I’m hoping I’m not too late here to recommend a great little stocking filler for the wine obsessive in your life. This came out in September but my Lockdown reading pile has grown somewhat tall, and I’ve only just read it. I was just a little worried that its relatively small size would mean that the print was tiny, but that turned out not to be a problem. I guess that at just under 230 pages I zipped through it pretty quickly, and if it has any downside that is it. Easily remedied though, I am following it with a book which weighs in with over 500pp.
The Goode Wine Guide is the umpteenth book of Dr Goode’s I’ve read, and it’s a little different to the others. But it’s not at all what you might think. Jamie doesn’t give you a list of wines you should drink from every region or country he can think of, like most books with a similar title. Instead he provides a sort of manifesto for wine lovers. A kind of “this is what I think…you may agree with me or you may not”.
Jamie is that rare wine writer, a genuine scientist. He often jokes about people with letters after their name, but he has them fore and aft (Dr and PhD). His discipline is biology, and he is keen to remind us that winemaking is down to biology more than chemistry (unless you are a particular type of winemaker). He is also a little bit of an iconoclast, but again in a very different way to what we usually see. But that will come out as we go through the book.
The Goode Wine Guide is divided into 55 chapters, which is only an average of four pages each, but some chapters are even shorter. When Jamie makes his points, they are usually succinct, but in one or two cases I was yearning for him to go a little bit further. I’ll give you a taster of the sort of areas he’s discussing. Sometimes it’s winemaking or farming, sometimes it’s about the people who sell wine, and sometimes it’s about those who write about it. Quite often however it’s just highlighting an approach to the subject which is just a little out of kilter with the mainstream. A philosophy of wine perhaps, if that doesn’t sound too serious for a book that is above all, fun. He’s not so much an evangelist though, more someone who likes to prod us out of our stupor…our tendency to take things at face value and believe all the old clichés. He may like to tear down the odd stubbornly held belief, but he’s not smashing all the statues in the temple.
An example, perhaps. Chapter 6 dives into two opposing approaches to the subject, which he calls “reductionist” and “holistic”. He reminds us that our wine education teaches us to break down a wine, in our tasting notes, into its constituent parts. By “marking” a wine for elements such as brightness, bouquet, texture (for example) we can build up a brick by brick quality picture. Jamie asks us to look at the whole experience. He asks whether “if we rush too quickly to words we might miss out on the experience”. This really gets to the heart of Goode’s (and my) philosophy. If we reduce wine down to three points for this and five points for that, we are able to score the wine. But are we on a different planet to the people who buy the bottle to “enjoy” (my question, not his)? As Dr Goode says, “we need to dwell with it, experience it…”.
Chapter 11 is called “Mouthfeel Matters”. It’s only about a page long (plus a rare half-page footnote). We place so much store by how a wine smells, its bouquet. Of course we do. Most of us realise the importance of aroma the first time we smell a really fine Red Burgundy, if we’ve not already come to see half the pleasure in wine is its nose before that point. But there’s something else we tend to forget. The key to this vignette is a quote from Nick Mills of Rippon Vineyard in Central Otago. I won’t spoil it by giving you the full quotation, but it begins “Terroir is issued through shape and feel, not smells and flavors (sic)”. It’s so important to understand that a wine is not merely a list of summer fruits on nose and palate.
Chapter 14 is one after my own heart. Its title, Beauty is not the Absence of Flaws, illuminates a topic Jamie has touched on before in his book on wine faults. After you have read this chapter you will pine for Japan (if you’ve been before) and at the same time perhaps to listen to a record on which there is a real drummer, not a drum machine. I’m sure many of you will see where he’s going with this idea.
I’m pretty sure you want to know what the doctor thinks of scores? He discusses them in Chapter 20, which runs to almost five pages! His view is nuanced, as you’d expect from a man forced to use them in wine competitions. He accepts that they do have a limited value, but he perhaps looks over rather wistfully at those with the freedom to reject them (like myself). But one sentence sums up my own feelings. “[Scoring wine] is an attempt to make something diffuse and indefinable into something focused and precise”. My own view is that those who are truly enthusiastic about scoring wine are to me like someone who takes an opposing view to mine on Brexit. They are, in most cases, implacable. Trouble is, score inflation ruins any argument that scores are objective. Can people not see that in order to get your name on a shelf sticker you just have to score a wine 98-100 points? Because if you don’t see it, your rival can.
