There are wine books to be referenced. There are wine books to be studied with intensity. There are wine books to be read. And then there are wine books to be savored.
It took me a long time to begin writing this book review because I absolutely refused to skim a single page of Andrew Jefford’s recently published compilation of nearly 15 years of wine writing. Many of my readers will be familiar with Jefford, thanks to his long tenure as both a columnist for Decanter magazine and a contributor to the World of Fine Wine.
If you happen to be someone who has not yet encountered Jefford’s work, oh boy do I have a treat for you. Very few people writing in the English language are as thoughtful, incisive, lyrical, and passionate about wine as Jefford.
As a fellow writer (and, I should say, a friend—just to get that disclaimer out of the way), I often find Jefford’s writing maddening in its elegance, and I frequently marvel at how he manages to make fairly profound insights seem so effortless.
Jefford, of course, is not a dedicated wine critic, spending his days cranking out hundreds of tasting notes from regions around the world. Nor does he spend all of his time in a purely investigative persuasion, conducting deep research to produce authoritative, reference-quality tomes on specific slices of the world’s wines and wine regions (though it must be said, his 2002 book The New France remains a wonderful guide to the contemporary wines of France).
That tome aside, for the last two decades Jefford has been firmly seated in the editorially-driven role of what might be called the intellectual wine writer. We seek out such wine commentators not to know what wine to drink right now, nor the geological particularities of an appellation’s soils, but instead for provocation and insights—for a deepening of our own enjoyment made possible by looking at wine through someone else’s frame of reference.
Indeed, Jefford often weaves a dizzyingly broad fabric of historical, cultural, and artistic references into his writing, all in support of the magic trick that lies at the heart of good wine writing. The oft-repeated maxim “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” accurately captures the conundrum of using words to describe something we experience in entirely non-verbal ways. We all know that wine is more than just fermented grape juice, but explaining why that is so proves far from easy. Few writers can match Jefford’s ability to open up new perspectives on even the most heavily trodden paths in the world of wine.
In his preface to Drinking with the Valkyries Jefford writes:
“My starting point for a career in wine was wonder at the world, in all its diversity. This topic is beyond full comprehension, but many working lifetimes—from the tight focus of research science to the struggles of poet or painter—constitute a kind of investigation into the world’s intricacy and beauty, both inanimate and animate. For all we know, ours may be the sole living world in our galaxy: 100 billion stars, surrounded by a detritus of planets, and all of them a dead mixture of toxic gases, rock, and dust, burning or freezing at vast distances one from another. To have taken part in the adventure of earthly life is astonishing, a chance of inconceivable rarity. How do we communicate that astonishment and use it to foster the reference and respect which might sustain biodiversity for the future? We can’t all be wildlife camera operators, climate scientists or astrophysicists. Wine, I quickly felt as I first began to explore it, was a unique way to apprehend the world’s variousness. Every bottle of wine was a bottle of somewhere or other: the difference between wines was, at least in part, the difference between those places.”
Jefford does more than apprehend, however. He dissects, observes, meditates, and observes with the curiosity and wonder of a poet’s eye (another form of writing Jefford explores with regularity).
Drinking with the Valkyries collects 73 columns that Jefford penned between 2007 and 2022, organized loosely into ten chapters, some of which contain a single piece of writing, others of which contain more than a dozen. Much like a collection of poetry, this book equally rewards opening it at random for a bit of inspiration as it does the careful cover-to-cover reading I gave it over the course of several weeks.
The variety of topics covered by the included columns range from an inquiry into the nature of the famed Mistral wind of the Southern Rhône; to an enthralling, roughly nine-paragraph tasting note on a singular bottle of 1882 Symington Colheita Port; to a confession of utter boredom on the subject of food and wine pairing, and many things in between. There’s a brief interlude that may be the world’s best primer on the subject of tea and a deep philosophical disquisition on wine as viewed through the lens of Heideggerian philosophy.
This is wine writing in the style of a 19th Century salon: a room filled with carefully curated intellects, leisurely but carefully interrogating an idea both for the pleasure of the act and in the hopes of progressing one’s thinking towards someplace closer to understanding.
While we are introduced to many minds and lives through Jefford’s writings: the 82-year-old Italian winegrower Angela Cappellini, Jefford’s young schoolmate Kazuo Ishiguro, and even the 17th-Century luthier Antonio Stradivari, among many others, a single, shining intellect shepherds the reader’s journey through the pages of this book.
Jefford can occasionally get tangled up in his own ideas, overly polish a turn of phrase, or pursue a metaphor to the point of slightly diminishing returns. But more than any other working wine writer I know, Jefford consistently unearths and illuminates ways of looking at wine that continually deepen my appreciation and passion for the subject.
I can assure you, if you love wine, this book will do the same for you.
Andrew Jefford– Drinking with the Valkyries: Writings on Wine – Academie du Vin Library 2022, $32.60 (Hardcover). Purchase a copy.