Reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Finding time to read is one of life’s greatest constraints. This past year I tended to binge on a few books after each WSET diploma exam, when I actually had some unscheduled evenings and weekends. After months of immersing myself in wine studies and blind tasting exercises, well, you could say I had a thirst for something completely different.
Which brings me to these books. With the exception of one, they have little to do with wine. That didn’t stop me from pairing each with a bottle, though. Books, like wine, have personalities: some are adventurous, others comforting. Still others are impossible to categorize – you just know you love them.
So, without further ado, here are my favorite literary companions of 2019.
Most Engaging Wine Book
Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region by Peter Liem
Back in the spring I enrolled in the sparkling wine unit of the WSET diploma curriculum. While the syllabus included everything from Moscato d’Asti to sparkling Shiraz, the grande dame of the category, if you will, is Champagne. This book, written by a man who fell in love with the wines and decided to move to the region, reads like no academic text on the subject. Liem takes you along to the celebrated vineyards and famous production houses, offering a personal and indelible experience. His style is inviting and accessible, whether you’re a wine novice or an expert. The boxed set includes reproductions of antique maps of the subregions; very helpful to aspiring wine students.
The Pairing: Ruinart NV Blanc de Blancs Champagne. This is a classic style wine, made from 100% Chardonnay grown on the most favorable spots. Feathery light, with lovely citrus aromas and flavors, the Ruinart offers a beautiful example of why people go crazy for Champagne. If you lose yourself in Liem’s book, you’ll no doubt end up with a few new wines to try. Cheers to that!
Food Writing to Thrill All the Senses
Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas by John Baxter
A tale of an Australian man who travels to the United States, falls in love with a French girl and, years later, marries her and moves to France, this book is a delicious journey of adaptation from one culture to another. The story centers on Baxter’s gradual acceptance into Marie-Do’s family, culiminating in his promotion to chef de cuisine in charge of the formal Christmas dinner.
Lucky for us readers, the plot develops slowly, meandering through Paris markets, tracking down a stolen case of Margaux on the Atlantic coast, and surveying dozens of butcher shops for a suckling pig, its skin firmly intact. My favorite part, though, has to do with the small lessons imparted by the French to those who come from the outside – especially the respect (aka reverence) afforded the humble loaf of bread. As Baxter learns why one never places a baguette upside-down on the table, I smiled to myself, remembering a similar experience with my ex-husband’s Parisian family.
Christmas Day arrives, heaping expectations (and logistical problems in the kitchen) on Baxter’s shoulders. But don’t worry; it all works out – very deliciously, of course!
The Pairing: Domaine Fabrice Gasnier La Cravantine Méthode Traditionelle. I absolutely adore this sparkling wine from the Chinon region of the Loire Valley! Made of 100% Cabernet Franc, it is a lovely rose-gold color and exudes aromas of red berry-cherry fruit. Farmed organically and biodynamically (Ecocert and Demeter-certified since 2008) the 17 hecatares of vines are now in the hands of the family’s fourth generation. It’s perfect for ringing in the new year – or for celebrating a Tuesday night.
The Wild Ride
Whenever I open a Rushdie novel, I buckle up for a wild ride; this story, based on a cross-country road trip featuring a just-fired pharmaceutical rep and his imaginary son, did not disappoint. The narrative (loosely based on the itinerant Don Quixote) encompasses two plots – one real, one imagined – that follow similar tracks. Family dysfunction, the opioid epidemic, and the evils of social media loom large over the story, which takes the reader on an odyssey with stops in Mumbai, London, Middle America, and New York City.
Rushdie has a way of pointing out the obvious – usually with neon lights and sirens – while nudging you to consider the more subtle issues at hand. As we watch giant, fantastic beasts overrun a North Jersey town, we’re forced to weigh the cost of revenge versus the promise of forgiveness. He looks harshly at contemporary society but hints that we might still be capable of something better. I hope he’s right.
The Pairing: 2017 Orin Swift 8 Years in the Desert Red Blend. Created by famed winemaker Dave Phinney to represent the eight years during which he was bound by a non-compete agreement (after selling his famed The Prisoner wine to Constellation Brands) this wine is as wild and enjoyable as Rushdie’s novel. A blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petit Sirah, it’s seriously delicious. Evolving over several days, it offers new aromas and flavors at each tasting. Just like the book!
My Favorite Character
Count Rostov, protagonist of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
I bought this originally as an e-book, got half-way through it, and forced myself to stop. Because I was enjoying it so damned much! I knew this was a book I’d want to return to, again and again, and the virtual version would be no substitute for the hard copy. Months later I got my hands on the real book and I re-embarked on this delightful adventure of an aristocrat exiled to a fancy Moscow hotel at the end of the Russian revolution.
The story has much to tell us about this pivotal time in Russian history – the rise of the Communist party, the plight of noble families forced to flee or face execution – but its real charm, at least for me, was the affable, insanely well-read, raconteur, Count Rostov. Despite taking place almost entirely within the confines of the hotel, the plot is rich with adventure, companionship, and human trials and tribulations.
Count Rostov’s frequent visits to the hotel’s famed wine cellar will delight wine lovers as well as horrify them (which occurs when the “Committee” declares that all wines must be equal, and thus all their labels are removed.) But the Count knows enough about wine to distinguish the world’s best wines from the others.
