Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Book 16 of 52: To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle

I don’t consider myself a wine connoisseur. My first drink ever was half a can of beer when I was 16, an it wasn’t until I was 18 that I felt the full effects of too much alcohol consumption – in the form of one too many screwdrivers drunk from a McDonalds cup tailgating for a Doobie Brothers Concert, after when I ended up puking in the bathroom of what is now known as the Tweeter Center in Camden, NJ.

Classy.

I don’t know if I consider my introduction to alcohol typical since, aside from one total can of beer, I didn’t drink in high school, unlike a lot of people I knew who considered “getting trashed” THE thing to do. I spent the day after my junior prom on the beach in Strathmere (which I wrote about in The Jersey Shore; Atlantic City to Cape May: Great Destinations: A Complete Guide: Including the Wildwoods (Great Destinations), FYI) watching other people get drunk because I was too scared to drink for fear that my parents would banish me to my room for a month (a very real threat, too).

Sure, I had my drinking dalliances once I got to college, but now that I’m closer to 30 than 20, those days are – for the most part – behind me. I’m at the point where the wine I’ve drunk does not come from a jug and/or box. I don’t know my wines very well, and sometimes I buy a bottle of wine for dinner based on the label. But, baby, I’ve come a long way. I at least try to figure out what kind of wine I should bring to dinner based on what kind of cuisine is served, and I cut out wine-related articles from the newspaper so that I will have a reference database.

Which is what brings me to To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle by George M. Taber, which is about the great debate of how you should close a bottle of wine. It’s a bigger problem than you might expect – an X industry – and explains why you’re asked to taste your wine (at least in finer restaurants) before the bottle is poured. Wines can sometimes suffer from cork taint wherein your wine smells more like wet cardboard than whatever it’s supposed to taste like. The problem has vexed winemakers almost since the first cork was pushed into a glass bottle, and some makers report getting back five to ten percent of their bottles as having been corked. Not good, for your budget, or your wine’s reputation.

So Taber explains it all, from how cork taint happens, to the pluses and minuses of screw caps, and all about why it’s a fierce battle between the two with plastic corks and glass stoppers thrown in.

I wonder sometimes if I’m qualified to review these kinds of non-fiction books that put a spotlight on a niche market, being a non-expert about wine and all (I don’t drink jug wine, but someone’s bringing a box of wine to my party on Sunday, but as a joke – promise). But if Taber can not only make me interested in the raging debate about the best ways to close wine, but fascinated about the nooks and crannies about the debate, then he’s done a good job in making the information accessible to the lay audience, and writing a book more than worth reading.

My caveat: the beginning of this book is slow. Not just dragging but tortoise slow. He explains into the history of wine, which I think to some would be valuable information, but it pales in comparison to the chapters about how non-natural cork producers broke onto the wine scene, which involved everything from putting bright yellow plastic corks into blue bottles of wine to staging the elaborate funeral of “Thierry Bouchon,” a ‘corpse” made up entirely of corks, in New York’s Grand Central Station.

And who said wine snobs were boring?

To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle
is a good book to use as a transition into a cluster of books known as foot lit – that’s my next assignment. I’m not sure how many new-to-me books I’ll be reading since I pitched the essay based on experiences I’ve already had with food lit, but I might pop in a tasty reading treat sometime soon!

Also -- congrats to Garrett M. Graff, author of The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, which was book 6 of 52 in this series. He got a nice review from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. Congrats!

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