Friday, January 23, 2009

Corkscrewed Reviewed

“A good wine is a wine you find to be good. A great wine is a wine that you remember. As for all the rest… all the rest is literature.”

Though the words above were uttered by Côte-Rôtie producer Gilles Barge, their inclusion in Robert Camuto’s new book, Corkscrewed, serves a solid turn as metaphor for the spirit encapsulated in Camuto’s work.

Part memoir, part travelogue, Corkscrewed leads us not through tales of the good or great wines the author has drunk nor, for the most part, through trips to storied estates. Instead, Mr. Camuto takes us on a journey of the paths less traveled in French wine country. Along the way he spends time with struggling independent vignerons and contemplates the future of obscure vines, while the contemporary culture clash in the world of French wine takes center stage. What we read about are the moments and people, not just the wines, that struck a chord deep enough to take root in his memory. And the book’s style, literary as it is, puts a positive spin on the closing of Monsieur Barge’s quote.

Mr. Camuto paints a picture of French wine culture not dissimilar from that depicted in the film Mondovino, contrasting the spirit of the independent vigneron with the machinations of the “big” wine industry. His journey begins in the sleek, competitive wine scene of Bordeaux, but quickly follows the first of his many subjects, François des Ligneris, from his estate in Saint-Émilion to what’s clearly the winemaker’s greater passion, a property in the Corbières. From that point on, Camuto doesn’t look back. He spends the remainder of the book traversing the rural wine villages of the South and Southwest of France, with brief sojourns to Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire, focusing along the way on the challenges inherent to the rustic lifestyle associated with growing wine in the French countryside. Though Camuto’s overall conclusions are fairly similar to those drawn in Mondovino, his overall tone is thankfully far less cruel. His villains are less caricatured, less demonized, and his heroes are painted with warm strokes, yet broadly enough to let their character show through, warts and all.

Corkscrewed is not without its own warts. Camuto sometimes plays coy as to his own experiences and opinions, opting instead to let his characters do the damning where damning seems due. In one passage from the chapter “Drinking with Uncle Jacques,” Camuto utters a simple, hedonistic “mmmmm” in response to a vintage Maury poured at Mas Amiel in the Côtes du Roussillon. It’s Uncle Jacques, one of the author’s more colorful protagonists, who quickly lays down the dirt on the wines at Mas Amiel: “They are too much, too fruity, too caramel, too sugary…. It was like you took a prune, put a piece of caramel on it and ate it…. I tell you, it was something else, syrup maybe. But it was not wine!”

After spending the bulk of the book championing the unsung heroes of the French wine countryside, the chapter dedicated to Nicolas Joly – owner of the famous Coulée de Serrant in Savennières and great campaigner for the biodynamie movement – comes across as surprisingly requisite. On a more personal level, I’m irked by the demonization of a cyclist, dressed in lycra and pedaling furiously through the Ardèche countryside. I’d like to be cycling through the Ardèche myself, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing it on an old single speed bike with a baguette in the basket. But Camuto puts the image to apt use, contrasting the old school, slow and steady lifestyle of the struggling vigneron with the invasion of the modern, the incursion of the fast and an unwillingness to stop and experience the native pleasures of place.

Whatever quibbles I may have found with Corkscrewed, they are clearly outweighed by its merits. Mr. Camuto’s writing is precise, entertaining and compelling enough that it should appeal to audiences beyond the normally narrow scope reached by wine books. It reads very much like a collection of short stories that come together to form what is essentially a non-fiction novel. It travels a road that I’d very much like to follow. The individual stories alone are very much worth the price of admission. The fact that they come together to form a much greater whole makes Corkscrewed a rare gem in the field of wine literature and a highly recommended read.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to be cycling through the Corbieres. Maybe using a double chain ring rather than a triple qualifies as traditional? It should also be pointed out that France has a long, storied tradition of cyclists pedaling furiously around the countryside, particularly in July. Cycling nits aside, thanks for bringing this book to my attention. Sounds quite good.

Anonymous said...

David: Thanks for a thoughtful and thorough review of Corkscrewed.
No harm intended to cyclists: I am pro bike (the best way I know to stay healthy enough to enjoy great wines and food!) though I do have some personal issues with Spandex.
On my upcoming 3-city tour (Feb. 17-25) Seattle- San Francisco and New York-- there are some great opportunities to taste wines from the book.(Special tasting for all who arrive on bicycle and mention this post!)
Robert Camuto

Wicker Parker said...

In the pantheon of evil, spandex ranks up there with clowns.

I've ordered the book and look forward to reading it. Thanks for the great review, David.

David McDuff said...

A double chain ring would certainly be traditional, at least in the "modern era" of bike racing. And you're absolutely right about the tradition of cycling in the French countryside -- with or without Lycra. That, along with my love of the sport, is why the reference made it into my review.

Thanks very much for your comment. I really did enjoy the book. Now I'll have to see how many cyclists I can rustle up for your SF and NYC tasting/reading events.

One man's evil is another's blessing. After years of pretty serious cycling, I can no longer imagine going out for a decent ride without donning one of my old racing kits (lycra, of course).

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