Lawrence Osborne is not as innocent about wine nor is his interest in the world of expensive vintages as accidental as the book's title indicates, nor is his description of his journey completely irreverent. His subterfuge of writing a book based on interviews, however, did allow him to sample many of the most expensive wines available; moreover, he became much better informed about his favorite hobby.
Osborne's “wine world” is limited to California, France, and Italy. He mentions Germany once, praising its excellent whites, and Australia is discussed only by wine barons who disparage what they opine to be its bland and lifeless popular productions. This touches on the central thesis of Osborne's book: how modern technology has revolutionized wine production and why prices have gone so high. On the one side are the so-called American wines, among which the Australians and most Italians are counted—tasty, predictable (that is, without surprises, good or bad), and affordable; on the other are “terroir” wines, expensive but able to reflect the special characteristics of local soils, water, and sun. In short, the issues are globalization versus tradition, mass tastes versus connoisseurs’ tastes, affordable versus hyperexpensive.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, many of the men and the few women who manage the great firms familiar to every regular visitor to good wine stores are either scientists or have a background in science. Perhaps also not surprising are the left-wing politics of the small vintners who deplore the changes that megaproduction techniques have brought to their craft.
This revolution in wine production has both reflected and stimulated consumer tastes: Wine had long been the preserve of the wealthy or ethnic enclaves. In the 1970's it moved into the mainstream, especially in the United States and Britain. Afterward, wine became a world obsession. As good, brand-name wines became available in every grocery store, the prices of the best wines soared. Osborne describes the production techniques that distinguish modern brand-name wines from their predecessors, but he gives his reactions only to the very best of the best.
What are the “best” wines? Taste is such an individual matter. Who can determine, objectively, what is the best in such a complex subject? Wines contain two thousand different elements. There are hundreds of different varieties of grapes, only a few of which are known to the average consumer. Mass production has its own requirements, first among which is large fields of healthy plants that produce predictable, yet savory, grapes year after year. This requires massive amounts of capital; only a foolish investor would part with the money and time necessary for replanting, experimenting, and marketing without the guidance of scientifically trained experts, modern production facilities, and the advice of specialists in the mercurial tastes of the consuming public.
Osborne's search began at the estate of Antonio Terni, whose wines were regularly scored highly by Italian wine magazines. Terni was nothing that he might have expected. The palatial house was, of course, anticipated, but not the esoteric interior nor the multifaceted owner. Terni, who had been made richer by wine experts, hated the specialists; in fact, he hated everything about the wine business except the wine. He admitted making two kinds of wine, one for Americans, another for himself. Both were fine, and that was fine, as taste was a personal matter. Although he believed that Americans liked “too much” in the glass, that was not America's fault—everyone lives on Planet America.
That encounter led Osborne to call on the personification of American wine, Robert Mondavi, whose gigantic and architecturally impressive winery transformed the Napa Valley in 1966. Mondavi himself was an aged but spry and impish man, no longer the driving personality he had been earlier, as he said of himself, but satisfied with what he had achieved. He had reason to be so. The famous 1976 California versus France wine tasting contest had routed the French offering and made Mondavi famous and wealthier. No one could complain it was unfair: French judges had made the...
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