Book review: Real Wine, by Patrick Matthews


Real Wine was ahead of its time when it was first published in the year 2000. And by choosing to focus on a broad movement within the wine industry to return to more traditional methods of winemaking and viticulture (all valid and relevant issues today), it remains an important read for any serious and intellectually curious wine lover.

Matthews is a vibrant and engaging writer, one who possesses both keen wit and sense of probing curiosity. Were he not so taken with the fringe elements of his subjects–biodynamic grape growers, artisan vignerons and Northern California pot farmers–he would likely wield the pen of investigative journalism in the vein of William Langewiesche or Seymour Hersh.

Real Wine is a look at what’s come to be called natural wine from grape growing and winemaking, to the marketing and selling of the stuff. It seeks to show the contrast between the artisan ways of the ‘Old World’ to the more technically driven methods of the ‘New’. But rather than look at these practices through a romantic haze, or by demonizing wine’s technocrats, Matthews sets his story firmly in late 90s California–a part of the world where each of these practices seems to co-ferment with the other.

The cast of characters–from Paul Draper at Ridge to Josh Jensen at Calera–is familiar to anyone who has followed artisan winemaking in California. But they tell a compelling story and Matthews’ account helps to put their contributions into a global context.

It’s interesting to note, of course, that with the passing of time since the book’s publication perhaps many of the people referenced here have lost their way, that the road to natural wine in California (and beyond) has become twisted and convoluted. Or have these passionate artisans simply become too successful at what they do? As Matthews himself points out in Real Wine’s incredible final chapter, the transition of artisan wine from a natural, almost humble product to an international commodity and status symbol is fraught with ambiguity:

“It has happened because Frank Schoonmaker, Bob Haas and the rest did their job all too well in communicating an enthusiasm for wines that are produced only in small quantities–the likes of Krug in Champage, Pétrus in Bordeaux, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. They then become the preserve of a few by virtue of their price. Just as oil money dislocated and transformed the Middle East, the grander wine regions have experienced the mixed blessings of being hit by a wall of money.”

Compelling stuff. And as you read Real Wine you get the sense that the only way out of this mess–for those who really want to experience natural wine–is to make it yourself in a garage. That would be the true garagiste revolution, sulfur additions, temperature control and all the rest be damned. And in fact, Matthews includes a handy appendix at the end to guide the reader to just that end.

Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking, by Patrick Matthews. Click here to buy the book from Amazon. NB: I had to get my copy through Amazon’s reseller program. It’s another step but well worth it.