Book Review: “Riesling Renaissance” by Freddy Price

“Coffee’s for closers only.” Anyone who has seen 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” might recall this line from the film’s first act, when Alec Baldwin delivers one of my all-time favorite movie monologues. The scene marks Baldwin’s only appearance in the film — a scant seven minutes — but his abusive tirade establishes the movie’s tone, and it sets up the second act perfectly. In “Glengarry,” Baldwin plays the character of Blake, an über-alpha real estate salesman, and a role that was written specifically for Baldwin by playwright David Mamet (as great as it is, Baldwin’s “Glengarry” monologue was not part of Mamet’s original 1983 stage play). During his brilliant rant, Baldwin espouses the acronym “ABC” — short for “Always be closing” — a hard-boiled sales mantra that he imparts to an ensemble of A-listers, including Jack Lemon, Ed Harris, and Alan Arkin (with Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey rounding out the cast, just for good measure). As someone who’s seen “Glengarry” dozens of times over, I’m always reminded of Baldwin’s monologue whenever I hear someone use the acronym “ABC” within the context of wine.

For folks like me, those who are devoted to drinking and exploring Napa wine, “ABC” usually means “Anything but Chardonnay.” This quippy, yet dismissive critique of Napa’s most prominent white wine may seem surprising to some, especially since Chardonnay still enjoys both pedigree and popularity the world over. However, the “ABC” philosophy does have some merit in regard to local wine. On one hand, the Chardonnay alternatives are few and far between here in the valley; for most Napa wineries, Sauvignon Blanc represents the only other local option for white wine (Chardonnay accounts for almost two-thirds of Napa’s total white wine production, while Sauvignon Blanc accounts for about one-fourth). But for the “ABC” camp, it’s not so much the fact that Chardonnay dominates the white wine landscape — it’s more the idea that California Chardonnay, despite its overall popularity, simply lost its taste appeal to many wine drinkers.

The local backlash against California Chardonnay began to build in the late 1990s, following an era when many local producers used to treat Chardonnay with a heavy regimen of new oak, coupled with heavy malolactic fermentation (often referred to simply as “malocatic” — or even “ML” — this secondary “fermentation” is actually bacteria-based, and isn’t a true yeast-based fermentation). With Chardonnay, heavy oak plus full ML typically results in the oaky-buttery style that many folks still enjoy (Rombauer Vineyards is the poster-child for this particular approach, and Rombauer will probably always bear the oaky-buttery torch). In the 1980s, this heavy-handed style became the vogue for many (perhaps most) Napa Valley winemakers, and the result was that Chardonnay eventually began to taste less and less like the grape, and more and more like the process. Taste, of course, remains subjective, and inherently, this particular style of winemaking wouldn’t necessarily present an issue, except that it began to make lots of Napa Chardonnays all taste the same.

Indeed, Chardonnay is widely known as “the winemaker’s grape,” a canvass that can lend itself to plenty of tweaking and manipulating in the cellar. As author Freddy Price acknowledges in his brief introduction of “Reisling Renaisance,” the Riesling grape is the complete opposite of Chardonnay. Classically, Riesling is rarely aged in oak barrels and the use of ML is non-existent. As Price also points out in his introduction, Riesling expresses its terroir more clearly than any other wine. Terroir, or what I would colloquially call” the taste of place,” is the notion that no grapevine grows within a vacuum. For better or worse, nature’s elements are bound to have an influence on the vine, and farming techniques are also bound to play a role in a grape’s flavor development. For serious wine drinkers, this idea of terroir is what allows experts to identify a wine’s origin simply by its taste, smell and appearance.

“Reisling Renaissance” is invaluable for anyone who wishes to gain a deeper insight into the world’s Riesling production. Price has spent more than 50 years pursuing his passion for the grape, and his knowledge of Riesling certainly shines. The book is divided into regional chapters, leading off with the most important, Germany, and then delving into sections on France, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. “Riesling Renaissance” features great maps, concise and insightful histories, and lists of the top Riesling producers for each wine-growing region. Unfortunately, here in the Napa Valley, Riesling is all but absent, even though the grape was extremely popular before Prohibition, and also during the 1960s and 1970s (today, Riesling accounts for a little more than 1% of Napa’s total white wine production). To be fair, however, Napa is generally too warm to grow world-class Riesling on a large scale (Washington State has since become the domestic leader in Riesling production).

“ABC” has become a tough bet for Californians who wish to drink locally, but a few wineries have continued to produce Riesling with some success. Among the California wineries in consideration, Price highlights Bonny Doon, Greenwood Ridge, Navarro Vineyards, Smith-Madrone and Trefethen. Although it is noteworthy to point out that Bonny Doon sources its juice from Washington State and Germany’s Mosel, the other four wineries do grow and produce a true California Riesling. Trefethen and Smith-Madrone are the only Napa representatives on the list, although personally, I would also add Stony Hill Vineyards, since they’ve been producing an admirable dry Riesling in Napa Valley for more than 50 years now.

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