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Long ago, during my apprenticeship in the wine trade, I learned that wine is more than the sum of its parts, and more than an expression of its physical origin. The real significance of wine as the nexus of just about everything became clearer to me when I started writing about it. The more I read, the more I traveled, and the more questions I asked, the further I was pulled into the realms of history and economics, politics, literature, food, community, and everything that affects the way we live. Wine, I found, draws on everything and leads everywhere.
Those leads run through the chapters of this book. Each stands alone, yet each sheds light on an aspect of wine that will, I hope, add to your understanding of it. The very first-"A Carafe of Red," which gives its name to the collection-is a conversation that summarizes two thousand years of winemaking in France, from the first Roman colony to today's republic, explaining along the way how religion and politics, the Industrial Revolution, transportation (canals and railways), and the ravages of phylloxera helped shape the nature of French wine. "Malmsey" gives a glimpse of international trade and politics in the Middle Ages, while "Côtes de Castillon," a tale about the revival of a Bordeaux wine, looks behind the town's official name, Castillon-la-Bataille, to the battle fought there in 1453. Heavy artillery-giant cannons hidden on a hillside above the battlefield-was used for the first time to mow down knights in armor. While bringing an end to England's territorial aspirations in France, it also brought an end to the chivalry of the Middle Ages. Like a bookend to that historic moment, Castillon's winemakers have also been at the forefront of modern wine technology. They were among the first to adopt micro-oxygenation, a technique emblematic of their determination to improve the quality of their red wine, an effort so successful that Castillon wine leapt to the cover of Le Point, the French news magazine, where it was classified among the ten best wines of France. In "Jerez de la Frontera," I give you a glimpse of microbiology in action in the veil of Saccharomyces that plays a key role in the development of Fino Sherry, while "A Silent Revolution," about the meaning of "organic viticulture," looks at the role microbes play in keeping us fed. Small things often have large consequences: the spark of a weekend escape for a few writers and painters from nearby Tarragona, caught by a magazine article coinciding with the Barcelona Olympics, lit a passion that has brought back to life Priorato, a Catalan wine region on the verge of extinction, yet now producing one of the most sought after red wines of Spain. The chapter "Haut-Brion" shows how Bordeaux wine was transformed from tavern tipple into the yardstick by which other wines are measured; in "Judgment of Paris" that yardstick has historic consequences for California. In "Missouri" I show how the German American culture of that state evolved alongside its early viticulture; and "Chardonnay," in recounting the origins of one variety's clones in California, illustrates, in effect, the significance of all clones of all wine-grape varieties everywhere. And in "A Memorable Wine," I reflect on the question often asked of me and others who have led a life professionally involved with wine: What is the best wine you can remember? The answer to any such question can only be subjective, of course. What is "best" for me, or anyone else, depends on personal preference, the context, and our mood at the time. But above all, it depends on the knowledge and the personal memories we bring to the wine in the glass. It's what we bring to it that can make even a supposedly simple carafe of red memorable. That's the purpose of this book.
Gerald AsherSan Francisco, August 2011