Book Review: Love by the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher

People fall in love with wine every day, and many never realize that it is happening. They just wake up one day and they can’t imagine a life without it. Frankly, the same is true when we’re talking about the people that we love — unless there’s a bolt from the blue, much of the time we never even realize just when, exactly, we started loving the person that we end up spending the rest of our lives with.

The mysterious pull that wine and love have on our souls is similar enough that it comes as a surprise to me that no one seriously explored the two together in a memoir before Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher wrote Love by the Glass: Tasting Notes from a Marriage a few years ago. Of course, Gaiter and Brecher aren’t seriously exploring the topic either. They are merely relating the intertwined story of how they fell in love with each other, and with wine, but in a story so heartwarming and genuine that it easily transcends their personal circumstances to become a meditation on the subtle ways that wine and love both touch us deeply.

That Gaiter and Brecher are uniquely suited to tell such a tale is undeniable. As the husband and wife team responsible for the Wall Street Journal’s “Tastings” wine column, these two career journalists have tens of thousands of column-inches of writing to their names, along with a 35 year love affair with wine that began shortly after they fell in love at first sight in newsroom of the Miami Herald in 1973.

Written in the same manner as their wine columns — jointly, in a casual first person plural, “we” — Love by the Glass relates their early years as a multi-racial couple in the South and their first explorations into the world of wine together with a charm and an innocence that is totally disarming. While Gaiter and Brecher are occasionally criticized by the wine establishment for being somewhat less incisive than many other wine critics, their admirable ability to speak plainly about wine, without flowery words or jargon, absolutely shines in this book. I’ve never read a more emotionally true and compelling description of the process and the joy of learning about wine. In fact, Gaiter and Brecher do such a good job of relating their early self-education that I can say unreservedly that this is one of the best introductions to wine that I’ve ever read.

Every chapter is named after a wine that they felt marked a specific phase of their lives, and there’s something magical in watching Gaiter and Brecher season their palates and establish their now famous “Yuck / Yum” method of scoring wine while moving from jug wine to exploring early vintages of California Cabernet, French Bordeaux, and Austrian Riesling. This carefully recalled and recorded journey is filled with such enthusiasm and joy that it not only teaches the reader about wine but also seduces them. In this respect, Love by the Glass may well be the best wine book for non-wine lovers ever written. If you have anyone in your life that just can’t seem to understand why you love wine so much, you might try loaning them a copy, just to see what happens. By way of example, my mother, who knows or cares nothing for wine, absolutely adored this book, and now understands what the heck Vinography is all about.

Wine aside, the story of Gaiter and Brecher’s relationship and their rise in the world of journalism is compelling on its own. Some may find the story overly sentimental, especially when it comes to the family tradition of buying things stamped, sewn, embossed, painted, drawn, and etched with a caricature of Gaiter’s face that Brecher drew early in their courtship, but it’s pure, honest romance. Struggling on paltry writers’ salaries to make a home for themselves, conduct their careers, raise children, and pursue their passion for learning about wine, this likeable duo will have the reader cheering for them every time they get overcome another career obstacle and find a few days to ride around the country in a train sleeper car, doing nothing but drinking champagne in the buff.

As good as this book might be for those who don’t know enough about wine to love it, it is a better reminder to even the most hardcore wine geek about where their passion really comes from: the heart. If you really love wine, you should read this book.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, Love by the Glass: Tasting Notes from a Marriage, Random House 2003 $10.17 (Softcover).