Chapter 27 says “Stay Critical but Remember There’s Room for Everyone”. Oh! how some wine critics have embarrassed themselves by allowing their mouths to froth over natural wine. Jamie wrote a letter to these people, which he published on his Wine Anorak blog, and reproduces here. It’s very funny, unless you have a very reactionary bent when it comes to people wishing to avoid using synthetic chemicals on their vines and a range of other interventions and manipulations in their winemaking. He’s not saying that people who make wine the other way are wrong. He’s by no means a natural wine fundamentalist, far from it. He’s just asking why people get so upset about natural wine? Personally, I consider them a bit like those who say “why do we have an international women’s day and not one for men?” In other words, they don’t quite get it. Just let people do their own thing Mr very traditional wine writer. They are not hurting you! How many of us feel challenged, even diminished, by new thinking?
It’s nice to see someone who is (otherwise) very positive about the world of wine today, especially in terms of quality. As Jamie rightly says, there’s so much less bad wine than there used to be. I can attest to that fact, having been alive a little bit longer that the author. There’s a chapter on this point, but it ties in with another, on those wine writers who profess to be consumer champions. There are a few of those around today, all born perhaps from one man who told us we don’t need to pay more than average supermarket prices to be happy.
Jamie gets mildly upset when people suggest that the world of wine is peopled by rip-off merchants trying to push inexcusably expensive bottles to the public, and worse than that, decrying the cheaper brands as rubbish. Again, I won’t spoil it, but Chapter 42 is called “Beware the Consumer Champions”. ‘Nuff said! Needless to say, I’m firmly with those who cherish the expertise and passion of the wine trade in this and every other country I buy wine in. Naturally people in the independent wine trade want to make a living, but just like indie record stores and book shops, they do it because of their passion, and their desire to pass that passion on to you and me.
If you think that only one type of wine writer comes under scrutiny, think again. Chapter 53 is called “How to succeed at wine writing by writing boring articles”. This is where Jamie’s surely not afraid to make enemies. The story he reveals is one which happens so often. The writer is invited on an expenses-paid press jaunt. He or she may get to visit the odd artisan producer, but it’s clearly more about the bigger guns, who are after all stumping up the cash to bring the journos over. Back home they go and they are expected to knock out something which puts everyone in a good light, for their few hundred quid fee, making sure to mention anyone who might like to advertise on the opposite page.
Now spin it however you wish, but this is true in so many cases. It’s the way the wine world works, and it’s the way wine publications survive in some (not all) cases. There is a retort, which in fact a well-known wine writer highlighted in a conversation with me the other day. They said that if editors didn’t ask for formulaic articles like this, they wouldn’t get written, which is a fair point from someone whose work published in book form is very far from being formulaic or boring. However, they also said that no magazine or journal pays for really good wine writing. Perhaps those who have been lucky enough to write for World of Fine Wine have found an exception. Others are lucky enough to have the chance to express themselves in books. I, for one, feel very lucky that I can say what the hell I like here, and publish it.
Do I have any criticisms of The Goode Wine Guide? No. The book is not intended for anyone looking to learn about wine in a factual way. Very few times does the author mention any specific wine or wine region. But it is illuminating in other ways. Who would read it and why?
Certainly, anyone in the wine trade should not only enjoy it, but learn a little. We all get drawn into thinking about things through blinkers, and Jamie does nothing if not remove our blinkers. He reminds us that there is always another perspective. If we ignore or reject that perspective we risk missing out. For the same reasons this book is likely to be just as interesting to avid wine lovers, and those who are embarking on the journey towards a wine obsession. You might not have the same degree of interest or engagement as I did, in every single chapter, but there are fifty-five topics to grab your attention.
Only one quibble, Jamie. In Chapter 45 you exhort us not to be an all-rounder but to be a specialist. Well, it’s aimed largely at the wine producers of Great Britain. Their sparkling wines are so good that they shouldn’t go rambling on about their Bacchus, the author suggests. It’s not that my view is a bit more nuanced on this one (English and Welsh still wines are making great strides), but that in a footnote Dr Goode gives us a list of English Sparkling Wines he can recommend “to start with”. I’m sure your memory was shot when you wrote that footnote Jamie. It’s the only reason, surely, that we don’t see “Black Chalk” at the head of that list.
The Goode Wine Guide is published by the University of California Press (Sept 2020) at £15.99 ($18.95). It really would make a great stocking filler for Christmas and I can imagine sitting by a log fire, a glass of Palo Cortado in hand, with the need to read something both easy going yet stimulating at the same time. You may well find it hard to put down and be near the final chapter by the end of the Bond movie on TV which you’ve seen nine times before. I was going to say “a great way to avoid playing charades” but I guess there won’t be much of that this Christmas.