Book Review: “The Winemaker’s Dance” by Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell

Having read and reviewed dozens of wine books since launching this blog back in 2008, I’ve become pretty up-to-date with most of the material available. As I’ve found, wine can be an endlessly scientific subject, yet at the same time, it can also become endlessly philosophical. With wine, there’s much to discuss, and as the world of wine continues to expand, the literature dedicated to this subject is bound to increase accordingly. For the true wine nerd, I’ve been mulling over my list of the “top 10” most indispensable wine books, which I will divulge near the end of the year. Rest assured, “The Winemaker’s Dance” by Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell will definitely occupy a spot on this list.

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As someone who blogs extensively throughout the Napa Valley, picturesque vineyards are part of my daily commute. Having seen so much of Napa so many times, however, it’s become increasingly easy to take the local landscape for granted — to mindlessly follow the car in front of me — paying less and less attention to the valley’s natural surroundings. It happens. But there are also moments when I might view the Napa Valley through renewed eyes. After all, even the most jaded Napa resident can’t help but marvel at the yellow fields of wild mustard in the springtime, or the array of stunning fall foliage that adorns an old vineyard during its waning days (often a sign of red-leaf virus, but beautiful nonetheless). In truth, the Napa Valley is picturesque by definition, with moments of added brilliance throughout the year. But despite providing great fodder for vacation photos, the fact is, the scenery of the Napa Valley is simply the middleman in the equation, merely the conduit between the earth and the glass.

As the concept of terroir — the “taste of place” — continues to gain recognition among American wine drinkers, the inquisitive connoisseur soon learns to look beyond the landscape and, instead, learns to look to the earth itself for answers. These wine-fueled meditations on terroir can sometimes lead to several fundamental questions regarding the Napa Valley, the primary question being: How, exactly, was the Napa Valley created? In many ways, asking this type of question is an attempt to understand the very essence of wine. In “The Winemaker’s Dance,” authors Swinchatt and Howell decode the Napa Valley’s geological history, offering an enlightening view of why grapes grow so well in this particular terroir. I should acknowledge, however, that Swinchatt and Howell’s book is not casual reading by any means, though the authors do perform the admirable task of making geology eminently approachable for the lay reader. With that in mind, “WMD” does become somewhat heady at times. As a concession, I recommend folks at least read the first chapter, which offers a terrific overview of the Napa Valley’s 140-million year history.

For those who wish to explore terroir more deeply, “The Winemaker’s Dance” is replete with additional geological information, supported with plenty of helpful pictures and illustrations throughout. In its later chapters, the book broadens its scope to include discussions on farming practices and modern winemaking techniques. For those who can visit the Napa Valley in person, the book also provides two chapters that are essentially self-guided tours, explaining the terrain as one drives north along either Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail. “The Winemaker’s Dance” is honest in its approach, and the authors readily admit that the link between terroir and taste is not yet supported by any hard, scientific evidence. Even so, the book does offer a unique perspective, giving the beauty of the Napa Valley a proper backstory. If you ever intend to become truly serious about Napa Valley wine, “WMD” is required reading.

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