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American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story
By Tom Acitelli
Chicago Review Press
For those who don't know, instead of doing one or two New Year's "resolutions" at the beginning of each year, I actually chart out an entire new year-long "plan" for myself, containing 40 to 50 new things I want to try or old habits to break, which is why it seems sometimes that I'm constantly referencing an endless list of them here at the blog as the year continues. One of these items in 2016 was to finally teach myself more about wine, not to a sommelier level or anything, but just enough so I no longer embarrass myself at restaurants; and so that's had me not only doing professional-style tasting notes of the world's twenty most popular types of grapes at my pop-culture blog all year, and renting out every single movie Netflix even carries on the subject, but also checking out a lot of wine books from my local library, especially brand-new ones which the Chicago Public Library system seems to be acquiring at a faster-than-usual rate these days.
American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story is the absolute latest, an informative and fact-based look at how the US went from producing zero public wine at all during Prohibition, to becoming the world's leader in both production and consumption by 2000, a scant 70 years later. The answer, it turns out, is a long and fascinating one, and also nicely serves as a mirror for the entire Postmodernist Era to begin with: from the post-war Europhiles of the 1950s who dreamed of a day that Americans would have the casual yet sophisticated relationship to wine that they saw in France and Italy while overseas; to the daring California hippies of the 1960s and '70s who aimed for the so-called "impossible" goal of making wine just as good as the French (SPOILER ALERT: it's not impossible); to the yuppies of the '80s who made the American wine industry both mainstream and lucrative; to the Gen-X foodies of the '90s and '00s who brought a whole new level of refinement to the market, as well as embracing wines from such interesting new places like Seattle and Portland; to the Millennials of our own times, comfortable with the casual screw-tops and hipster labels of 21st-century fine wine, even as they present a challenge to the American market because of their embrace of the so-called "New World" wines of Australia, South Africa, South America and more.
Tom Acitelli presents this entire 70-year history in an engaging, anecdote-filled way here, an informative yet fun-to-read manuscript filled with the kinds of details and deep backstory that makes the history finally understandable. (Just for one example, many of us already know about the 1976 so-called "Judgment of Paris," in which a bunch of American wines beat a bunch of French wines in a blind tasting and became a major global turning point for the industry; but Acitelli devotes an entire chapter to who the guy was who set up the tasting and why that's so important, how it got covered by the media and why it made that particular tasting so influential, etc.) The whole book is like this, a parade of famous and infamous figures combined with a detail-oriented look at the winemaking process, how the historical selection of grapes by these wineries (as well as the technological innovations of the Mid-Century Modernist years) influenced this process, and how the popular culture going on around these winemakers shaped and influenced this history. (It's impossible to understand the rise of American wine, for example, without understanding the rise of the macrame-making, yoga-posing, James-Taylor-listening middle-class hippies of the 1970s, and Acitelli devotes a lot of his page count simply to looking at what the Americans with discretionary income were doing with their time in each era to influence the wine market in those years.) Easily one of the best books on the subject I've read this year, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story is a lively and wide-reaching account of a subject that's often hard to pin down, and it comes strongly recommended whether or not you're particularly into wine yourself.
Out of 10: 9.6