lynch and chef Alice Walters, is one of the book’s triumphs; for it was in this milleu that many aspiring American winemakers first encountered formative bottles from French producers such as Auguste Clape, Noël Verset and Domaine Tempier.

Another strength is the justice which Comiskey does to those who have shaped, and continue to shape, the American Rhône scene. The likes of John Alban and Manfred Kankl have their place in this account, and their stories are eloquently told; but so do producers such as Steve Edmunds and Bob Lindquist, whose rather more restrained, classically-proportioned wines have not always received their due from a wine press awed by power and ripeness.

A few errors stand out in an otherwise punctiliously-researched text: the proprietor of Napa’s To-Kalon vineyard was Hamilton, not ‘Hiram’, Crabb (though Comiskey is following several authorities in this mistake); and Provence’s most celebrated blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon is Domaine de Trévallon, not ‘Le Trevillon’.

Similarly, floating punctuation marks should have been caught by a proof-reader; and the historic present and the past tense, employed simultaneously, sit uneasily together, at times resulting in dissonance. Minor points like these, however, will no doubt be amended in the second edition that this admirable text so richly deserves, for American Rhône is an important addition to North American wine literature.

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