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A Vineyard in My Glass

Gerald Asher
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    A Vineyard in My Glass
    Book Description:

    Gerald Asher, who served asGourmet's wine editor for thirty years, has drawn together this selection of his essays, published in Gourmet and elsewhere, for the collective insight they give into why a wine should always be an expression of a place and a time. Guiding the reader through twenty-seven diverse wine regions in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and California, he shows how every wine worth drinking is a reflection of itsterroir-in the broadest sense of that untranslatable word. In evocative reminiscences of wines, winemakers, and the meals he has had with them, he weaves together climate, terrain, and local history, sharing his knowledge and experience so skillfully that we learn as we are entertained and come to understand, gradually, that the meaning and pleasure of a wine lie always in the context of its origin and in the concurrence of where, how, and with whom we enjoy it.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94972-0
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
    (pp. 1-4)
    Gerald Asher

    Like many others, I drifted into the wine trade. A part-time job in a wine shop led to a full-time one with a small distributor. That set the stage for serious employment with a major London wine importer. Thanks to the firm’s standing, I was able to attend the weekly lectures and tastings conducted by trade luminaries in the paneled hall of the Vintners’ Company, one of London’s medieval livery companies. There, along with my peers from other import houses, I was taught the basics of wine.

    Since then, formal wine trade education in England has evolved, starting with diploma...


    • FRONSAC: Chalk and Clay, Legs and Thighs
      (pp. 7-14)

      In the 1960s I used to buy wine for the British market directly from growers on what was then known as the Côtes de Fronsac, one of many small, often overlooked wine regions that complete the viticultural patchwork of Bordeaux. Its two- or three-thousand acres of vines are at the eastern end of still largely neglected territory separated from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion on one side by the river Isle, a tributary of the Dordogne, and from the Côtes de Bourg, the prolific source of Bordeaux’s workaday wines lying to the northwest, by the old Bordeaux-Paris highway.

      It is possible to...

    • VOUVRAY: Tufa and Temperate Summers
      (pp. 15-20)

      Vouvray, a cluster of houses by the Loire, a few miles east of Tours, would be unremarkable were it not for the wine that bears its name. Centuries ago Rabelais described that wine as tasting of taffeta, and it remains one of the most appealing in the world. When it is young, its fresh bite brings zest to a soft, natural sweetness, like the crisp taste of a newly picked apple; when it is well aged, and especially when it is made in a year when the grapes had been left to hang late into November, its bouquet and flavor...

    • CÔTE CHALONNAISE: Limestone Delicacy
      (pp. 21-33)

      When the revolutionary government did away with France’s former provinces in 1791, dividing the country into administrative departments instead, the Côte Chalonnaise was severed from Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune, with which until then it had always been associated. The Côte de Beaune remained part of the Côte d’Or; the Côte Chalonnaise found itself next door in the Saône-et-Loire.

      Roughly fifteen miles long and five miles wide, the Côte Chalonnaise lies between the Côte d’Or (the strip of high-priced vineyards that runs through Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, and Meursault) and the Mâconnais. Attached formally to neither, however, the Côte Chalonnaise...

    • WHITE WINES OF THE SOUTHERN RHÔNE: A Fresh Look at Old Varieties
      (pp. 34-45)

      Nosing around the cellars in the southern Rhône Valley four or five years ago to check on reports of a particularly successful vintage, I was surprised to find almost every grower at pains to suggest a taste of his white wine—“just as a rinse”—before his red. It was an unusual way for growers there to carry on: Producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages know their strong suit to be red wine, their whites having been dismissed, justly or not, as shapeless—the sort of wines, most of them at any rate, that were old before they were ever...

    • MUSCADET: Ocean Breezes and Estuary Sands
      (pp. 46-55)

      In the 1960s I spent my time as a wine importer shuttling by car between England and France. The quickest route was the air ferry connecting what had been a Battle of Britain airstrip in the Kent marshes to the beach resort of Le Touquet on the other side of the Channel. The flight, in a transport plane just large enough to hold three cars, took fifteen minutes. If I left London after breakfast, I could be touching down at Le Touquet by midday, the perfect time for a bowl of mussels steamed in white wine and a glass of...

