Book Review: American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy

BR American Wine FotoAmerican Wine, just published by the University of California Press, is a very ambitious effort to tell the story of wine in the U.S.—all 50 states, 206 AVA’s, 7 thousand producers, and almost one million acres of vines—in a beautifully produced, single volume under 300 pages long.  Mmes. Robinson and Murphy must be complimented on their audacious effort.  But were they successful in telling the story of American wine? And is this a book to be recommended to the oenophile?

First, let it be said that this book is packed with information about wine in the 50 states, much of it not easily found elsewhere (although the Appellation America web site is pretty comprehensive), and nowhere is it compiled into a single volume with beautiful photography like this.  For each state or AVA there is a brief history and a short geography lesson, but most the emphasis is put on describing the established producers, and this they do well.

The problem, of course, is that it’s just not possible to go into much detail when covering so many wine regions in a single volume. If one is not already familiar with these regions, much will be learned by reading this volume. What one reads is a good snapshot of the most important wineries with references to the recent wine history of the region.  Not a lot of attention is paid to new trends, up and coming wine makers, and the major challenges faced by growers and winemakers. Given the rapidly changing climate, especially temperature and rainfall patterns, it’s unfortunate that readers don’t learn how this challenge varies across the country and how different growers are responding to these challenges. Perhaps that’s a good topic for the next book Robinson and Murphy write. Also, the book doesn’t say a lot about vineyards, soils, viticulture and the more technical aspects of winemaking in this volume. This isn’t a criticism—it simply isn’t possible to go into depth on everything when a book covers so much territory.

Have Mmes. Robinson and Murphy successfully told the story of American wine?    The answer to this question depends on what the reader is expecting, but in general the answer to this question has to be “yes”.  This is a great reference book to be pulled off the shelf when one ventures off for the first time to one of America’s wine regions to visit wineries and taste wines.  It’s also an entertaining book, easy to read with a folksy style that manages to be informative without being boring.

Is this a book an oneophile would enjoy reading? Again the answer has to be “yes”.  No wine lover knows every American wine region in depth, and American Wine gives a quick, informative portrait of even obscure AVAs, identifying the major growing areas, the grapes, and the principal wineries. In addition, one of the real strengths of this volume is the maps that show the major AVAs, vineyards, and key wineries.  Finally, the oenophile will appreciate the currency of this volume. Published in 2013, it is surprisingly up to date with what has happened in recent years in terms of vintages, appellations, and the business of wine.  For the vast majority of wine lovers all of this is more than enough reason to buy and read this book.

Donald Winkler, Editor

March 2013

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