Reviewed by: David Schildknecht
What could possibly interest World of Fine Wine readers about a very slim wine book styling itself “a genuinely helpful guide to everything you need to know” and manifestly pitched at beginners, replete with colorful, stylized, page-sized graphics? Several things should. When, being perceived as experts, we are inevitably approached by friends, family, or chance acquaintances seeking clear, reliable vinous orientation and bare-bones practical advice, we might like to know that this exceedingly brief, cleverly written guide fits the bill. And it’s worth taking note of any work undertaken by an author with an impressive recent track record for spreading vinous insights and influencing people. A decade-long wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and now for the online journal Punch (a collaborative venture with his publisher, Ten Speed Press), Jon Bonné will soon follow up his Roederer Award-winning 2013 The New California Wine with The New French Wine. Moreover, The New Wine Rules is a title that provocatively implies that it’s time to overhaul or replace rules that some of us are no doubt guilty of having foisted on an innocent public; and it would be worthwhile reading to see whether that shoe fits. Above all, this book merits experts’ attention because its author’s largely perspicuous attempts to supply a framework for wine appreciation often lay bare deep issues.
Bonné’s breezy style (whose colloquialism only occasionally comes off as strained) signals that part of what’s new is his rules’ hip attire. But plenty of received opinions are justifiably challenged and replaced by valuable observations of the sort conspicuously absent from most wine guides. The “rules” of his title—89 of them—include inter alia these salutary admonitions: to adopt the presence or absence of unfamiliar (grower) Champagnes as a touchstone in the critical task of evaluating wine retailers; not to fear sweetness; not to worry about sulfites or tartrates (and why); not to make “the great” and one’s search for it the enemy of the good; to expect bottle variation; to embrace serendipity as the most common source of stimulating wine- and-food pairings; and above all, to “drink the rainbow” of available colors, styles, and places of origin.
Canny, savvy, succinct
From the tools and habits essential for handling and serving wine, to a delineation of the methods available for rendering it sparkling, and from a primer on pricing, to tips on tasting technique, Bonné almost unerringly manages succinct and canny coverage of, as promised, “everything you need to know.” Along the way, he never loses sight of his mission to pique emerging enophiles’ fascination with wine and set them on a course whereby “wine isn’t something you need to learn about in classes or by chasing a pin or a diploma [but rather] something that becomes a part of your life in gradual, almost invisible steps.” Accordingly, what is most conspicuously missing vis-à-vis garden-variety “welcome to the world of wine” tomes is material that Bonné explicitly and convincingly argues isn’t essential for embarking on wine explorations and is anyway readily available elsewhere for consultation en route. There are no lists of recommended growers, no accounts of wine regions and appellations, and not much about how to read a label. Curiously, one label-deciphering topic on which Bonné lingers for two fine-print pages (great length in the context of his book) is arguably far from essential: “rule 33: Know what Grand Cru means—and when it matters.”
Bonné’s rule 4 administers the savvy advice not to be cowed by, let alone spread, the infection of wine jargon, much of it vacuous. But he admits that jargon is often separated from terminology by only “a fine line.” Advice to “use the words most comfortable for you” should have been accompanied by a sympathetic exploration of the awkwardness and difficulty that even many seasoned tasters experience in trying to capture organoleptic experience. And having cautioned against jargon and cliché, Bonné himself very occasionally falls into one or another fashionable linguistic rut. “Terroir” is employed sparingly, but then with its usual vagueness and ambiguity. Bonné seeks to assure readers that “gunflint” is among the improbable things that “yes, many wine people have literally tasted”—but that particular descriptor traces its origins to the pungent smell of flint grazing a musket’s strike plate, not to sucking on a piece of chert. What exactly does he mean that in lieu of fruit descriptors tasters should “consider describing the relative spectrum of flavor (dark fruit, bright fruit)”? It’s debatable whether Bonné makes a convincing case for the nowadays prevalent contention that constitutes his rule 21: “Acidity might be the most important quality in wine.” but that case is not helped by perpetuating the equally prevalent equivocation between “acidity” as a measure of certain compounds in wine at certain concentrations and as an organoleptic impression or taste descriptor. In this instance, Bonné literally contradicts his wise earlier advice “not to conflate chemistry with taste.”
