Monday, March 3, 2008

Wine Book Club First Edition: The Roundup

When Dr. Debs at Good Wine Under $20 first proposed the idea of a blogosphere-wide Wine Book Club, I knew there would be some big hurdles to surmount. Foremost among them would be the grey area between good intentions and the dulling effects of time. How many people, at first seemingly enthusiastic, would hang in there through reading a full book – no matter the length – over a two month period of time and then putting their thoughts in print? It’s a bigger nut to crack than simply opening a bottle, sipping and writing about it, as in Wine Blogging Wednesday, the monthly meme on which the Wine Book Club idea was loosely based. I also wondered about the viability of an event in which every participant was not just writing about the same theme but about the exact same item. Would there be enough diversity in the end products – the reviews – to merit interest from people beyond the individuals participating?

I was willing to find out on both counts, placing any concerns aside and happily signing on to host the initial event. For our first edition, we selected Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch. As a first choice, VI presented some known pros and cons. A general overview of the world of Italian wines was, we thought, a subject broad enough to appeal to a wide audience. On the other hand, its 500-plus pages might present a bit of a deterrent.

The date of our first meeting now having come and gone it would seem that most of my concerns have been happily laid to rest. 24 25 bloggers came out to play, submitting their reviews of Vino Italiano. That beats out the 17 participants in the first episode of Wine Blogging Wednesday. Granted, that was in September 2004 – this blog wasn’t even a figment of my imagination at that time – and the world of wine blogging has come a long way since. But still, it’s undeniably a strong start for the Wine Book Club. As expected, most participants hailed from the US; however, we did have an international contingent, with submissions coming from Australia, New Zealand and England.

Edward at Wino Sapien was the first to report on the book, posting his review before I even had a chance to post any of my bonus point challenges, questions or reminders. For that, he receives first honorable mention. In his fine, succinct review, Edward was not only the sole reviewer to weigh his book but also the only person to call out for a chapter on the current state of the Italian wine industry.

As hinted above, around the mid-term of our assignment period, I posted a reminder that included several questions meant to help reviewers down the path and also issued a few bonus point challenges: include a tasting note about a wine tried because of the book, prepare one of the end-of-chapter recipes and/or report on any editorial mistakes found in Vino Italiano.

Joe Manekin at Old World Old School scores bonus points for preparing, not once but several times, Lydia Bastianich’s Risotto al Barolo, which concludes the book’s chapter on Piemonte. Joe presents a well-rounded look at the book and recommends it highly to Italian wine novices and hardcore Italophiles alike.

In with double bonus points was Tom Glasgow, who reported on not only making the same dish as Joe above but also on pairing it with the 2000 Barolo “Prapo” from Ettore (Sergio) Germano, a producer I’ve had the pleasure of visiting once and tasting with on several occasions. Tom gets an extra honorable mention as the only non-blogger participant. You’ll find his review posted in the comments section of my review.

Likewise, Schliecker, author of NYC Wine Notes enjoyed reading so much that it inspired him and his wife to prepare Lidia Bastianich’s Cinghiale in Umido (Braised Wild Boar) and to pair it with a little Brunello di Montalcino. I’m getting hungry just writing about it.

Richard of A Passionate Foodie scored by including a full-fledged tasting note in his report. He tried a wine from the DOC of Boca, which is located in northeastern Piemonte, not far from Lessona and Gattinara, and not even covered outside of the appendices in Vino Italiano.

Rounding out the bonus scoring, I never managed to find the time to prepare a dish and pair a wine with it as planned. However, I was the only reviewer in the crowd to point out some of the editorial mistakes within Vino Italiano. If you missed my review last week, you can find it here.

Wine Book Club founder, Dr. Debs of Good Wine Under $20 found our first topic to be in perfect keeping with her current exploration of Italian wine. Reading left her with a newfound interest in the wines of both Liguria and Calabria.

Reporting from the UK, Sean Sellers of InterWined found reading Vino Italiano to be an almost daunting test of endurance. He also encountered frustration with the recipes, as apparently nary a one was manageable in the context of a shopping trip to a typical British super market.

Reporting from the road, Sonadora at Wannabe Wino was one of many to particularly enjoy the anecdotes at the beginning of each chapter, as they kept her hungry for more while working through the drier, technical portions of the text. She was at once excited to learn about so many new wines yet disappointed to learn that many of the more esoteric DOCs and varieties are rarely available on the US market.

One of the most completely positive reviews of the bunch came from Wine Scamp. Andrea Middleton admits to struggling with non-fiction as a genre yet she found VI easy to read and strong in the reference tool category.

John of Anything Wine is one of the honest group to admit to not finishing the entire book. Nonetheless, he read enough to find it informative and to instill a hunger to finish reading later.

