An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California
“An Ideal Wine is highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the California wine scene, both today and how it came to be that way.”
After reading the first four-page chapter of An Ideal Wine, the reader is hooked—secrets are going to be revealed! Leo McCloskey is telling a client on the phone what manipulations need to be done to his wine in order to bring up his Robert Parker/Wine Spectator scores.
Leo McCloskey founded and runs Enologix, a company that chemically analyzes wine by running it through a high-performance liquid chromatograph and a mass spectrometer, and tells clients what needs to be done to a wine to appeal to the particular tastes of Robert Parker and James Laube (who reviews California wines for Wine Spectator). He is one of the two major protagonists whose lives David Darlington chronicles from the 1970s (and earlier) to the present, as illustrative of countervailing trends in the California wine industry.
The other is Randall Grahm, who founded Bonny Doon Vineyard, a winery famous for whimsically named wines such as Le Cigare Volant (“the flying cigar,” from a Chateauneuf-du-Pape city ordinance prohibiting the landing of UFOs). Grahm was the original Rhone Ranger, striving to popularize Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache, etc.) in U.S. vineyards.
Grahm, in this book, represents all those winemakers who believe that terroir, the French term for the soil, climate, aspect, the “somewhereness” that goes into making a wine unique, is very important to wine, while McCloskey represents those winemakers who believe that the only way to make it in the business is to produce wines that generate high scores from the critics. Supposedly, the “terroirists” favor minimal intervention in the winemaking process, while the score-chasers favor doing whatever it takes to produce wine with high scores.
But as Mr. Darlington documents well, real wine making is more complicated. Randall Grahm used, for various wines, reverse osmosis, spinning cone, micro-oxygenation, Flash Détente, Velcorin, MegaRed and MegaPurple, along with wood chips, enzymes, and cultured yeast.
Grahm said, “I don’t like myself for doing it, but as a rational actor in a commercial enterprise, you do what you have to do. You’re in the wine business because you love it, but also because it’s your livelihood—you need to make money, and in my experience, unoriginal wine is a positive thing [commercially]. The fact is, things like enzymes and cultured yeasts make wines taste better. Adding tannin changes the structure in a clunky, artificial way; MegaRed and MegaPurple change it in a weird and creepy way, like The Stepford Wives or Body Snatchers. Still, you can make the case the some cosmetic corrections are justifiable. You might be against plastic surgery if you want your boobs to be a little perkier, but if somebody is really butt-ugly or deformed at birth—if a wine is unspeakably vegetal, say—when does elective plastic surgery become obligatory plastic surgery.”
While Mr. Darlington helpfully explains reverse osmosis and the other techniques for “enhancing” wines, An Ideal Wine is mostly about the people behind the wine.
Aside from Grahm and McCloskey, we also meet many of the faculty at the University of California at Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, where many of the California vine growers and wine makers studied. We meet Clark Smith, an MIT dropout who got a bachelors and masters from U.C. Davis, and went on to found Vinovation to use a process he had developed to remove volatile acidity from wine, and then went on to offer reverse osmosis to adjust alcohol levels.
We meet Mike Benziger, whose family operation started the Glen Ellen line of wines, then started the smaller Benziger winery operation. We meet wine consultant extraordinaire Helen Turley, and her brother Larry Turley of Frogs Leap and Turley Wine Cellars. We meet Jed Steele, who started at Kendall-Jackson and then went on to start his own eponymous winery.
These and all the other players introduced are names that one is somewhat familiar with if one pays any attention to California wine, but Mr. Darlington provides more background and their inter-relatedness in ways that greatly fill them out for those of us who have not met them personally.
An Ideal Wine is set out in short chapters that are unnumbered and untitled, and they may proceed in a more-or-less chronological order, but the narratives are so chopped up that we get Grahm’s story in short pieces, and everyone else flits in and out of the story so that the reader needs to pay attention to keep everyone straight. This may or may not work better than simply presenting, say, the Randall Grahm story, then the Leo McCloskey story, then the Clark Smith story, but it does take work on the part of the reader.
The book will make the reader think more about her favorite wine. Many wine labels will lovingly describe how the grapes were carefully picked, fermented in open barrels, and aged for 18 months in small oak barrels, giving the impression of preplanned minimal handling of the wine. What one does not read on the back label are stories like, “Due to damage of some of the grapes there was an excess of volatile acidity, which we retained Vinovation to remove. Then the alcohol came in too high for our preference, so we retained Vinovation to use reverse osmosis to get the level down to 13.9%. The pH was too high, so we added a few bags of tartaric acid to the vat. We used wood chips to give it that extra oak flavor we know Parker prefers. he result is a wine that perfectly expresses the special terroir of the Rancho Viejo vineyard.” One needs to ask oneself whether one prefers to experience the unmanipulated terroir of the Rancho Viejo vineyard, or whether one would rather drink wine with excess volatile acidity and alcohol removed and flabbiness corrected with a jolt of acidity.
The latter part of the book concentrates on Grahm’s recent attempts to find the perfect vineyard to express terroir and the use of biodynamic processes (albeit with a McCloskey vignette or two thrown into the middle of the narrative, and for that matter the book also opens with this story line). Mr. Darlington, who by this time has come to know his subjects personally rather well (one can only envy the wines he got to taste in course of writing this book), wrangled a rendezvous with Grahm while he was touring the Loire region of France looking for a property to grow grapes on. The description of Grahm’s meeting with the owners of a small estate making just 3,000 cases a year is full of wonderful details, and is typical of the individual short vignettes that fill this book.
An Ideal Wine is highly recommended for anyone wanting to know more about the California wine scene, both today and how it came to be that way. Depending on the reader’s viewpoint, one could be horrified at how much manipulation is done to wine, be grateful that the manipulation makes wine more palatable to more drinkers, or be optimistic that there will always be those who do their darnedest to make wine that expresses where it came from rather than what the critics rate highly. In any case, it will both entertain the reader and make her think.