    • SAINT-EMILION: A Jumble of Soils
      (pp. 56-65)

      The Médoc and its classed growths are so overwhelmingly the focus of every review I see of Bordeaux wines that I sometimes wonder if Saint-Emilion, thirty miles away on the Dordogne, is perceived as only auxiliary territory. It’s odd, because Saint-Emilion has a greater diversity of style among its red wines than any other region of Bordeaux.

      More than a thousand years before the first vine was planted in the Médoc, vineyards existed in Saint-Emilion, and they seem to have been successful from the start. Ausonius, the fourth-century Roman administrator and academician, produced wines from a Saint-Emilion vineyard he acquired...

    • CHABLIS: A French Classic from Ancient Seashells
      (pp. 66-76)

      It always struck me as odd that any winemaker in California who wanted to distance himself from the over-ripe and over-oaked Chardonnays popular in the 1980s would say that he preferred to make his wine in the style of a white Mâcon. Even the best of Mâcon is simple, and, though I probably drink more of it than any other white wine—in France it’s my dailyordinaire—I would hardly suggest it as a model for an ambitious winemaker. But I suppose the more obvious comparison with Chablis—an elegant wine with snap and sinew—would have raised the...

    • THE OTHER MÉDOC: Vines and Windmills
      (pp. 77-85)

      In the early 1950s, when I began a career in wine by selling it for a couple of hours every evening across the counter of a shop off London’s Curzon Street, three red wines outsold all others. They were Beaujolais, Chilean red, and Médoc. The Médoc, which sold at the time for the sterling equivalent of about $1.50 a bottle, was the most expensive of the three. It was also the most popular.

      The Médoc is the triangular peninsula north of Bordeaux between the Atlantic and the Gironde estuary; but even then I knew that from a viticultural point of...

    • CORTON: Burgundy’s Magic Mountain
      (pp. 86-93)

      When we choose a wine in a hurry, we sometimes do little more than pick a name from the list. “That’ll do.” Yet at times the right choice is so obvious there’s no point in hesitating. One evening last year, at dinner with friends in a restaurant where we were snug and safe from a pounding rainstorm, I instinctively turned to the comfort of red Burgundy, barely pausing before I asked for the 1989grand cruCorton-Bressandes from Chandon de Briailles. Corton is called a magic mountain and Les Bressandes is, as Burgundians say, aclimaton its prime east...

    • ROUSSILLON: Sunlight in a Bottle
      (pp. 94-101)

      We don’t huddle around a fire at the back of the cave anymore, but at the winter solstice we still feel the need for warmth and light—Christmas-tree candles, Hanukkah lamps, Caribbean cruises—to remind us that the sun is still out there somewhere. I’m apt to think of Roussillon, on record as the sunniest corner of France, tucked away by the Spanish border, between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. Date palms flourish among its fig and orange trees; vines are rampant; the light is dazzling; and colors can be radiant. Those of old Collioure, Roussillon’s picture-postcard fishing port, were...

    • SANCERRE AND POUILLY-FUMÉ: Terres Blanches, Caillottes, and Silex
      (pp. 102-106)

      There are words in the wine lexicon I’ve learned to discount: the “steeliness” of Chablis, the “spiciness” of Zinfandel, and the “complexity” of just about everything. The writers of back labels know which buttons to push. “Sweaty saddle” is now an almost obligatory flourish in tasting accounts of Hunter Valley Shiraz; “gamy” lurks in descriptions of mature Burgundy; and “chocolate” is attaching itself to Cabernet Sauvignon of every style and quality. Once accepted into the canon, expressions like these revalidate themselves perpetually, always there for anyone at a loss for words, sometimes apt and always reassuring.

      In my earliest days...

    • CHAMPAGNE: Location, Location, Location
      (pp. 107-113)

      There was once a time when Champagne drinkers paid more attention to where the grapes were grown than to the name of the producer. They knew how to choose between a well-rounded Ambonnay, say, and a graceful Avize, much as Burgundy fanciers today consider the rival merits of a Gevrey-Chambertin’s gravitas and the surface charm of a Volnay.

      But that was long ago. Change began in the seventeenth century, when Dom Pérignon, a monk at Hautvillers in the valley of the Marne, found he could crush a grape against the roof of his mouth, say where it had been grown,...

