I’d been aware of Jason Wilson’s Godforsaken Grapes (2018) for some time, but it had never really registered as a book I needed to read until an American friend recommended it in the strongest terms. I think what had put me off, although “put off” is perhaps a little strong, is the association of the title with Robert Parker. I think I had mistakenly thought it was a critique of Mr Parker, and it is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is a book I feel could have been written specifically for me.
Let’s get the quotation out of the way first. The book’s title is taken from a longer polemic about the assault on the Parker ideal of quality wine from newer wine writers and (perhaps) sommeliers. Parker suggests that “they would have you believe that some godforsaken grapes…can produce wines…that consumers should be beating a path to buy and drink“. Robert helps us out by listing a few, a diverse array of Trousseau, Savagnin, Grand Noir, Negrette, Lignan Blanc, Peloursin, Aubin, Calet, Fongoneu and Blaufränkisch. It’s an odd bunch, mixing new mainstream varieties with way out obscure ones (and I’ve never heard of Fongoneu).
I don’t want to dwell on the Parker angle, because the book is really not about him at all (he gets just three entries in the index), but I will say that I feel the quotation says more about the great critic and perhaps his waning influence than about the quality of wines made from Trousseau, Savagnin and Blaufränkisch, all of which have made wines of world class (and I’m pretty sure wines which Parker himself has praised in the past).
Parker, despite the sense of anger in his statement, does make one valid point, though. He suggests that the pursuit of the obscure is basically a way for those who cannot be heard in a world dominated by established “critics” to “monetise their internet sites”. We really do need to be aware of the danger of pursuing the obscure merely to get heard, although I might add that I’m not a wine “critic” and my site is not monetised (more fool me).
What Parker has always failed to see is that in a world where classic wines (Classified Bordeaux and Burgundy, increasingly California, Barolo, top Tuscans etc) are now out of reach of your average wine drinker, the consumer, especially those who show a real interest in wine, do require people to point out avenues to follow in search of excellent but affordable drinking. That is why some people might see Robert Parker as a sort of dinosaur and the new breed of wine writer as the ascending species.
Wilson begins his story in the Swiss Canton of Valais, moving from a restaurant where he makes the acquaintance of the autochthonous variety Humagne Blanche for the first time to a visit to a producer close to my heart, Domaine de Beudon. His companions in that restaurant, the Château de Villa in Sierre, were Jean-Luc Etievent and José Vouillamoz, and if you even vaguely know who either of those guys are, then you would be inclined to read on. Both of them are principal reasons why we increasingly know about a lot more of the world’s 1,360-or-so winemaking grapes than merely the twenty varieties responsible for making 80% of the world’s wine.
Imagine a world without Gringet, or Zweigelt, Poulsard or Nerello Mascalese, or indeed Fiano and Mencia. If you can imagine such a world, and you think it would be as wonderful as a world without whales, koalas or bees, stop reading right now. It’s not just the cost of Cabernet that puts many people off, and neither is it merely the need for many of the classic varieties to age for a decade or two to even justify their price. Many of us now see classic wines as, well, predictable. As I grow older, and my remaining “Big B’s” (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo) age gracefully, I want some wines to drink perhaps a few years sooner and I want diversity, bags of it. It’s the godforsaken grapes which bring the excitement to the table in a world where searching for the elusive perfect wine (or score) is pointless (excuse the pun).
Jason Wilson started out as a cocktail and general drinks writer but moved into wine because of his developing passion for the subject. This book pretty much takes us on his own journey, where his discoveries are as much internal as ones of a developing palate and tastes. He’s noticed that many wine writers don’t get a kick from the classics any more. He cites Matt Kramer (Wine Spectator) craving “surprise” (in a piece titled “Why I No Longer Buy Expensive Wine”), and Jon Bonné, who wrote in the Washington Post of such wines: “Yes, those wines are great, but I can live without them”.
We are not surprised at such sentiments. In a world where only Parker really counted (Bordeaux), we are saddened and appalled by Wilson’s arrogant and condescending treatment at a top Cru Classé property (described in Chapter Two). We’ve all been there, though perhaps not facing the degree of put down the author experienced. But he survives and thrives, and grows as a winelover as a result. As he moves “off the beaten path”, he reveals that “a larger, more exciting world of wine opened up to me”. That is a mirror of myself, with the emphasis on more exciting.
We spend a lot of time in this book reading about the wines of a broad part of Central Europe which I would call, using the term extremely loosely, “Alpine Wines”. Aside from the obvious we cover those foothills that would include Prosecco and Lambrusco. The author discovered early on (as a very young man) the pleasure to be found in fairly simple Italian frizzante wines, and realises later that it is not merely because of his untutored palate that he enjoys the gently sparkling wines of Northern Italy. They are the first experience many of us have of wines where their value lies in immediate pleasure, especially when paired, like real Lambrusco, with hearty local cuisine.