Also admitting to not quite finishing things was Amy Otto, contributing editor at West Coast Wine Country Adventures. She valued the text as a reference tool, enjoyed reading the recipes yet expressed her frustration that many of them were unpractical relative to typical shopping and cooking habits. Her advice: preview a chapter of interest, find a wine from the region then curl up for a good read with a glass of said vino.

Orion Slayer of Wine Connections is already following Amy’s advice. Orion too hasn’t finished reading yet, but he found a lot to like in Vino Italiano. His opening paragraph is one of the most colorful of all submitted, likening the book’s opening vignettes to a video editing technique used in a favorite old television program, “The Wild Wild West.”

Jules, our participant from New Zealand, treated his review at The Wine Wanker as a “literary tasting note,” taking a conversational approach to discussing the book and its impact. He also compared the anecdotal approach of the text to a sense of terroir.

In his typically snappy style, “The Dude,” aka Joe Roberts, at 1winedude breaks VI down into its component parts and presents an easily digestible summation of the book for anyone trying to decide if it’s a worthwhile investment.

Kori at Wine Peeps, a blog that was new to me, posted a well-considered review, drawing particular attention to the spark of desire reading instilled for a trip to Italy.

Reading VI left MonkuWino thirsty for more. His posting at One Wine Per Week includes a nice overview of the book and calls attention to a rekindled hope that there’s more to Italian white wine than insipid, over-cropped Pinot Grigio.

Jim Eastman, who blogs about both juice and grooves at Music & Wine, proposes what may just be the best – or at least most fun – approach to the daunting size and scope of Vino Italiano. Spend a year with the book, maybe even more, perhaps a month per chapter. With each region, source some wines, prepare the recipe at the end of the section and really take the time to digest it all.

Colin, the grape fan behind Grapefan’s Wine Adventures, was one of two British participants to be left relatively cold by our chosen tome. He was put off at first by the difficulty of using the producer index and later by the apparent unavailability of many of the wines on the UK market. It’s begun to grow on him though, so he promises to return for another look.

Meanwhile, intrepid Brit Andrew Barrow of Spittoon was perhaps Vino Italiano’s toughest critic. His main gripe seems to be that the book is just too American. Putting that aside, he raises some questions as to just what the book is trying to be. Wine and food pairing tool? Vintage chart? Buying guide? Reference? In the end, he gave VI his blessings but wished for greater cohesion, clearer focus and more precise information.

Carol at Pour More had a tough time making it through the assignment but found plenty of value in its content. She particularly liked being able to refer to it on an ongoing basis for additional information about wines she may have recently discovered.

Like every reviewer to a person, Cass at Vine Words found VI to be primarily useful as a reference tool. Conversely, she found it daunting as a general read and wasn’t able to make it through to the end.

Farley cops, right up front, to being a “bad student.” That said, Farley’s quick review at Behind the Vines points to the usefulness extracted from the book, not just over the past two months but over the last couple of years, applying its information to various jobs and wine courses.

Finally, Jill of Domaine 547 epitomized one of my original fears: that a Wine Book Club is just like any other book club. Lots of people sign up but many of them never get around to reading the book. Luckily, that doesn’t stop them from participating. Though she admits she may never read it cover-to-cover, Jill has already found Vino Italiano to be a useful reference tool. When it comes down to it, that’s exactly what the book is intended to be.

Thanks to everyone for participating and for helping to make our first edition a success. If I missed anyone’s review, please let me know and I’ll be happy to add it to the roundup.

Update: Well, I somehow managed to miss Dr. Vino's review. Tyler’s write-up is an interesting departure from the style of most others in that it focuses less on the book’s content, more on its success from the publishing industry’s perspective. He also brings us up to speed on what David Lynch, one of the authors behind Vino Italiano, is up to. Check it out and tell him I sent you.


Dr. Debs said...

Great roundup, and thanks for being such a great first-time host. 24 participants for a long book, right after the holidays, is nothing to sneeze at. And it's great to see so many folks who are new to me participating. Now I've got a few more blogs for my blog roll!

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Deb. Hosting was my pleasure. It was a great way to get to know some new folks. I'm looking forward to the second edition.

Edward said...


Well done on the write up and many thanks for hosting.

David McDuff said...

Thank you, Edward. I'm still amazed at how early you finished with reading and writing. Great job.

Unknown said...

I hate to say it, but "Vino Italiano" is hardly my favorite wine book. I tossed out my copy only to be given another for Christmas. The same authors' "Buying Guide" is, on the other hand, a gem -- extremely concise, useful and discerning.

David McDuff said...

Welcome, Domenico. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think that VI has filled an important need for a relatively up-to-date reference on the big picture of Italian wine. That said, if you read my full review of the book you'll see that I too have some reservations about its overall message.

While I've dumped the occasional bad wine down the sink, I've not yet moved into the realm of tossing unloved wine books in the circular file.

Thanks for the recommendation on the VI buying guide.

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