    • CHÂTEAU MONTROSE: The Essential Saint-Estèphe
      (pp. 114-122)

      A vertical tasting of just about every major vintage of Château Montrose back to the 1880s—38 wines in all—is a prospect that would thrill (and possibly daunt) even the most jaded among us. In the event, the wines—arranged in three flights at a lunch at Taillevent in Paris in September 2005, followed by a further three flights at a dinner the same evening—were received with unflagging enthusiasm, occasional surprise, and considerable pleasure by roughly twenty-five of us (“roughly” because the guest list varied slightly from lunch to dinner) drawn from all over Europe, America, and Asia....


    • SOAVE: Old Lava and New Politics
      (pp. 125-135)

      Though it had been relegated, not so long before, to corners reserved for straw-covered flasks and dusty bottles of retsina, Soave became, in the 1970s, one of the most popular white wines in the United States. Restaurants of all kinds offered it by the glass as their house wine, and it was stacked prominently in two-liter jugs in markets and stores. To some extent, of course, Soave’s success sprang from its low price and from Americans’ readiness in that decade to try whatever was different or new. But the demand for Soave was above all the first obvious result of...

    • SAAR AND RUWER: Riesling, Slate, and Long Summer Days
      (pp. 136-144)

      I am sometimes asked—who isn’t?—to name my favorite wine. Or I’m asked which wine I would choose to have on a desert island if I could have only one. Impossible questions to answer. One can get bored even with perfection; and, in any case, if I were marooned on an island I’d have more to be depressed about than having chosen the wrong wine.

      Yet there are times when I am so happy with a wine, when I find such pleasure in it, that I ask myself why I would want to drink any other. (The answer is...

    • BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO: Elegance from an Untamed Land
      (pp. 145-154)

      When the 1990 Brunello di Montalcino wines arrived in the United States last year (Italian law requires that producers of Brunello age their wines for a minimum of four years before releasing them), it was obvious that the vintage was a success. In 1996 we shall see the arrival of the 1990 Riservas (the same law requires that Riservas be aged for five years), among them several of the best wines produced in Montalcino for some time. We must wait until the 1995 Riservas are released in 2001 to see their like again—assuming that vintage fulfills its promise.


    • RÍAS BAIXAS–ALBARIÑO: A Fragrant Wine of the Sea
      (pp. 155-162)

      Has a totally unfamiliar white wine ever given us such a jolt? Such pleasure? Albariño from Rías Baixas, in northwest Spain, is still no more than an eddy in a puddle compared to the ocean of Chardonnay we consume every year. But in the United States, sales of this seductively aromatic wine have bounded from just two thousand cases in 1992 to twenty-two thousand in 1998. If production could have supported it, sales would have risen even faster.

      In Spain, the wines from this small corner of the province of Galicia have won praise on all sides—they are now...

    • VEGA SICILIA: A Legend at High Altitude
      (pp. 163-170)

      Vega Sicilia is a wine apart. For almost a century, its reputation has bordered on the mythical. I’ve shared a bottle of it no more than three or four times in as many decades. So the prospect of tasting, over the course of a weekend in Los Angeles, twenty-two vintages from this Spanish estate, considered by many to have no peer, was both daunting and exhilarating. On a Friday evening, seventy of us sat down to dinner at Spago, where the high point was a sumptuous 1976. The next day at lunch at Valentino, the power and elegance of the...


    • DRY CREEK VALLEY: An Easy Grace
      (pp. 173-183)

      It takes months to get settled in a new city, to find the right butcher, track down a fishmonger, learn to buy produce here but cheese there, and discover not necessarily the best of everything but the kind and quality of food and drink to suit one’s own taste. When I moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, I was obliged, even as a wine merchant, to think about wine, too. It was to be a year at least before the new company I had come to manage would have its own wines available for sale. The choice was...

    • CLARKSBURG: The Right Grape in the Right Place
      (pp. 184-192)

      Controversy over geographic descriptions of American wines ended in the early eighties with the designation of viticultural areas. They were to supplement, not replace, the names of states—California, Washington, New York—and counties—Napa, Sonoma, Monterey—that had until then been used to identify a wine’s origin. Growers and consumers alike expected that these new areas—each defined by terrain and weather rather than by an administrative line irrelevant to growing grapes—would help sharpen distinctions of style, quality, or both among American wines and make choosing a wine easier and more interesting.

