Cross-posted at Three Quarks Daily.
It’s the holiday season and time to think about presents for the budding wine lover in your life. Of course, any season is the right time to think about that. You should always support your local wine lover. One place to begin is this compelling book by long-time food critic Jon Palmer Claridge entitled Drink More Wine! A Simple Guide to Peak Experiences Now. Most books on wine are meant to inform. This book is no exception, but it is also meant to inspire. It performs both tasks admirably and raises a philosophical issue to ponder as well.
Claridge delivers essential information about varietals and wine regions in easily digestible, bit-sized morsels along with helpful advice on topics such as how to read a wine label, wine and food pairings, setting up wine tastings, storing and serving wines. He covers just enough grape varietals and regions to pique the interest of people new to wine without weighing things down with too much information. (There are, thankfully, no dissertations on soil types or yeast strains.) He manages an authoritative voice without sounding like a snob and most of this information is disseminated via charming, personal vignettes from his extensive travel and entertainment experiences. Most helpful are his recommendations for wines that are affordable and available at even modestly well-stocked wine stores thus avoiding the common complaint that wine writers focus on wines that ordinary consumers can’t find. His advice about buying budget wine in the supermarket is particularly helpful. (Tip: Beware the bait and switch. Stores will use high scores from one superior vintage to sell that wine from a different vintage).
Wine enthusiasts with a passing knowledge of wine regions and varietals will not be surprised by most of this information. But for people just getting into wine or thinking about getting into wine, this book provides, not only the information they need to begin to sort out the complex world of wine, but also the inspiration to continue to improve their wine knowledge. His advice about how to taste wine and improve one’s palate scrupulously avoids jargon and gently guides the reader toward thoughtfully paying attention to what you taste—because the message Claridge consistently articulates is that you will enjoy wine more the more knowledge you gain.
“As these steps become habit, each new glass becomes a playground. Or even better, a puzzle with multiple solutions. The harder you play, the greater the rewards”.
This persistent message that knowledge and thoughtful attention is essential to getting the most out of wine distinguishes his approach from many other wine books on the market. Despite the promise to “demystify” wine and make it accessible to newcomers, he never suggests that wine is easy, purely subjective so “drink what you like”, or lacking in important quality distinctions. In fact, he is clear that the pursuit of peak experiences in the realm of food and wine is an extremely rewarding but, nevertheless, life-long pursuit.
Which brings me to the inspirational part of the book. The insistence of the subtitle is no offhandedly proffered click bait. The promise of the book is not merely the enjoyment of wine as an everyday experience but the enjoyment of wine and food as a peak experience. The book is liberally peppered with enthusiastic stories about memorable meetings with legendary winemakers and visits to Michelin three-starred temples of gastronomy, the latter of which are described in excruciating detail, as if the reader could enjoy a peak experience of food by reading about it. This almost works. Claridge faces the dilemma all food writers face. We lack a vocabulary for describing taste and flavor. Thus, his accounts of gastronomic bliss consist of detailed lists of ingredients appended by superlatives. One dish is “swoon-worthy”, another is “divinely sigh-inducing”, another a revelation. Certain wine pairings are “mind-blowing”. The choreography, coordination and attention to detail of the extraordinary service at Michelin-worthy restaurants always gets a mention. In short, Claridge enjoys being pampered and beguiled and thinks you should too. As much as this sounds a bit excessive, it does inspire. His enthusiasm is so rich and all-encompassing that if you aren’t motivated to start googling “Michelin restaurants near me” by the time you finish the book, you may lack the gene for peak experience.
Along the way we get a peak experience travel itinerary supported by light-handed advice about places to stay and things to do. An endearing account of a trip down the Danube is especially alluring. Although his passion for creative, meticulously prepared tasting menus is in the foreground, he devotes some attention to seeking out local food traditions if they are one-of-a-kind experiences—such as the lost art of the spice cake gâteau à la broche kept alive in the small hamlet of Sia in the Hautes-Pyrénées of Southwestern France. He also gives a shout out to several adventurous chefs who lack Michelin stars but showcase Michelin chops. As he rightly points out, you can find peak experiences in almost every locale if you know where to look. Which brings me to another reason to like this book. He devotes considerable attention to up and coming wine regions as travel destinations including Long Island’s North Fork, Texas Hill Country, Virginia, and the Finger Lakes in the United States, as well as South Africa, UK, Greece, Mexico, and Canada. Many of the world’s storied wine regions have become pricey and crowded. Some of the best wine and food adventures can be had in these lesser known regions where they are very serious about their wines and all-in on attracting the global tourist trade.
If jetting to far-flung food and wine destinations is not on your agenda, peak experiences can be found at home as well. His discussions of home entertaining include much well-informed attention to wine and food pairing, again using wines that are readily available. He provides suggestions for each varietal, as well as pairings to avoid. This includes some surprising pairings. I’m looking forward to trying a Gewurztraminer with raw tomatoes, a pairing which has never occurred to me. If you’re a creative home cook and enjoy pairing your dishes with wine, his discussion of how to add bridge flavors to your food to improve the match is especially useful. (Tip: Add dried cherries, mushrooms or white truffle oil to a dish to make it sing with Pinot Noir.) He thankfully dispenses with the outdated advice to serve only white wine with fish and red wine with meat.
He even gives advice on how to throw a food-theatrical dinner party for those so inclined. (Tip: Use as many plates, glasses, and as much silverware as possible.) If you’re really ambitious he includes a complete turducken recipe. (For the uninitiated, that is a deboned duck inside a deboned chicken inside a roast turkey.) The message? Peak experiences require lots of work.
Here is the philosophical issue. What is the secret sauce for achieving peak experience now? On one uncharitable reading of the book the secret is cheap wine and expensive meals. There is tension between his zeal to persuade prospective wine enthusiasts to seize the day and drink what is affordably available and his zeal to persuade everyone that the road to joyful ecstasy runs through the world’s temples of gastronomy such as Noma or Arzak. This equation doesn’t quite compute. The problem is that a peak experience is by definition out of the ordinary—only pleasures rare, exciting and deeply moving count. The idea that you can have one by slugging (or even reverently sipping) a bottle of supermarket plonk is silly. So I think that is not what he is arguing. Instead, the takeaway message is that any journey toward peak experience must start somewhere. That “somewhere” can be anywhere you are—including the aisle at your local grocery store. But that is only the beginning. The rare, exciting, and deeply moving will not come cheaply or without effort but it is worth it. The trick is to begin NOW and allow an openness to experience to carry you along enabling the best the world has to offer to draw you in.
Alas, his epilogue “My Bout With Gout” shows the limits of that ardor.
If you read this book and follow his advice, you won’t become a wine expert overnight, but you will become a wine and food lover and who wouldn’t choose love over expertise?