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A Wine Book Worth (re)Visiting

January 5th, 2018

By Brent Bracamontes

In a previous entry, I wrote on what I think it means to be a good “wine citizen.” This includes, among other things, being interested in maintaining ongoing conversations with people about wine, with an eagerness to share information on the bottles that others will enjoy – that will enhance their meals and make them think a bit more about what they are drinking, including variables such as who produced it, where, by what methods, and how it relates to other wines of its “kind.” I stand by the importance of developing a strong sense of wine citizenry.

An attention to becoming a good wine citizen commands, at least implicitly, for us to be less consumed with raw knowledge and more with application of knowledge. I got a lot out of pursuing formalized wine education, but my time spent away from it has been equally valuable. While I still consume Guild of Sommeliers study guides and entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine with regularity, I no longer consider the comprehension of a factoid as being sufficient for my life “in wine.” This is where an attention to wine citizenry comes into the fold. It means learning along the way; to treat wine education as a step-by-step process that does not merely treat it as something useful to pass some examination, but as a clearer focus for our capacities to have genuine conversations with other people inside and outside the wine trade.

Hugh Johnson’s book A Life Uncorked seems to be a near-perfect text for kick-starting a commitment to developing as a wine citizen. In a world in which the esoteric factoid is prized for its ability to give us a leg-up on an examination, Johnson’s book stands out to me as a text for re-establishing our personal connections with wines from all over the world. The memoir does not seem to be a genre that has totally penetrated the field of wine writing, but this seems curious. Wine writers seem to value producer profiles, where we may encounter important insights into the personalities that are responsible for making the wines we love. These profiles strike me as excellent works for understanding the personal quirks and eccentricities that become infused in the various wines we consume; to perhaps shed some light on the variations we witness from one vintner’s bottle to the next. The life and times of a writer as well traveled and experienced as Hugh Johnson seems to be, at least, as worthy as any producer profile we may come across.

Thankfully, Hugh Johnson commands a refreshing writing style, not the least bit dry (unlike most of the wines I enjoy – yes, you knew some wine pun would be coming at some point in this piece). In more precise terms, I mean that Johnson has a keen sense for noticing the qualities of wines, regions, and producers that make them irresistible subjects for journalism. Further, Johnson is a gifted writer, who is able to use language to communicate a genuine sense of reverence at such a grand yet sometimes overwhelming subject. Consider this example from his chapter on Chablis (a personal favorite of mine as well):

“It hardly sounds a resounding encomium to be the default wine, the no-brainer that fits in with almost any situation, friend, dish, time of day and day of year. But Chablis is that. Chablis is also my favourite white wine, the wine I buy and drink most of for pleasure and out of interest. The Chablis rack in my cellar (far end on the left) has more traffic than almost any. Can I say why? Because it is the natural partner for the fish and shellfish I love. And because it works supremely well as a drink. To say it has the essential qualities of water sounds a pretty back-handed compliment, too, but just as the cool volume of water when you swallow leaves nothing to be desired, so the stony freshness, the flinty, faintly sour fluidity of good Chablis has an elemental completeness. Sweeter? Absurd. Stronger, oak-seasoned, drier, more aromatic? All absurd. Chablis, I sometimes think, was sent down to earth as a model for all wine-makers to imitate.”

Johnson’s knack for educating and captivating seems to be on full display in that quotation. Luckily, the rest of the book reads this way. His experience and wisdom are revealing and inspiring as he urges the reader to recognize the truly remarkable and insatiable qualities of this classic beverage we call wine.

As someone who took wine education quite seriously at one point in my life, I have a large section of my office bookshelf devoted to books on wine. As one might expect, many of these books are reference books or some other type of educational work, meant primarily to educate us on this beverage that is so historic, yet so ill-understood. I feel I have learned a great deal from these books over the years, as my “raw” knowledge of wine has expanded significantly. But as I have come to know more about wine, many of these texts have remained on my shelf, collecting dust. But as my attention has turned more to refining and reinforcing my appreciation of wine as an essential consumable item, I find myself returning time and again to Hugh Johnson’s beautiful book. Perhaps a collection of my enthusiastic correspondences about living “in wine” will serve a similar purpose for some future enthusiastic wine citizen. One can only hope.