In 1973, Leon Adams released the first comprehensive book on American wines. Adams, the dean of American wine writers, titled his book “The Wines of America,” a seminal story of North American wines and winemakers from the 16th century to the 1970s.
Forty years of growth in the number of U.S. wines and wineries would pass before a second valuable reference has now appeared, researched and written by British wine writer and author Jancis Robinson MW and California wine writer and WRO columnist Linda Murphy. The collaboration resulted in a guide to the wines and wineries of the United States, titled simply, “American Wine.”
Unlike Adams’ earlier book, which covered the wines and wineries of the United States as well as Canada and Mexico, “American Wine” is limited to the United States. In retrospect, even though there were fewer U.S. wines and wineries in the 1970s, it was ambitious and somewhat daring for Adams to write about the wines and wineries of the entire North American continent. In 2012, a project of continental scope would be daunting, so Robinson and Murphy, applying their different writing styles, opted to compile and write a comprehensive reference of wines and wineries located in the USA.
“There is not a state in the union, even in such unlikely outposts as Hawaii and Alaska that is not home to a winery,” Robinson wrote in the Preface. Indeed, the authors cover all 50 states in just 269 pages, enhanced with 54 detailed maps and a slew of color photographs, charts and informative sidebars. The format of “American Wine” is somewhat derivative, as we’ve seen it (brief copy in each section, supported by detailed maps and charts) many times before, starting with Hugh Johnson’s “The World Atlas of Wine,” published in the early 1970s.
But “American Wine” is leaner, brighter looking and less chatty than some of its predecessors--a plus for the Twitter generation. The authors devote the bulk of the book, some 160 pages, to California, Washington and Oregon wines, with New York state taking 16 pages. There is ample coverage given to lesser-known wine-producing states than the “Big Four,” like Colorado (100 wineries and two AVAS), Texas (220 wineries and eight AVAs). Surprises, at least for me, include Oklahoma with 60 wineries and one AVA (Ozark Mountain, which Oklahoma shares with Arkansas and Missouri), and Pennsylvania, with 145 wineries and five AVAs, three of which are shared with four other states. It’s these easy-to-read, lesser-known factoids that add value to “American Wine.”
A nice touch, explained in the introductory section, is what the authors call “Snapshots,” a small box with essential information about the region or AVA such as vineyard acreage and best varieties. An AVA Snapshot breaks out the wineries deemed by the authors to be “Trailblazers,” “Steady Hands,” or “Superstars.”
The ample use of brilliant color and black and white photography adds a crisp, eye- catching dimension to the book. A nicely posed color photo of siblings Jim and Patti Fetzer draw the reader’s attention to the newsy sidebar, “Where have all the Fetzers Gone?” Turn the page and there’s a black and white photo of a younger Jess Jackson, with arms folded, peering confidently off the page, as if to ask, “Guess what’s coming from Kendall-Jackson?” A striking color photo that drew my attention is the shot of the Col Solare winery standing at the foot of Washington’s famed Red Mountain, looking like one of the modern architectural wineries in Spain’s Rioja region. Another is the visually stunning photo, on page 60, of Dario Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa, a replica of a 13th century Italian castle in the Napa Valley; a clear visual statement of quirky American entrepreneurship that illustrates the division between California and European wine marketing philosophy and practice.
The introductory section, “American Winemaking Comes of Age” is brief but loaded with history, including the story behind American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the effects of “The Legacy of Prohibition,” and a very thorough explanation of “What’s in a Label” (including timely talk by the FDA about putting two more labels on wine bottles, providing consumers with detailed information on ingredients and nutritional content--a move that is likely to stir up controversy). Even though the new labels are not yet required by law, a few wineries including Bonny Doon Vineyard are already providing the information. In the conclusion of “What’s in a Label,” likely written by Murphy in her lively, fresh, “American” style, Bonny Doon’s proprietor Randall Grahm is credited with “tweaking the nose of those who set wine policy by providing information voluntarily before the government tells him he must.”
Unfortunately, neither the Contents or the Index directs you to the page (13) where you’ll find “What’s in a Label,” or any of the other illustrated sidebars such as the “Heat Summation Scale” (page 53). Another small quibble is with most of the 54 maps. Some are clear and easy to read, like the map of the Russian River Valley AVA, on page 38, while other maps, like Northern & Central California, page 19, are cluttered and confusing, with colored border lines running in all directions and intersecting with closely spaced political and AVA place names.
Coverage of AVAs, a constantly changing list, is not consistent in “American Wine,” when compared to timely and authoritative sources such as California Wine Institute (WI). The book mentions the newish Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, but WI doesn’t, however WI lists the North Coast AVA, but while the book mentions the AVA there is no explanation of its scope, unless you count the confusing map of Northern & Central California that made my head hurt. “American Wine” does include the newish Pine Mountain-Cloverdale AVA, but WI has yet to list it. Equally confusing are the book’s two different totals of AVAs in Sonoma County: 13 and 15. The latter is correct.
Even with the few small problems, “American Wine” is packed with solid, timely information and is recommended as a valuable addition to any wine lover’s library.
“American Wines,” Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy, University of California Press, hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-520-27321-4, $50.
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Gerald Boyd is Columnist Emeritus for Wine Review Online. He contributes occasional blogs and book reviews from his so-called "retirement," so watch for him in this space.