Review by Tim Patterson.
In contrast to his string of useful and successful Making Sense volumes -- Making Sense of Wine, of Burgundy, of California Wine, etc. -- Matt Kramer On Wine is a collection of short articles, written over the years for Wine Spectator, Decanter, and other publications. Rather than offering a sustained treatment of a single region or subject, this volume showcases Kramer's three-decade mastery of the art of the truly interesting and intelligent wine column.
For those who have kept up with Kramer, the book can be the occasion for re-immersion; for those who haven't, it's an opportunity to get acquainted with one of the country's most graceful wine writers and passionate advocates for fine wine. If you crave good writing, look no further; if you're on the lookout for tips on hot new bargains in Central Coast Chardonnays, or self-important rants, look somewhere else.
The pieces in this collection range widely across regions, grapes, winemaking trends and techniques, controversies, and pet peeves. Among the common threads with which Kramer has always been identified are a fixation on the importance of low vineyard yields -- long a problem in Burgundy, Kramer's wine-spiritual home -- and a distaste for obtrusive oak flavors and aromas. Periodically, he takes a swipe at Bordeaux, its pretensions, its commercial hammerlock. And, of course, there is compelling advocacy of the indispensability of terroir for the understanding fine wine.
The collection includes "The Notion of Terroir," a landmark chapter from Making Sense of Burgundy, one of the most forceful evocations of the power of that concept in the English language. An entire section is devoted to writings about "somewhereness," a term Kramer coined to distinguish everyday, mass-produced, beverage wine from the truly good stuff.
In "What Makes Wine a Landmark," Kramer asks, "Isn't taste what fine wine is all about? Nope. You'd think it would be, but it's not so. Let me push this further: the purpose of fine wine is not to give pleasure, but to give insight. . . . The greatest wines literally mark the land for us. They tell us something about the earth that we could not otherwise know. This is their pleasure, an insight so intrinsic that it endures and repeats itself over generations. Everything else is just, well, taste."
It's not hard to find other wine writers who share many or even most of Kramer's opinions; it's tough to find anyone who makes these points in such artful and original ways. In "Tree Hugging," one of many gentle polemics on the omnipresence of toasty oak, he bemoans the fact that producers in Italy's Piedmont had started slathering on the oak to cover up Barbera's trademark aroma: rubber. In "The Tyranny of Being Well Brought-Up," the column that opens the collection, Kramer spends several paragraphs dissecting the French concept of bien élevé, being well brought up, and how it figures in culture and gastronomy, then slides into how the polish of oak is part of how French wines are raised in the cellar, and then into how the international fad for this kind of breeding is wiping out local traditions in places like Italy. This is way beyond "I hate oak."
One more example of good writing, which is the reason for buying this book. The final piece is a hitherto unpublished profile of Angelo Gaja, the man who made Barbaresco famous, commissioned by the New Yorker but eventually rejected with a generous kill fee. Here we get Kramer on Gaja's eyes: "They are Holy Roller eyes, the sort that can look out over a sea of sweating, expectant revivalists and transfix them by sheer conviction and fervor, as well as seduce them with playfulness. When combined with Gaja's almost wolfish grin and his ever-present charge of crackling energy, the effect is like nothing so much as a happy demonic possession."
Isn't that more fun than point scores?
Matt Kramer Matt Kramer on Wine: A Matchless Collection of Columns, Essays, and Observations by America's Most Original and Lucid Wine Writer, Sterling Publishing 2010, $19.95 (Hardcover).
A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.
The Superb Grace of Old Vines: Drinking Janasse The Zinfandel Experience: January 31, San Francisco Vinography Unboxed: Week of January 4, 2015 Vinography Images: The Colors of a New Season Vinography Unboxed: Week of December 27th, 2014 Vinography Images: Rich Skies Losing a Legend in Serge Hochar Flirting with the Ecstatic: The Wines of Nikolaihof, Austria Vinography Unboxed: Week of December 20, 2014 A Grape By Any Other Name
Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune