Wine In Words + Pictures: A Book Review Of The Book That Almost Wasn't
Note: This is the first in a two-part series about wine book publishing, inspired by the October 1 release of The Essence of Wine: Celebrating the Delights of the Palate, written by Alder Yarrow and photographed by Leigh Beisch.
Yarrow is one of the most successful of the current generation’s wine writers, with one of the most popular and longest-established websites at Vinography.com. His site has been nominated for a James Beard award, and he is a regular columnist at JancisRobinson.com.
Here’s the thing. Even with all of his credentials and all of his audience, Yarrow could not find a publisher for his book.
In today’s post, I review the book itself, which Yarrow published thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.com. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll look at what this example says about the state of wine publishing today.
First, a review of the book.
We’ve all been there.
We take a sip of wine, or smell it in the glass, and there’s something there we recognize…
But we can’t for the life of us put our finger on what it is. It’s some smell, or some taste, or even some color that we know we know, but for some reason can’t name.
There’s an incredibly helpful aid when you’re in that situation. It’s called the power of suggestion. It works because, even though you didn’t identify the smell or the taste on your own, if someone suggests what it might be, you immediately say, “Yes! That’s exactly it.”
Now, the power of suggestion comes in book form.
It’s called The Essence of Wine: Celebrating the Delights of the Palate, written by Alder Yarrow and photographed by Leigh Beisch.
I read it as an e-book, though it was originally envisioned (and also printed) as a coffee table book. Beisch’s imaginative, luscious photographs fit that bill perfectly. There is one photograph for each of 47 distinct, short entries about well-recognized aromas and flavors of wine.
The chapter titled Harvest, for example, is filled with entries about whole, natural fruits like cherry, plum, and watermelon. The Terrain chapter features elements like earth, sea, wet stone, oak, and graphite. The Garden chapter is more vegetable in nature, with entries about dried herbs and white flowers and something called “garrigue” (which turns out to be the herbal underbrush of Provence). And the Kitchen chapter is the most “processed” of the four, in that most entries are crafted rather than primary flavors. There’s buttered popcorn, for example, chocolate, licorice, cured meats, and bread.
Wine writers derive enormous pleasure in describing exactly these things. For me the pleasure would be in choosing just the right descriptors and building the structure of punctuation around it. For Yarrow it’s the pleasure of finding those things, again and again, as he’s tasted through thousands of wines.
“With every new bottle comes the excitement of sticking my nose in the glass to see what slice of the world will leap out at me,” Yarrow writes in the Introduction. Symmetrically, in a later essay, he verbalizes the prayer that the time never comes when wine loses its magic for him. He is a man in love — with wine — and, when you see wine the way Yarrow does, who could blame him?
It’s the seeing of the wine, and Beisch’s photographs, that positively secure the success of this book.
The photographs parse out, one by one, the different dimensions of the 47 distinct aromas and flavors. As the photograph for the Lemon entry suggests, there really is a difference between the lemon peel, the lemon juice, a cut lemon, and the lemon rind. It isn’t necessarily a distinction you notice at first, either in the photograph or in your glass. But this is an exercise in articulation, after all.
For me, Yarrow is at his most articulate when he evokes an aroma or flavor, when he sets up the reader to fill in the gaps of a description with our own imagination. His entry on Candle Wax, for example, goes like this:
It belongs with the sound of slowly creaking doors, the smell of old books and the feel of parchment on the fingers… Riesling aficionados certainly know a good thing when they smell it. [Time] brings new dimensions to many white grapes, but especially Riesling… Smelled more often than tasted, notes of molten candle wax bring a surprising dimension to wine, lending a gravitas that plays foil to other flavors as it whispers mysteriously of times gone by.
There are kernels of insight in the text that can move tasters, who want to be expressiveabout wine, from Point A to Point B: how graphite indicates the alchemy of expensive wood and wine, or why Cabernet speaks deeply and gracefully of tobacco, or why Nebbiolo hosts the scent of violets.
Fortunately there is an audience for exactly this kind of information. During an interview just last week, for example, I was asked this question: “I know I love the flavor of apples, and peaches, but how do I find those flavors in a wine?”
Yarrow offers an answer. For each of the 47 entries, he includes eight wines from around the world that exhibit that particular aroma or flavor. It’s enough to start a curious reader off on a wine journey around the world, or at least to new aisles in their favorite wine store.
The entry on AppleAAPL+0.55%, for example, points you toward Trebbiano (from Italy’s Veneto region), Chardonnay (from Burgundy), Riesling (from the Mosel region of Germany), Sauvignon Blanc (form the Loire), Albariño (from Rias Baixas in Spain), and Moschofilero (from Greece).
For me this is the most impressive part of the book from a functional perspective, because it connects the dots between a flavor and where you’re likely to find it.
One of the greatest compliments to a writer is to take the time to read their work. I’ve done that with Yarrow, and I’ll take it a step further: I’ll buy his book, not just for the writing but because it’s useful – to page through in order to invoke the power of suggestion I mentioned at the beginning of this article, or to pass among friends who are over for an impromptu party, especially if one of them is new to wine.
For all of the creativity and imagination it yields, this book makes me anxious, too, for the traditional publishers who didn’t appreciate the potential of Yarrow’s proposal when they held in their hands.
That is a story for another day — tomorrow, in fact, when we’ll look at the unconventional path this book has taken to publication. Given the roadkill of rejections that litter that path, we’ll consider what the implications of its publication.
An award-winning commercial photographer specializing in food and still life. Leigh's work has been featured in numerous cookbooks and magazines, national advertising, packaging and catalogs. Her personal work includes a series of abstract landscapes. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Please note all images are copyrighted and all design layouts are created solely for LeighBeischPhotography blog. Kindly link back to the original post, or drop me a line if you'd like to use or re-post any material. Thank you!