But this is a book which like the author, is again and again lured by one place. “Austria kept calling me back. Austria felt essential to understanding what wine had been in centuries past, as well as where modern wine might be headed.” So true. Wine from the seat of this great conservative empire, yet now transformed by the younger generation into one of Europe’s most modern wine industries, one whose influence is having such a positive effect on her neighbours. One where tradition is being given new life and a modern face.
In some ways, Austria is the country of godforsaken grapes, perhaps trumping France’s Jura Region for the accolade, assuming that Switzerland, home of Europe’s most obscure bunch of varieties, doesn’t really figure on the radar of all but a few obsessives like Jason and myself. I don’t just mean Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, Saint-Laurent and Grüner Veltliner. Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Gelber Muskateller, Roter Veltliner, even Neuburger and others are well capable of producing stunning wines (and don’t get me started on Ströhmeier’s Blauer Wildbacher and the thrilling field blends which make up Vienna’s own wine, Wiener Gemischter Satz).
The few books which cover Austrian wine generally do so with a narrow focus which will dip into the more obscure varieties, but there’s a tendency to underplay the role of natural wines in the “New Austria”, which rather suggests either a prejudice against such wines from many older writers, or a finger more lightly on the pulse of what is happening in Austria today than perhaps it should be. If you are, like me, seriously excited by Austria, then you have another reason for reading Jason Wilson’s book.
In the later chapter “Pouring Unicorn Wines”, the author hits upon the reason why these godforsaken grapes have a growing audience. There’s a new market, people who are frequenting wine bars. In the UK at least, wine bars have become a rival to the traditional pub in many metropolitan urban areas. Young people are drinking wine socially, and places which offer a good selection by the glass, even “on tap” now in many, provide the kind of wine excitement which has perhaps grown in parallel to the craft beer movement. Such venues give consumers the opportunity to taste for themselves. They like what they like rather than what someone tells them is good, and so wine becomes that little bit more demystified.
One example of what the wine bars have achieved can be seen both in the USA and Great Britain through the rise in popularity of the Slavic countries and also former Soviet Georgia. Countries producing wine from behind the old Iron Curtain of Communism are flying, thanks to UK merchants like Basket Press Wines and Les Caves de Pyrene, in the same way that Newcomer Wines, Dynamic Vines and Alpine Wines helped introduce us to Austria and Switzerland. This work is mirrored in the USA by people like Tara Hammond (Blue Danube Imports in New York), or more generally by importers like Kermit Lynch.
These are the “blue sky” thinkers and disruptors in the wine world. Are they creating tomorrow’s mainstream? Maybe not quite, but their bit part is growing into something quite substantial rather rapidly. It is down to importers like these, along with many more, that to quote Wilson mean that “these days obscurity is less obscure than it ever has been”
In writing my review of Godforsaken Grapes I am aware that what I have thrown at you is less a narrative of the book, which I will say is as much a travelogue as a wine book, and all the more refreshing for it – it is more a set of ideas. If these ideas appeal to you, then this book will appeal to you as well. The writing style took me a chapter to bed down with (divided by a common language as we are), but I zipped through it in a warm glow of appreciation. That is for the wines explored, and for the author’s description of his wine journey, both his actual steps on the ground and his internal journey too.
I believe, and I’m sure Jason Wilson would assert, that it’s a journey that has led to a far greater understanding of wine, and perhaps to gaining greater ultimate pleasure from wine, through not merely sticking to those twenty grape varieties from which 80% of the world’s wine is made.
Wilson at one point describes wine in a way I really like. He says “Wine is not a ladder to climb…Wine is a maze, a labyrinth, one we gladly enter, embracing the fact that we don’t know where it will take us”. This book takes us on a journey through the hidden pathways of that labyrinth, and I won’t spoil the book by describing too many of his destinations. But if you see wine in these terms, then Godforsaken Grapes is certainly a book you will want to read.
Godforsaken Grapes is published by Abrams New York (2018). Since I bought this hardback edition I believe it has come out in paperback/soft cover, although that well known online retailer is only showing the hard cover edition here in the UK.
Perhaps the next nine articles here will focus on my trip to Australia (Victoria and New South Wales). I’ll be covering, over the coming weeks, some less visited wine regions (as well as some better known spots), visiting some new producers along with old favourites, and I hope that even on well trodden ground (Hunter Valley, for example) I can introduce you to some truly exciting new producers. You’ll get to discover some nice restaurants as well, including the place where I ate on my recent birthday, the “Sager+Wilde” of Sydney (Dear Sainte-Éloise). I hope that this diversion will be entertaining.