Book Review: “The Botanist and the Vintner” by Christy Campbell

botanistvintnerFrom time to time, I’ve mentioned a few of the “secret handshakes” that can easily distinguish the wine aficionado from the casual drinker. The term “phylloxera” definitely belongs in this category, since few people would ever encounter this word without reading about the history of wine. On the other hand, phylloxera has had such a profound impact on the modern wine industry that it has also become one of the first terms that people learn when they decide to look beyond the bottle and into a book. In author Christy Campbell’s 2004 text “The Botanist and the Vintner,” the almighty phylloxera (a vine-ravishing aphid, for those not in the know) enjoys the full spotlight.

Frankly, this book is geared towards the nerdiest of the wine nerds, and even then, I somehow hesitate to recommend it. But before I condemn this book completely, I should point out that it was voted “Best Book of the Year” by Wine & Spirits, and it has plenty of accolades from all of the important metropolitan newspapers, along with endorsements from all of the relevant food and wine magazines. It is, in fact, a very well-researched and well-written book. The very notion that Campbell could spin a compelling history about botanists, vintners, and the aphid that almost wiped out the world’s wine industry is admirable, to say the least.

To be perfectly fair, “The Botanist and the Vintner” was much easier for me to finish than, say, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan (finishing the last section of that book became a chore for me). However, my main issue with Campbell’s book is that, while I did learn many of the details regarding phylloxera, I was perhaps hoping for something a little more profound, or maybe a little more eye-opening. As it is, in a year from now, after the actual names of the botanists and the vintners fade from my memory, my knowledge of phylloxera will still be no better than a simple Wikipedia entry. Then again, maybe that’s true with most books, and perhaps this petty cynicism is my own issue. What do you want from me?

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