And then there’s “savor.” Bonné doesn’t define that term, but in a schematic meriting some attention from experts he places wine types on axes of dry to sweet and savory to fruity. This makes it apparent that he is treating “savory” as a catch-all for herbal, mineral, spice, and animal descriptors—that is, any that do not reference fruits or berries. It’s worth questioning the orienting of wines relative to a pole defined by fruit flavors and another that is utterly heterogenous. Meanwhile, such broad use of “savor” inevitably courts confusion with this word’s frequent use in an imperfect but understandable attempt to capture flavors that convey umami. Bonné’s principles of organization certainly deserve serious cogitation, especially considering that they reflect the challenges involved in trying to organize wine lists in a manner that consumers will find intelligible and helpful. “Sweet” is hardly the sole descriptor about which it often seems as though a template is provided by the caveat that accompanies reading a US arrestee his or her rights: “Anything you say about it can and will be used against a wine in the court of public opinion.”
Another Bonné schematic that experts will find worth studying places wines on traditional-to-technical and in-or-out-of-fashion axes. Leaving aside some eyebrow-raising positioning of wines along this matrix—what, for instance, possessed Bonné to treat wines of Alsace as less passé than German Riesling, let alone banish the latter to the outer reaches of unfashionability?— it offers readers an opportunity to reflect on the vinous implications of two powerful motivating forces, and perhaps also to ask whether traditional versus technical might represent a false dichotomy. One also wonders whether Bonné considered the potential of such a chart to mislead beginners. On other occasions in the book, he is admirably clear about the extent and importance of viticultural and stylistic divergence. But to locate wines by region, appellation, or grape on his two-dimensional matrix involves running roughshod over those factors. Not only is it hard to understand, let alone sympathize with, placing Sancerre near the outer bound of the technical axis—beyond even New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and inexplicably far beyond Pouilly-Fumé— to do so is to ignore at least as many self-described traditionalists as there are among growers of Chianti, Frascati, or Soave, all of which are positioned deep within “traditional” territory. (Another Bonné chart purports to inform readers when wines of a given region became fashionable, but at least his frequent attention to fashion is tempered by a rule 39: “The best time to buy a wine is when it’s out of style.”)
There are only a few inaccuracies or insufficiencies. Bonné’s account of carbonic maceration is highly misleading. A commonly observed distinction is made between “indigenous” and “commercial” yeasts with the implications that these two categories are mutually exhaustive and that yeast strains involved in fermentation cannot fall into both (as opposed to placing the emphasis where it belongs, on spontaneity versus inoculation and the ambient populations of vineyard versus cellar). Bonné mistakenly implies that German Grosse Gewächse only “recently” assimilated non-Rieslings and that they no longer have to be legally dry. His claim that “organic wine” implies avoiding sulfur dioxide omits the essential qualification that this applies only to US certification and labeling. What, one wonders, is the basis for claiming that instances of cork taint have dropped from 7 percent to “1 percent or less”? In explaining the usually distinct roles of importer and distributor, Bonné fails to mention that small, hands-on indie wine agents of precisely the sort he repeatedly and rightly recommends are often not the importers of record whose names appear on labels of the wines that they select. That omission is especially odd for an author who lives in New york City, nowadays a hothouse for start-ups devoted to ferreting out distinctly delicious bottlings from small, formerly obscure European growers, most of which are then officially imported by one of just two or three large firms that specialize in clearance and logistics. And wine mavens of a certain age might take exception to a claim that “[T]he 1980s were a time when wine was something mysterious that needed decoding [...] an era of simplistic slogans and choices.” wherever it was that Bonné spent what would have been his teenage years, one can rule out the Washington, DC, wine market (proving ground for a host of subsequently influential importers and wine writers), the emerging Willamette Valley, or the self-redefining Côte d’Or of these allegedly dark Ages.
Of greater concern are a couple of instances in which Bonné appears to offer his readers contradictory advice. Under “rule 29: The old ways to judge a wine label don’t really work anymore,” Bonné calls attention to the increasing prevalence of refuseniks among the most talented “Old world” growers (“in France alone ... hundreds”), whose wine labels in consequence not only eschew “boring old particulars” but confine geographical information to their country of origin. He fails to mention that an at least equal number of the most talented and innovative growers have this anonymity forced on them by the authorities, on often spurious charges of “atypicity.” yet, on the next page, rule 30 reads, “be wary of wines that aren’t clear about exactly where they come from.” And Bonné’s coverage of classification and labeling is inadequate for following his advice to favor specificity, given a world abounding in overlapping as well as nested appellations and in which the likes of Grosslagen and suggestively geographic brand names lurk. Under “rule 61: drink your wine young,” Bonné characterizes “presumptively simple wines [like] good cru Beaujolais [...] that are more interesting with age” as “exceptions.” yet he commences his discussion of rule 62 with the observation that “most top-quality wines today should be able to improve and gain complexity for at least eight or ten years.” but the above reservations pale in comparison with what makes The New Wine Rules so commendable.