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The Sunday Salon: Reading and Wine

The Sunday Salon.com About three months ago, Boyfriend and I were invited to join a wine tasting group here in Madison called WASTED – it’s an acronym for something, but no one can see to remember what!

I’m not a big wine expert, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to know more about. There’s something sophisticated and classic about ordering a glass of sauvignon blanc or a good merlot with dinner. Of course, I don’t really know what to look for in a glass of wine, but everyone in the group has repeatedly told me that the best way to get to know wine is to just drink it; that’s the only way you’ll learn what you like and don’t like.

We’re heading off to another WASTED meeting this afternoon, which made today seem like the perfect time to review a narrative nonfiction book I just recently finished about the history of wine in the United States, The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman.

The book full title – The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine – sums up the story pretty well. In the book, Kliman sets out on a mission to figure out the mystery of the Norton, the first American-grown grape that was internationally recognized in 1873 for its distinct and flavorful wine. However, after 1873 the Norton disappeared, and it’s only been within the last 30 years that a few unique American growers have taken it on as a cause.

That description makes the book sound pretty dry (ha ha!), but there’s actually a lot more intrigue to the story than that. I just can’t share much because I don’t want to spoil anything.

I loved the way that Kliman made the case for the Norton’s importance, using this particular grape and wine to say something about American culture. This comparison on page 132, about the Norton after it was recognized in 1873, was one of my favorite passages of the entire book:

An American type had clearly arrived, too. In the novel, there was Twain’s crudely vernacular first person; in poetry, Witman’s ragged, exuberant lines; in music, the emergence of an exciting new sound like that improbably set the formal harmonies of European balladry with percussive African rhythms. All were initially met with disapprobation or derision, dismissed as coarse, barbaric expressions, beyond the bounds of taste, of what was acceptable. Norton, departing from familiar models, was their counterpart in wine: earthy, bold, and wild on the tongue, sometimes over-looked and often misunderstood, a mélange of aestivalis and vinifera, of Europe and America, that was, ultimately, nothing so much as itself.

I love the way wine becomes an example of what it means to be American, a symbol of a country and a culture that I wouldn’t have noticed myself.

Norton and its history is filled with amazing characters. The grape was first discovered by Dr. Daniel Norton, a suicidal wine-tinkerer in Virginia in the 1820s. It went on to be loved by German immigrants in Missouri and then disappeared. The current champion of the Norton is a tech-boom millionaire named Jenni McCloud, an amateur winemaker but enthusiastic local wine aficionado who sets Kliman on his journey to discover the mystery of the Norton.

Like a lot of recent narrative nonfiction, Kliman uses himself and his search as an anchor for the story – every few chapters we get an update on how his search is going before diving back into the history of the grape and of wine culture in America.

These first-person sections were hit and miss for me. I loved Kliman’s interactions with McCloud, who is boisterous and fun and a wonderful person to read about. However, some other sections got focused on Kliman dealing with his father’s death, which happened during the course of writing the book. While I get that this was a bit event for him, it feels a little out of place in this story.

While I liked reading the book, I think it’s one that people who are really into wine would love. In addition to writing about the Norton, Kliman offers a broad history of wine and wine-making in America that, while sometimes too much for me, would be a great story for people who love the topic.

And with that, I’m off to make some food for our wine tasting and get my day started. Happy Sunday!

Do you have any favorite books on wine? Any particular wine recommendations? Or favorite books on obscure Americana?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sarah Vig August 29, 2010, 9:07 am

    Lance and I bought a book by a Minnesota food and wine writer, Dara Muskowitz Grumdahl, called “Drink This: Wine Made Simple.” It’s really fun writing and guides you through the history, characteristics, and most importantly tasting of wines by varietal, so you can figure out what you like and demystify all that wine-tasting lingo. I would really recommend it. Maybe your wine group would even want to put on the tastings with you!

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:09 pm

      Sarah: thanks for the recommendation — that sounds like it could be a really helpful book. At the tastings, I mostly just listen to what everyone else says and see if I can taste that in the wine myself. It makes me not very social, I suppose, but I’m learning 🙂

  • Trisha August 29, 2010, 9:24 am

    Oddly enough, I was just at a winery last night and participated in a wine tasting (after sharing a whole bottle of wine with a friend). I’m definitely not an expert on wine, but it is a fascinating subject and so very tasty. 🙂

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:10 pm

      Trisha: Sounds like a lot of fun! Wine tastings are always sort of an adventure, but a great one. We had some awesome grilled food too – it felt like a perfect end of summer way to spend an afternoon.

  • Ash August 29, 2010, 10:01 am

    I don’t know anything about wine, and rightfully since I’m only 20, but this book does sound really interesting! I love topical narrative nonfiction pieces like this.

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:11 pm

      Ash: Ha ha, yeah, it’s good you don’t know much at 20. I did find this book interesting though, even without being an expert on wine. There’s a lot of good characters and stories in the book, ahd I loved the way the Norton was a way to tell a story about America.

  • Louise August 29, 2010, 10:14 am

    Interesting. I am no expert on wine either, but enjoy a glass from (seldom) time to time. I also remember visiting some of the great American wineries in Napa Valley some years ago. Interesting topic to write a book about.

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:12 pm

      Louise: I’ve never been to Nape Valley, but the book does talk about it quite a bit, as a comparison to wines grown in Missouri and Virginia. It would be fun to travel through the area in the future — it’s beautiful!

    • The Norton Wine Traveler August 31, 2010, 4:48 am

      NAPA is to auto parts as Missouri is to wine [Norton].

  • softdrink August 29, 2010, 10:26 am

    The only wine book I’ve ever read is The Widow Clicquot, which is about champagne, but that’s close, right? It was pretty interesting, I think you’d like it.

