David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
California Wine. By the editors of Sunset Books. Menlo Park: Lane Magazine & Book Company, 1973. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 224 pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by Andrew B. Appleby, assistant professor of history, San Diego State University, an experienced connoisseur of wines, both domestic and foreign.
To the many sensual satisfactions that an interest in wine brings, Sunset Books has added another; the joy of looking at a profusely illustrated, informative book on California wines, wineries and winemakers, past and present.
The book begins with a short introductory section that traces the vintage year from the first bud of spring, through the harvest, ending with the wines resting dormant for the winter. The bulk of the volume is then given over to descriptions of the various wine regions of California, from Riverside county in the south to Mendocino in the north. The major charm of the book is in these regional descriptions, I think, because each is a story of men as much as a story of grapes. Despite the recent surge of interest in wine which has forced prices spiralling upwards, winemaking in California has not been an unqualified success story. All too often, the winegrower was defeated by stony soils and uncertain markets or ruined by Prohibition. The editors have given the book humanity and an historical dimension by including snapshots of such pioneers as Emile Vaché, James Concannon and Jacob Schram. Throughout, the book stresses the continuity of the families who have made wine in California. It is a sad commentary, perhaps, that so many of the old families have sold their vineyards to large corporations within recent years. They managed to survive even Prohibition, only to fall before prosperity. It is too early to see what the overall effect of these sales will be on the quality of the wine; certainly it adds nothing to the romance of wine drinking to know that the Cabernet Sauvignon you are quaffing is a product of the Nestlé Company.
As some of the old vineyards have been absorbed by corporate giants, new small wineries have sprung up to offer the enthusiast a variety of labels unknown a few years ago. Many of these newcomers are sympathetically described in the book, although the reader should be warned that it is difficult or impossible to find the wines that come from these miniscule operations. It is also difficult to justify the prices that some of these vineyards ask for their wines.
The reader should be cautioned further that the editors make no assessment of the quality of any of the vineyards or their wines. The critical tastings that must have taken place in the Sunset cellar (pictured on page 222) are not reported in this volume. No doubt to Sunset, all California wineries are friends—and one does not choose among friends.
There are a few improvements the editors might make before the next edition goes to press. Emile Vaché’s name is given both with and without an accent mark. The reference to him on page 70 is not noted in the index. Such minor slips are unavoidable and easily forgiven in so pleasant a volume. Possibly the editors also should omit some of the guides to pronunciation that are given at the end of the book. To be told that Chateau is pronounced “Shah TOE” seems unnecessary. These quibbles aside, the editors of Sunset Books have put together a splendid, colorful and informative volume, rich in California history.