The Pairing: 2016 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage, a wine that would no-doubt please the Count’s taste buds. A big fan of the dark, concentrated wines from France’s Northern Rhône Valley, Rostov would have appreciated the beautiful black fruit, grippy tannins, and distinct mineral character of this wine. One of the most exciting wines I’ve tasted in a while.
The Picturesque Place I Can’t Forget
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this book, the story of a young girl abandoned by her family and forced to fend for herself in a cottage on the North Carolina coast. Boy am I glad I gave it a chance! Rarely have I been so utterly transported to a place, so captivated by its essence, as in this novel. It’s also been a while since I rooted so hard for a protagonist as I did for Kya Clark.
Her story is difficult to digest; I found it hard to imagine anyone surviving such neglect and solitude. The writing, on the other hand, is delicate and beautiful, evoking a world of sights, sounds, and smells so intense you’re convinced you know it, you’ve lived it. Just go buy this book already and let it be the way you usher in 2020.
The Pairing: 2018 Rivetti Massimo Via Rivetti 22 Langhe Rosato di Pinot Nero. At first glance, this wine is the same color as the cover of the book, but that’s not why I chose it. Made from organic grapes in the Neive commune of the Piemonte region of Northwest Italy, this wine reminded me of the dual nature of the story: on one level, strong, tough, and not for the faint of heart; on another, ethereal and speaking of a particular place. A wine that’s both sides of the character coin, just like Kya Clark; just like the breathtaking backdrop of coastal Carolina.
Writing that Seared My Soul
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
To call this a novel is selling it short: it’s a love letter from a son to his mother, a character who exists more in the stories he tells about her than in the narrative. It’s the coming-of-age saga of a young, gay man explaining how his life has evolved. It’s also a truth-telling expedition, one that shows just how directly our lives reflect our upbringings; except when we force them elsewhere, in a different direction.
Voung splays his heart on the page, daring us to look inward to our own. What’s hidden in there that we need to express, investigate, celebrate, understand? As such, it’s not an easy book. It will leave a mark. You will be haunted by it. Go there anyway; it’s worth the trip.
The Pairing: 2017 Weingut Knoll Loibner Grüner-Veltliner Smaragd. First off, this Austrian wine is gorgeous: fuller-bodied than most Grüners I’ve tasted, with lovely floral and orchard fruit aromas and flavors. It’s dry (smaragd requires at least 12.5% abv) and will captivate you for as long as you can leave it in your glass. Label art features a painting of St. Urban, and might get my gold medal for prettiest bottle of the year. Emmerich Knoll and his family have farmed the eastern slopes of Wachau’s Loibenberg region since the 1950s. Grapes for this wine came from 9 hectares of vines in the Kreutles Vineyard which, records show, goes back to 1353.
Beautiful words deserve a beautiful wine. This, like the book, is one of my favorite things I’ve experienced this year.
Flashing into the Future
Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson
What does our future hold? As artificial intellingence advances, it fuels our imaginations, prompting both fear and excitement about what lies ahead. What if science one day offers us the opportunity to leave our physical bodies behind? To choose a variety of “shells” that we can try on or discard depending on our moods?
Frankissstein begins with Mary Shelley’s famous Dr. Frankenstein and how she might have come to write his story. Then it fast-forwards to the present-day, following in the footsteps of Ry Shelley, a transgender scientist struggling to determine how far is too far, when it comes to incorporating artificial intelligence into human lives. The plot moves quickly and adeptly from a cryogenics facility in Arizona, where dying people have chosen to deep-freeze their brains in the hopes of returning to life one day, to a World War II-era block of tunnels under central London, where one scientist has already begun his experiments, pushing past societal norms.
I have never read anything like this book. Similar to Rushdie’s novel Quichotte, it’s a wild ride but of a completely different sort. While the premise is really out there, Winterson is a skillful navigator, able to bring the readers along, encouraging them to suspend their skepticism and jump in with both feet. Follow her. I promise that this book will leave you thinking long after you’ve turned the last page.
The Pairing: Château Simone Les Grandes Carmes de Simone is a bit of a wild ride, itself. Hailing from the AOC Palette in Provence, France, this rosé looks, smells, and tastes like a red wine. A blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Merlot, vines of which average 30+ years old, Les Grandes Carmes makes you contemplate wine – in general – and this wine, in particular. The deep color, meaty-cherry nose, and scrubby tannins on the tongue say red, red, red. As does the 14.5% abv.
I paired this wine with Winterson’s novel because, as in the story, things are not always as they seem. Labels no longer apply; history is bent toward the future, blurring the line between the known and the yet-to-be discovered. Whatever you call these two, they belong together. Enjoy the new normal.
And That’s a Wrap!
I hope my little book and wine report has prompted you to do a little exploring of your own. Winter weather provides an ideal backdrop for savoring the delights of an entertaining story and a delicious glass of vino. Last I checked, we’ve got a couple of months to go before spring temperatures lure us outdoors: I say, snuggle up by the fire and jump into another world!
You are motivating me to read more Lauren! It’s been only wine books this year and I have some I didn’t get to like the Liem book. But it’s time to make room for other reading, thank you for the reminder. Wishing you a year of good reading!
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Thanks so much, Lynn. I absolutely love to read, just wish I had more time to read for pleasure! Hope you get to enjoy a book or two over the winter. Happy 2020 to you!