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:13 pm

      softdrink: Yeah, I think it’s close. I’ve never heard of that one, but I’m off to look it up 🙂

  • Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) August 29, 2010, 12:13 pm

    Love the name of your wine-tasting group – and especially the fact that nobody can remember what it means. 🙂 Too funny. I’m not very knowledgeable about wine, either. Mostly, it tends to give me a headache (unfortunately) so I don’t tend to drink it often.

    Enjoy your wine-tasting!

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:14 pm

      Melissa: I think someone must have it written down. I learned yesterday the group has been around for three years — Boyfriend and I just joined a few months ago. I get a headache if I drink too much wine or not enough water in between, but if I’m careful it’s fun.

  • Marie August 29, 2010, 3:31 pm

    I am totally wine ignorant. However, it’s still an intriguing subject and I will have to give this book a try. Have fun at the tasting!

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:15 pm

      Marie: I think it takes a long time to get “good” at wine — there are so many options and things to learn about it. But people in the group also say that you’re the best expert of what you like, so try not to be intimidated by it and just jump in.

  • Gwen August 29, 2010, 5:51 pm

    I live in a wine region and my step dad has a degree in viticulture, so I just requested this one from the library. Thanks for the review.

    If you enjoy Chardonnay, give the Tolosa No Oak Chard a try. (or there are a lot of no oaks out there now) I like it because you get the full flavor of the grapes and none of that woodsy notes to overpower them or give it a funky aftertaste.

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:16 pm

      Gwen: So cool, I hope you like it! And thank you for the recommendation — I’ll look for that next time we’re out getting wine to see if we can find it.

  • Lynne August 30, 2010, 8:47 am

    I think it stands for We Are Some Totally Educated Drunks. Hehe…just kidding.

    I like wine, but I don’t know if I would read an entire book about it 🙂

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:17 pm

      Lynne: That actually made me laugh out loud when I read it. I LOVE that acronym 🙂

  • Jenny August 30, 2010, 8:50 am

    I got nothing. I am so ignorant about wine it’s ridiculous–I can just about express a preference for white over red, but that’s it. I never know what wines to drink with what foods, or what the essential difference is between merlots and chardonnays. :p

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:17 pm

      Jenny: I really am to, but I’m learning. I tend to prefer white over red too, at least initially. I think it’s something that takes a long time to learn.

  • Andi August 30, 2010, 10:58 am

    Ha! Love the name of the group, first of all. Wine is something I’ve never really immersed myself in, but it’s something I’d love to know more about.

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:18 pm

      Andi: I feel the same way. I really just drink it with this group, but I’m starting to think I should explore more on my own and be more methodical to try and figure out what I like.

  • Belle August 30, 2010, 5:15 pm

    I definitely enjoy a glass of cabernet sauvignon, and this sounds like very enjoyable narrative nonfiction to go with it!

    • Kim August 30, 2010, 7:19 pm

      Belle: I did wish I was drinking a glass of wine the whole time I read the the book. It would have felt so sophisticated!

  • Sheila (Bookjourney) August 30, 2010, 8:24 pm

    I am not a wine person but I have always been fascinated by it and have wanted to do a tour of a vineyard or some sort of wine tasting some time.

  • The Norton Wine Travelers August 31, 2010, 5:04 am

    You nailed it with your statement: “I love the way wine becomes an example of what it means to be American, a symbol of a country and a culture that I wouldn’t have noticed myself.”

    There are 202 Norton vineyards in 23 states now. As for individual states, Missouri is the top producer with 62 Norton vineyards compared to 30 in Virginia, etc. We have tried almost 90 of these wines so far and would recommend the following vineyard examples by state: White Oaks Vineyards (AL); Three Sister (GA); Century Farms (TN); Elk Creek (KY); Cooper, Castle Gruen (VA); Stone Mountain Cellars (PA), Blumenhof, Heinrichshaus, Stone Hill’s Cross J, Adam Puchta, and Robller (MO). Norton wines should not be compared to California or French wines. Realize this is a dry American wine which is a bit course & rowdy and is an acquired taste for most people. Most Norton wines are not for “drink now”, but need to be tasted early for its tannins and possible “drink later” storage. Older bottles (four-to-six years) will have you singing praises to this grape. Please let your bottle of Norton wine breathe [decant] for 30 minutes or more before enjoying. Your first sip will be harsh (malic acids), followed by a mellowed second sip, etc.

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:06 pm

      Norton Wine Travelers: Thanks so much for all your recommendations! I’ll keep them in mind the next time we buy a bottle of wine. I’m excited to try a Norton after reading this book.

  • Vasilly September 1, 2010, 11:59 am

    I love how you dive deep to learn more about things you’re curious about. I’m not a wine drinker but you’ve made this book sound really interesting. I love how WASTED stands for something but no one remembers what! I hope you had a great time.

    • Kim September 9, 2010, 8:08 pm

      Vasilly: I like the moments when books and life intersect – I’ve been trying to do that a little more lately and this ended up being a really good pick. I think the acronym for WASTED is on the group’s Facebook page, but I’m not sure what it is.

  • Gwen September 17, 2010, 1:11 pm

    Just wanted to stop back by and tell you that I just picked this up from the library! It may be a bit, but I will link to your review when I finish.

    • Kim Ukura September 17, 2010, 3:44 pm

      Gwen: That’s great, I hope you like it!

  • Eva September 17, 2010, 2:07 pm

    So, I don’t actually drink wine that frequently, but I DO have a wine book to recommend! Red, White and Drunk all over, which was soooooo good. Even for a non-wine-person like myself. 😉

    My review if your curious!

    • Kim September 17, 2010, 3:46 pm

      Eva: Thanks for the recommendation – I’ve been curious about wine books lately. The summary of this one sounds like fun.