The blandness of “The World in a Wineglass” derives from the rest. Isle’s introductions to countries and regions are written mostly in anonymous, Frommer’s-guide prose. The close attention he pays to sustainability and organic methods is what sets his book apart, but he devotes nearly every sentient moment to it. You will learn vastly more than you wished to know about indigenous yeasts and regenerative agriculture and the dirty business of adding sulfates. And then you will learn it all again.
He introduces his readers to the owners of dozens of wineries, most of whom are rebelling against the sorry practices (too much fertilizer) of their forebears in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. This is estimable, so far as it goes. But Isle’s potted profiles lean so hard on each winery’s green bona fides that it can seem as if he has shaken them down and forced upon them a series of purity tests. I kept waiting for one to declare, as Wendell Berry once did, that even listening to weather reports is, for a farmer, selling out to mammon.
I began to live for the wiseacres, the irascible vintners who push back. You can be a purist and still make crap wine, one tells Isle. Another tells him that focusing solely on this green stuff is romantic and stupid. Another says, in so many words, that if you want to get all political, let’s talk about health insurance for vineyard workers. An Oregon vintner says about Demeter, an organization that certifies biodynamic wineries:
I was certified, but I stopped. Every year they treated us like terrorists. “You sure you didn’t cheat? You sure you didn’t break the rules?” And then I bought four ATVs, and they said, “You didn’t ask permission from us to buy those,” and I was like, “[expletive] off.”
These voices matter because nearly every other winemaker sounds like a virtue-signaling second-rate poet. “I could never do anything disrespectful to the soil and look Mother Nature in the eyes again,” one says. “Humility in the presence of the land” is another’s credo. “We are modest-sized artisans of the earth,” another says. Multiply this wet verbiage times 400 and you will know what it is like to spend time with “The World in a Wineglass.” It’s like listening to Oscar speeches.
There is a certain kind of food and wine writing that walks unwittingly into a class minefield. The liberal urban writer is dropped onto a stony goat path among artistic or successful rural people, or both: How should he describe them? What not to do is to baste them in joie de vivre. Isle consistently and patronizingly refers to people as “cheerful and twinkly” or from the “wise old elf school.” He says that they are “extraordinarily animated” or “fiercely animated” or possessed of “an infectious, impish smile” or “irrepressible.” It’s as if he is describing toddlers, or the brain addled. No one would refer to a lawyer, or an ambassador, or a scholar or indeed a wine writer in this manner.
One Slovenian winemaker says to Isle, in my favorite lines in the book: “I need critics! I don’t need this wow-brow shikimiki zak-zak!” Isle presumes the last bit means something like “useless hipster yes-men.” Shout it loud: Down with wow-brow shikimiki zak-zak! Up with Ray Isle, who has better books in him.
THE WORLD IN A WINEGLASS: The Insider’s Guide to Artisanal, Sustainable, Extraordinary Wines to Drink Now | By Ray Isle | Scribner | 706 pp. | $50