by Andrew Chalk
“Space for only one wine book in your life? This is it.” - Howard G. Goldberg, New York Times.
“A thorough guide to just about everything worth drinking” - The Times (London)
Great praise indeed from two publications noted for their rigorous reviews. They represent the regard with which Hugh Johnson’s mini magnum opus is held in wine circles. Hugh Johnson (His Royal Hughness, if you like) has stepped back this year as he moves into semi-retirement. Margaret Rand has taken over the onerous task of herding the cat clowder that is the world of wine. The bright side is that this year was easier than will be next, as will likely be the case every subsequent year. Some 25 contributors, specialists in particular geographies, provide the raw content.
How to review a work like this? Clearly it is not intended to be read cover-to-cover. It is a reference work, and its scope is vast. After some thought, and a glass of wine, I was reminded how I judged programs on The Travel Channel. Watch a show covering a location I knew and then extrapolate the style and depth of research to other locations from there. It was hardly perfect, but it was an Occum’s Razor that eliminated the enormous number of programs that sourced, apparently from each other, to produce repetitive superficial dirge. It was that screening method that gave me a lifelong respect for Anthony Bourdain. In his coverage of my hometown of London in No Reservations he discovered Fergus Henderson (‘Nose To Tail Eating’) and Marco Pierre White (youngest ever Michelin 3* chef, hitherto) for American audiences.
The obvious, and only, part of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book (HJPWB) that I was qualified to probe deeply was the section on Texas wines. The state got exactly one of the 335 pages, which is good when you consider that that is as much as Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont combined.
The Texas section consists of about 100 words of ‘overview’ followed by a listing of the top 19 wineries. The overview is too vague and omits most important things as well as getting some facts wrong (there are not 400 wineries by any stretch, unless you include WINE.COM licensees which enable the reseller to avail itself of direct shipping to consumers). The list of wineries omits several important producers.
Overall, the experience reading about a familiar region in HJPWB is that Margaret ought to expand her list of contributors as large as is necessary in order to to get informed, correct, detailed, current and contextually relevant reports. The evolution of the Internet makes this especially pressing for a publication that is, oddly, still produced on stuff called ‘paper’.
I decided that the best way to illustrate the gulf between what should have been written and what exists was to rewrite the Texas section. Reproduced below, the overview is now longer and wineries wrongly omitted from the original ranking are included.
TEXAS (TX) - revised.
Massive improvement in the last decade from an era in which re-bottling California jug wine was the main pursuit and the state legal framework so hostile that wineries in most areas could not hold tastings. A crucial 2005 legal change allowed direct-to-consumer shipping, bypassing the three-tier system. This caused winery numbers to explode from 40 to the current approximately 150 (producing). State law is now very favorable to winegrowing, including funding education.
The Texas wine industry is a geographic dumbbell. You grow your grapes in the High Plains AVA (around Lubbock) and sell them in The Hill Country AVA (the area west of Austin). US-290 is the state’s storefront, visited by more people, allegedly, than any other wine area except Highway 29 in Napa. Emerging parts of the state are The Davis Mountains (vineyards), and north of the Dallas Fort Worth area (wineries).
Not just mediterranean but also cool climate grapes thrive. Notable exceptions are Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. AVA regulations are Janus-faced on authenticity. AVA and County appellated wines must be 100% Texas grapes unless the bottle carries the exculpatory clause ‘For Sale In Texas Only’ which means the wine can be anything (likely 100% California bulk wine).
Climatic challenges are late freezes and hailstorms. The biggest long-term threat is pesticide drift from dicamba and 2,4-D.
TOP PRODUCERS (Additions to the list in HJPWB):
Ab Astris Winery - New, but very serious producers of some fine reds;
Eden Hill Vineyard - Great success in west coast wine competitions with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and tempranillo;
Haak Winery - Founder Raymond Haak will forever be best known for inventing a new wine category for the state - Texas Madeira. He built his own estufagem process and applied it to the unlovely blanc du bois grape to make a respectable sweet fortified wine that Jancis Robinson scored 16/20;
Hye Meadow Winery - strength is Italian varieties;
Inwood Estates Vineyards - Produces the most expensive wine in the state and sells out every year;
Kalasi Cellars - Opened by a couple who are new to winemaking but experienced High Plains grape growers. Promising early results;
Kerrville Hills Winery - Recently acquired by noted consultant John Rivenburgh.Quality improvements already evident. Expect great things;
Pheasant Ridge Winery - Bobby Cox, the Texas winemaker who has earned the most praise from Robert Parker over the years, owns this winery. Sparkling wine on a par with the best in the country. Good chenin blanc as well;
Wedding Oak Winery - New winemaker. Recent whites show great refinement and the reds riper fruit than in the past. One to watch.
The copy of the guide was provided by the publisher.