First published in hardback in 2002, followed by a revised and updated soft cover edition in 2005, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, has quickly become fairly widely regarded as the new core text on Italian wine. For me, it takes over that crown, though with less technical detail and clarity, from Burton Anderson’s now out of print (and very expensive) The Wine Atlas of Italy. It also borrows on the personal, subjective charms of Victor Hazan’s classic (and inexplicably inexpensive) Italian Wine. It does both while also filling all of the expected roles of a survey book – for that’s essentially what it is – and establishing its own peculiar sense of objectivity.
One of the primary reasons I jumped at the chance to host this first edition of the Wine Book Club is that I wanted to push myself to break my own preconceptions. Frankly, I was predisposed to dislike the book. A copy had been sitting at the ready in the staff library where I work since just after its original publication. And while I’d picked it up for specific reference purposes on multiple occasions, I’d never had the urge to read it cover to cover. Or perhaps more accurately, I’d been disinclined to read it cover to cover. Why? Not for any rationally substantive reason; more based on a gut, intuitive reaction. Something about the tome’s authorship, really just the Bastianich half of it, turned me off. Why is a guy who owns a wine shop and has controlling interest in two wineries, whose mother is a world famous celebrity chef, and whose business partner is arguably an even more famous chef, bothering to write a wine book? Actually, the “Why bother?” made sense. It was the “Why should I read it?” part of the equation that didn’t click. I want my wine book authors to have subjective opinions; I just don’t want them to be clouded by their business relationships.
As it turns out, it’s that certain insider’s perspective that – though it has some shortcomings – makes the book not only good but worth a spot on any Italian wine lover’s bookshelf. At the book’s core is a region-by-region summary of the Italian wine scene, with every regional chapter broken into subsections on sparkling, white, red and dessert wines. Each leads off with a rudimentary map and gets the ball rolling with an anecdotal passage involving players in the local food or wine scene. That lattermost aspect lends a personal touch that helps make the book more engaging than a more typically textbook or atlas driven approach. A look, for instance, into the culture of artisanal vinegar production in Emilia-Romagna is treated with as much if not more technical depth than most of the wine-specific sections.
Occasionally though, the approach wanders a little too closely for comfort into the realm of namedropping; I sometimes found myself struggling to keep track of who’s who. A sub-headed section of the “who’s who” in each region would have gone a long way toward correcting that shortcoming, adding more value within the region-specific context of each chapter than it does in the purely alphabetic form chosen for the appendix of producers.
This brings me to one of the questions I posed in a Wine Book Club reminder about a month ago: If you were sitting behind the editor’s desk at Clarkson Potter, what, if anything, would you have changed about the book’s overall format, tone or style?
Given the scale and scope of Vino Italiano, its overall impact is actually quite impressive. I think it could have been significantly strengthened with the addition of more detailed and more regularly interspersed maps as well as by a stronger use of photography. Too often, attempts are made to convey richly visual and geographic information using words alone. While the power of the pen is great – yes, I’m going to use a cliché – sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. The pictures that are interspersed throughout the book seem geared more toward establishing a vaguely artsy/folksy sensibility than to actually supporting the content. Photos of some of the producers and vineyard areas being discussed would have gone a long way to anchoring them in the reader’s mind. Likewise, more detailed maps might have gone a long way to alleviating some of the confusion that’s common when trying to understand the orientation of a place one may never have visited. The $10-ish price increase these additions may have necessitated could easily have been borne as justified by all but the most frugal book buyers.
I’d also like to have a clearer sense of which author’s voice I’m reading at any given time. Given Mr. Lynch’s background as a writer for Wine & Spirits, as well as other food and wine periodicals, I’m inclined to think that he is the primary author. Yet there’s no clear indication that that is actually the case. I’d also like to have seen a clearer expression of opinion, a more subjective approach if you will, though that would clearly have made the book less broad and centrist in its appeal. In any event, as much as I want to dislike the authors’ embrasure of the increasing encroachment of international grape varieties, the growing importance of modernistic approaches in the winery and the prevalence of rich, heady wines in the bottle, I can’t help but respect the level handedness with which these controversial topics are addressed.
As to my other questions:
- Has your general understanding of Italian wine grown through the experience of reading this text?
- Is there a wine region, particularly one that was previously relatively unfamiliar to you, that the book has inspired you to learn more about?
I think that Vino Italiano is an indispensable resource in building understanding and knowledge of Italian wine. Though I’ve read it cover-to-cover, I’ll return to it regularly as a topical reference manual. Of the book’s 500-plus pages, well over 100 pages encompass detailed appendices that define terms, list vines and provide a quick reference tool for regional and producer-specific information. I can’t say that it has created an interest that wasn’t already there for me; however, it’s certainly intensified my interest in, and improved my understanding of, wines from many regions, Lombardia and Campania, for instance, among others.
And the bonus point challenges:
- For the critic: Did you find any editorial mistakes? If so, what were they?
- For the wine geek: Did the book inspire you to rush out and hunt down a wine or two? Then share some vinous love. Include your tasting note(s) in your review to earn kudos.
- For the gourmand: To earn double bonus points – and to inspire a little salivation among your readers – prepare a meal from one of the recipes in the book, pair the dish with a wine from the appropriate region, and report on the experience.
Suffice it to say, I’m constantly shocked to find that the level of editorial care applied in most literary publishing circles does not seem to extend to the genre of wine texts. I won’t be so unkind as to chronicle every typo and awkward sentence, but I will say that there are many (the mention of "Bryno" Giacosa on p. 135 is perhaps the most embarrassing). If anyone at Clarkson Potter is reading, I’m available to help edit the next edition! Happily, technical errors, at least ones that I was able to recognize, are few and relatively minor. In the Veneto chapter, for instance, Bardolino is cited as having been elevated to DOCG status; in fact, only the designation of Bardolino Superiore is now DOCG, while Bardolino in general remains a DOC (this is recognized in the appendix of DOC information). Similarly – perhaps it came too late for press time for the second edition – I was surprised not to see mention of Dogliani’s recent elevation to DOCG status within the already DOCG-rich Piemonte.
The book didn’t really inspire any shopping, at least not that couldn’t wait, but it does have me thinking about opening a couple of the new frontiers already waiting in my cellar, like the Ribolla Gialla from Friuli’s Stanko Radikon or the Fumin from Valle d’Aosta producer Grosjean Frères. As much as I’d like to regale you with tasting notes or a recipe trial, I’d saved those for the final week and never quite got there as I was waylaid with a nasty viral bug from which I’m just beginning to recover. But hey, that leaves me with some fun to look forward to.
|Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy|
By Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch
Copyright 2002, 2005
Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, NY