A Wine Guide for a Changing World (for Better and for Worse)

THE WORLD IN A WINEGLASS: The Insider’s Guide to Artisanal, Sustainable, Extraordinary Wines to Drink Now, by Ray Isle

Winery owners appear to lead charmed lives. So, too, do wine writers and critics, if their small talk and Instagram feeds can be believed. A lot of chateaus, grand vistas, infinity pools, delicate stemware and candlelit dinners in private rooms seem to be involved. Wine people, for professional reasons, are frequently half-potted by 11 in the morning.

The hard part is the return to the desk. It is no joke, deciphering notes taken while “tired and emotional,” to use the British euphemism for wasted. Harder still is landing upon original ways to say “delicious.” The language of wine writing has been parodied probably since Pliny the Elder but certainly since 1937, when The New Yorker published a cartoon by James Thurber that depicted a man holding aloft an inky glass at a dinner table. The caption read, “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.” The poet Tony Hoagland sent up the pretensions of wine language in a deeper way, writing in his uncommonly beautiful 2003 poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine”:

The snob sommelier’s response to Hoagland’s questions would be: They’re everywhere, sir, the $7.99 Australian Chardonnays with kangaroos on the label.

Robert M. Parker Jr. changed wine criticism and wine sales in the 1980s by circumventing language altogether. He employed a numerical rating system for each bottle. The price of Parker’s success has been to become Robert Moses-level uncool (both men were flatteners and simplifiers) to younger generations of wine geeks. His name is uttered with a shudder.

Early in Ray Isle’s elephantine, hernia-inducing new guidebook, “The World in a Wineglass: The Insider’s Guide to Artisanal, Sustainable, Extraordinary Wines to Drink Now,” the author pauses to complain about the fruit-dependent tasting notes wine writers employ. “Can you actually imagine how the wine will taste in your own mouth,” he asks, “from a list like ‘mangoes, pineapples, pears, apricot and oak’?” These remind him of a smoothie-shop menu.

Such descriptors may be unavoidable. After his initial grumbling, Isle goes in for them in a big way. It’s more interesting when he puts the fruit bowl aside. Who wouldn’t want to try the Burgundy that possesses, in his view, “a kind of upright military character”? How about the one with “a dancer-like musculature”? Then there is the red blend, from California’s Central Valley, that Isle refers to as an example of a “how did my glass get empty so fast?” wine. Weird: Nearly every bottle I open fits that description.

Some of the winemakers he interviews are better at this game. One in Oregon compares his pinot noir to a libidinous Barry White ballad. A Northern Italian winemaker brags that his gewürztraminer is not of the dreaded “Miami Vice” variety: “No padded shoulders!” The maker of a chewy Barbera proposes of his wine (and he could also be talking about this book): “It’s a bit of slamming the big encyclopedia on the table.”

Isle is among the best, and best-known, wine commentators in the United States. For many years, he has been the wine editor for Food & Wine magazine. He is a genial presence when he appears, glass in hand, on the “Today” show. His palate is beyond reliable. It should be insured, as Betty Grable’s legs were, by Lloyd’s of London. I would take his wine advice to the bank. What I would not do is take his new book out of the bookstore. It’s too heavy. It’s also too padded, like a student’s term paper. If it were an Easter basket, it would be 95 percent shredded green paper. You must really poke around to find the candy eggs.

It might be that behemoth wine guidebooks like this one are meant to be displayed rather than read. They advertise that you care about the finer things. In used bookstores, the big wine books of the past are foxed and faded monsters. They’re like taxidermy, nobly rotting against the back wall. Few things, other than electronics magazines, date so quickly.

But I did find the eggs. They are Isle’s recommendations of offbeat, inexpensive, “natty” (a word he likes) wineries and their bottles, and his notes on why they matter. This superb material could fit on two dozen index cards, or about eight of its 706 pages.

The blandness of “The World in a Wineglass” derives from the rest. Isle’s introductions to countries and regions are written mostly in anonymous, Frommer’s-guide prose. The close attention he pays to sustainability and organic methods is what sets his book apart, but he devotes nearly every sentient moment to it. You will learn vastly more than you wished to know about indigenous yeasts and regenerative agriculture and the dirty business of adding sulfates. And then you will learn it all again.

He introduces his readers to the owners of dozens of wineries, most of whom are rebelling against the sorry practices (too much fertilizer) of their forebears in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.This is estimable, so far as it goes. But Isle’s potted profiles lean so hard on each winery’s green bona fides that it can seem as if he has shaken them down and forced upon them a series of purity tests. I kept waiting for one to declare, as Wendell Berry once did, that even listening to weather reports is, for a farmer, selling out to mammon.

I began to live for the wiseacres, the irascible vintners who push back. You can be a purist and still make crap wine, one tells Isle. Another tells him that focusing solely on this green stuff is romantic and stupid. Another says, in so many words, that if you want to get all political, let’s talk about health insurance for vineyard workers. An Oregon vintner says about Demeter, an organization that certifies biodynamic wineries:

These voices matter because nearly every other winemaker sounds like a virtue-signaling second-rate poet. “I could never do anything disrespectful to the soil and look Mother Nature in the eyes again,” one says. “Humility in the presence of the land” is another’s credo. “We are modest-sized artisans of the earth,” another says. Multiply this wet verbiage times 400 and you will know what it is like to spend time with “The World in a Wineglass.” It’s like listening to Oscar speeches.

There is a certain kind of food and wine writing that walks unwittingly into a class minefield. The liberal urban writer is dropped onto a stony goat path among artistic or successful rural people, or both: How should he describe them? What not to do is to baste them in joie de vivre. Isle consistently and patronizingly refers to people as “cheerful and twinkly” or from the “wise old elf school.” He says that they are “extraordinarily animated” or “fiercely animated” or possessed of “an infectious, impish smile” or “irrepressible.” It’s as if he is describing toddlers, or the brain addled. No one would refer to a lawyer, or an ambassador, or a scholar or indeed a wine writer in this manner.

One Slovenian winemaker says to Isle, in my favorite lines in the book: “I need critics! I don’t need this wow-brow shikimiki zak-zak!” Isle presumes the last bit means something like “useless hipster yes-men.” Shout it loud: Down with wow-brow shikimiki zak-zak! Up with Ray Isle, who has better books in him.

THE WORLD IN A WINEGLASS: The Insider’s Guide to Artisanal, Sustainable, Extraordinary Wines to Drink Now | By Ray Isle | Scribner | 706 pp. | $50

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