The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vinters, Vineyards, and Vintages
Paul Lukacs’ stories of American winemaking embody a DIY drive. In The Great Wines of America the Baltimore-based author of 2000’s award-winning American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine offers the stories of 40 New World wines and their makers’ tenacious quests to cultivate their and their wines’ identities. He puts forth his selected sites as having established greatness by not only standing up for at least 10 years under a magnifying glass—glass after glass—but also by heralding a specific varietal or vintner’s progression. And he does so in readable vignettes of bottled-up rebellion identifiable and laudable by wine connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike.
Do understand that this isn’t Sideways’ wine humanized by characters in search of pathos. Lukacs explores wine ritualized in terms of ethos. For these 40 vintners, wine isn’t something that helps defuse and diffuse their lives and work, it is their lives’ work. For example, the “Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve” chapter gives context to a name well known to those who scan the wine aisle. Here Mondavi is shown before marketing and mergers as an idiosyncratic man who helped American wine, and California’s Napa Valley specifically, recover from the emaciating legacy of Prohibition, a process only begun in the late 1960s and critically recognized with Steven Spurrier’s 1976 Paris wine tasting, where top honors were bestowed on Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, described elsewhere in the book.
Lukacs also explores how vineyard-specific nurturing can create a benchmark (“Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello”) or a dedication to a specific grape can shepherd its reputation from cult to chic ( “Turley Wine Cellars Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard”). And while California does take up about 70 percent of the book, Lukacs also celebrates those who have increased the profile of other areas, from Oregon (all hail Pinot Noir) to Missouri (the truly native Norton grape) to Virginia (Francophiles rejoice for Rhône’s Viognier) to Long Island (an accomplished Merlot), among others.
Great Wines succeeds for readers immersed in any level of wine worship because Lukacs skirts reviewer jargon and neither front-loads the book with concepts for newbies nor assumes too much is common knowledge for the cognoscenti. In each chapter Lukacs clearly details the crux that must be overcome through either old-world means of fostering a place or new-world means of fostering a process. In the best examples is a marriage of the two, a story of a rugged mentality and physicality that befits the American winemaking model.