This hefty tome represents nearly 40 years of wine writing from The New York Times. Though the book weighs in at about 550 pages, we are dealing with news clippings, so the knowledge is delivered in chapters of sip-sized articles–and there are a lot of them. Among the contributors are Harold McGee (On Food and Cooking), Florence Fabricant (NYT critic and cookbook author), Frank Bruni (former NYT chief restaurant critic), R.W. Apple Jr. (legendary NYT journo), and Eric Asimov (current NYT Chief Wine Critic), who also handled the foreword.
In his foreword, Asimov nods to Frank J. Prial, who, in 1972, began writing “The first regular coverage of wine in a general-interest American newspaper, though nobody was certain a desire for such reporting actually existed.” Asimov concludes that “Wine is now a significant component of American culture, to be evaluated, analyzed and parsed just as with other cultural experiences, whether restaurants, architecture, pop music or films.”
Interestingly, Prial’s 1992 piece, “Affairs to Remember” records an earlier thirst for wine word-smithing:
“Wine drinking goes back at least 6000 years. Wine writing probably began a year or two later.
“The Sumerians wrote about wine; so did the Babylonians and the Egyptians. Then came Homer and his wine-dark sea.”
Prial identifies G. Selmer Fougner as “probably New York’s first newspaper wine writer.” Fougner’s New York Sun column “Along the Wine Trail,” traced New York from a “gustatory wasteland” in the wake of prohibition to a burgeoning food-and-wine superpower at the time of his death in 1941–nearly 30 years before Prial took up the craft himself.
You might be wondering if there is any booze in this book or just a bunch of red-nosed journalists. Okay then, here’s another back-and-forth between Asimov and Prial, this time on the rise and fall of Bordeaux:
In a 1998 article, Prial recounts the byzantine nature in which Bordeaux wines were classified into a system of “Crus,” settling into the notorious 1855 classification. He wonders, “Why has the 1855 list never been modified? No one knows. It certainly needs it now: chateau owners die, managers move on, vineyards are neglected…ratings need to be updated regularly.” Quite possibly because of this old-guard rigidity, Asimov, in 2010, wrote of a younger generation that had become disillusioned with the storied stuff: “For young Americans, Bordeaux has become downright unfashionable…Bordeaux, some young wine enthusiasts say, is stodgy and unattractive. They see it as an expensive wine for wealthy collectors, investors and point-chasers.”
And here’s a nice New York-skewed graf from Apple (“Johnny”) on wine’s high-spirited derivative, Armagnac: “I was a semi-retired war correspondent, a two-fisted eater yet to learn the more recherché points of food and drink. I knew I was in the Armagnac region, but I had no ida I was at the very heart of it, at the nexus, at the epicenter. It turned out that this place, called Darroze, was to Armagnac exactly as the Second Avenue Deli is to corned beef.”
If you are in the mood to drool, take “A Stroll through the ’21’ List, Circa 1945” with Prial, and imagine “wines like a 1934 Chambertin from Liger-Belair and a 1929 Clos de Vougeot 1929 from Mugnier priced at $8 and $11, respectively.” Prial can’t help but turn the crew a little tighter, adding, “The most expensive of the Burgundies was a 1929 Romanée-Conti from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for $18.”
Bay Area locals will also enjoy Asimov’s piece on famed importer Kermit Lynch, who opened his shop the same year the NYT started covering wine. In “Berkeley’s Wine Radical, 35 Years Later,” Asimov notes that one of the best ways to shop for wine–by importer–is attributable to Lynch’s long track record: “His influence can be seen almost any time you go into a good wine shop and spot people poking at the labels of wines to check the importer. Instead of memorizing esoterica […] these canny consumers learned that finding an importer they trust is a reliable navigational tool.”
There you have it. While one particular reader got hung up on the chapter “Wine Writing and Writers,” larger swaths of The New York Times Book of Wine are dedicated to “What You Drink With What You Eat” (red wine and oysters, anyone?), “Made in the U.S. of A,” and “Continental” wine, as well as bubbles and restaurant vino among other niche topics. A book that leaves no (galet) stone unturned is deserving of a slot in the cellar library.