Friday, June 01, 2012

UNQUENCHABLE by Natalie MacLean (2011) Doubleday Canada, 333 pages

With a structural nod to fellow oenophile Rex Pickett's Pinot-centric SIDEWAYS, Natalie MacLean maps out her tours of vineyards around the world through the days of a week. She is an engaging guide from Sunday through Sunday from Australia to Germany to the nascent Niagara region in Ontario to South Africa to the south of France.

What amused me most about the book--in addition to her palpable wine geek joy on her journey--were her portraits of the industry people she meets. Wolf Blass, for one, the gregarious German-born, Australian transplant whose name and brand are indistinguishable and who sells seventy million bottles/year, relying on marketing "driven toward women." Unsurprisingly, he calls his Red Label Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon affectionately "the leg opener." He'd know, with four wives behind him, all "smashing crackers." Canadian literature icon Timothy Findley was partial to Wolf Blass Yellow Label, a hearty red that his protagonist in SPADEWORK relished so much that Wolf Blass sent him cases of the nectar for such munificent product placement.

One of my favourite anecdotes comes with a visit to Penfolds, a winery originally established by a medical doctor in 1844 who recommended the "wine cure" for his patients. There, in 1948, Helen Keller visited and was so fascinated by the girth and texture of one of the vats that "someone told her its height and she took less than a minute to correctly calculate that it held 10,774 gallons of wine."

Another character you'll spend time with is Cape Town, South Africa's Charles Back, "a winemaker who loves to butt heads with French authorities." His labels Goats do Roam and Goat-Rotie are "puns on France's famous wine regions, Côtes-du-Rhône and Côte-Rôtie."

What entrances me about MacLean's book is the way that she makes every person and place come to life with verisimilitude. Each winemaker's passion is clear and with such varied backgrounds in journalism, medicine and real estate, you can see how their reverence for the grape has become a vocation. On the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Marco de Grazia speaks for all of them when he suggests, "people will recognize these wines the way they recognize the sentences of certain writers. This is what me mean by terroir." Jose Alberto echoes this sentiment in Argentina: "Terroir is as much about people as soil. Making wine isn't just farming with fancy adjectives; it's about the deep connection between people and vines."

Although MacLean obviously knows her territory as a consumer and critic, it's her ability to tell a story that kept me reading UNQUENCHABLE. Sip your way through. You'll be glad of her warm company and wit.

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