August 24, 2010

Rabid Reads: "The Wild Vine" by Todd Kliman

Title: The Wild Vine (A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine)
Author: Todd Kliman
Published: Clarkson Potter/Publishers (2010), imprint of Crown Publishing, division of Random House
Pages: 280
Category/Genre: Nonfiction; Wine History
ISBN 978-0-307-40936-2

Here's something new I learned from reading this book: In winemaking, being described as "foxy" is not a compliment. If a wine is foxy, that basically means it smells and tastes like piss. One more reason to not drink wine, perhaps.

I'm not a wine drinker. The stuff gives me a headache if I have more than a glass or two. And even if it didn't, my tastebuds are illiterate to what makes a good wine. I've been given allegedly good wine that tasted as foxy as the cheap stuff my classmates used to guzzle on the weekends back in the day.

So, when I was contacted about reading and reviewing The Wild Vine, my initial reaction was to question how dull reading about wine would be compared to drinking it. Then I checked out the little write-up for the book on Amazon and saw it provided a kind of historical retrospective on a particular grape called the Norman that was supposed to be America's key into competing with Europe's finest wines. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but this one sounded like there was potential to hold my attention better than most titles. I'm still not won over into the ranks of wine connoisseurs, but I have a new appreciation for the dedication and hardships of winemakers.

As America was still becoming a nation, land owners were looking for a way to exploit the fertile land and grow their own grapes for winemaking. Too bad for them, as the climate killed European grapes at every turn and the native varieties of grapes were of piss-poor quality for anything beyond vinegar--or maybe paint thinner if they'd thought to invent it. Enter Dr. Daniel Norton. The guy drove himself half-mad trying to cultivate a grape that could withstand the climate, disease, and be made into a marketable wine. The guy's exploits in not only trying to grow the grapes, but convincing others that he wasn't insane and recognize his efforts as something to be supported, are a remarkable story told deftly by Todd Kliman.

Kliman also includes some present-day interactions with a winemaker from Virginia named Jenni McCloud, who is a character all her own in this book's pages. She doesn't occupy a lot of the book, but she's a treat when she does.

If you're a foodie, a history nut, or a wine lover, I think you'd be doing yourself a favor by checking out this book. If you're a curious kitten, like me, looking to trying a book that is well outside your comfort zone, this one is worth at least considering. Kliman's writing avoids coming off as academic or listless like other nonfiction titles I've sampled over the years. It's condensed with a lot of information, but much of it comes off as conversational, which is a real help when pouring through its pages.

I'll stick with beer, though.


  1. Sounds like a good book to take on vacation for me. Something different, like that guy who wrote Salt and Cod.

  2. That reminds me. There's a historical nonfiction about the history of sugar out I wouldn't mind checking out sometime. I think it's called Bittersweet.