      Wine regions independent of county borders...

    • CARNEROS: Wind, Fog, and Hardpan
      (pp. 193-205)

      Carneros (orTheCarneros; no one ever seems quite sure) takes its name from the Rancho el Rincón de los Carneros—the rams’ patch—one of three Mexican land grants that together once covered nearly sixty square miles of the low hills north of California’s San Pablo Bay. Originally open pasture, the hills and meadows by the 1850s were being systematically sown for hay that was harvested, baled, and shipped—in flat-bottomed boats that could navigate the creeks—as fodder for San Francisco’s horses.

      Much of Carneros is still grazing land, but in 1983 it was declared by law a...

    • SANTA BARBARA COUNTY: A Geological Quirk
      (pp. 206-215)

      Earlier this year, after a relay of tastings spread over several days, a 1989 wine from Byron Vineyard & Winery in Santa Barbara County was selected as Best American Chardonnay from a field of 350 samples from wineries that included the most prestigious of California. Ken Brown, one of the founding partners of Byron in the early eighties, has been winning medals of one kind or another for his Chardonnay, grown in the Santa Maria Valley, since the winery’s first vintage, in 1984. It does not diminish Brown’s achievement to say that most of his Santa Barbara colleagues have been doing...

    • EDNA VALLEY: Marine Sediment and Volcanic Debris
      (pp. 216-225)

      This past winter’s rain ended six years of drought and left California looking like a child’s picture-book image of spring. Between vines, under fruit trees, and across hillsides that had been barren only weeks before, California poppies, flowering mustard, and lupine splashed orange, yellow, and blue on the bright green of new grass. At the end of a drive south from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo—about 230 miles, much of it along the Salinas Valley, where crews were already bringing in the first spring crops—I was so entranced by the transformation that I overshot my freeway exit...

    • LODI: Where the Pacific Meets the Sierra Nevada
      (pp. 226-234)

      We are drinking more California Merlot in the United States. More California Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon as well. And, of course, more Chardonnay. After several years in the doldrums, sales of all California wines, in fact, are moving ahead again even though the grape crop in some parts of the state has fallen because of the replanting made necessary by the ravages of phylloxera. Rising demand and a restricted supply usually mean scarcity and higher prices, and some wineries are indeed allocating their most popular wines to distributors to be sure that all markets have a share. Yet,...

    • MOUNT VEEDER: Vines among the Redwoods
      (pp. 235-243)

      A corner of my wine cellar that is especially awkward to reach is reserved for bottles that can be forgotten for a while. I rummage there from time to time and, on occasion, surprise myself. Last Christmas I found some 1971 Château Doisy-Védrines, a Sauternes that I must have put there twenty years ago. It was delicious. And in the spring I came across a bottle of Mount Veeder Winery’s 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon. In the late 1970s, when the superfluous tannins in many California Cabernet Sauvignons were a matter of controversy, Mount Veeder Winery was managing to get it right...

    • ANDERSON VALLEY: Gravel and Cobblestones in Arcadia
      (pp. 244-251)

      Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards told me over dinner a year or two ago that it’s now easier to find designer silk sheets in Napa Valley’s St. Helena than an ordinary box of nails. But on a recent trip to Burgundy, Grace was astonished to discover that Vosne-Romanée, a wine village known the world over, is as down-home as any other. There’s the butcher, the baker, and the hardware store, and not a designer label in sight. Grace need not have traveled all the way to France: Northwest of St. Helena, in California’s Mendocino County, Anderson Valley is now...

    • RUTHERFORD: The Heart of Napa Valley
      (pp. 252-260)

      Someone with a sense of irony had decided to hold the first major press tasting of Rutherford’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons on Bastille Day. And at Rubicon Estate, no less. We sat expectantly at a long table in one of the winery’s reception rooms, the first flight of a dozen wines in a semicircle of glasses in front of each of us.

      Peter Granoff, wine director of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants in San Francisco, gave us a brief introduction, telling us to expect the wines to mark a clear shift away from recent excesses in Cabernet Sauvignon, back toward balance and...

  7. INDEX
    (pp. 261-279)
  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 280-280)