Great reads… from the master of darkness to a powerful parable

If good books are hard to find, great ones are even rarer, so it’s refreshing to discover these powerful page turners. They all deserve to be devoured  with a glass of wine in hand.

Root Cause , A novel by Steven Laine, Turner Publishing, RRP $19.99

It’s easy to escape into Steven Laine’s new book about Philomena – the intentionally mis-spelt name for the vine louse, phylloxera, which wiped out two thirds of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s.

It’s a novel concept to bring back phylloxera as a new, more deadly threat to the global wine world, and the author does a good job, even if I have spotted a couple of typos in the uncorrected proof sent for review. Laine gives one of his lead characters a strong billing as the man who would have become the world’s youngest ever Master of Wine, aged 27, but he obviously doesn’t know New Zealander Stephen Bennett, who took that title in the mid 1990s aged even younger. Minor niggles such as this aside, Root Cause is a surprisingly good read which succeeds where no other wine novels have, for me at least. It has mystery, romance, humour and is accurate about indepth wine facts. And it’s a fun read. I love fiction that weaves quirky facts into the story, something Laine does well in Root Cause, such as when he talks about the challenges of harvesting grapes in Canada for ice wine. Don’t wear gloves or anything to keep your fingers warm because it will melt the ice on the grapes. There’s plenty in here to keep the reader interested and it’s easy to chomp through these words. An easy read equals good writing, in my book.

Highly recommended.


A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing, edited by Jay McInerney

Grove Press UK, 381 pages, RRP $40

If you haven’t read Bright Lights, Big City, read it. In the meantime, try this collection of great writing out for size. It is a great collection, put together in a fantastic order too by Bright Lights… author Jay McInerney.

The book begins with a tale by the master of darkness, Roald Dahl, who shares his ideas on what happens when you bargain with things that aren’t yours to give away in the outstandingly funny story, Taste.

This is a quirky collection. Many of them are classics, others lesser known. I’d already read many of both several times but having them in this hard cover anthology is a real step up for wine publishing.

McInerney includes great writers as well as literary wine scribes. Roger Scruton (great on both counts), A J Liebling (ditto) and Auberon Waugh (Perils of Being a Wine Writer) are my favourites in this book. Jancis Robinson and Matt Kramer add a serious side to these pages while Kermit Lynch writes the best essay I’ve ever read on the Northern Rhone. Each paragraph is an exquisite detailing of this drop dead gorgeous wine region, packed with precision and exceptional writing. And one of the most refreshing stories here is Remystifying Wine by Terry Theise, a North American wine importer and author of Reading Between the Wines.

He suggests that we’ve had what seems like a hundred books purporting to “demystify” wine, yet wine is more mysterious than ever. “Not that the technocrat-enologist complex hasn’t been furiously laboring to remove every pesky variable from wine – damn that nature! – and Lord knows we’re ever more inundated with all manner of mass-produced industrial swill, but true wine is supposed to be complex, and if you think you know it all, well, pal, you don’t know nuthin’.”

The poor hapless consumer, he writes, is faced with groaning shelves of wine bottles with gobbledygook on the labels, or the Talmudic opacity of some eight-pound document called the restaurant wine list – what can we do to help this innocent waif, terrified he’ll pick the “wrong” wine?

The first thing to remind him is the nature of the risk – compared to buying a car, he says, the mistake in buying the “wrong” wine is likely to be about twenty bucks. Not exactly a major disappointment.

It’s a small outlay that could open large new doors of flavour.

This essay, like the book, is funny, thought provoking and spell binding.

A must read.


The Little Snake by A L Kennedy, Cannongate Books, RRP $25

Purchased at Ekor bookstore and café in Wellington

This is one of the best books I have ever read.

I first fell in love with A L Kennedy’s writing when living in Scotland (where the author comes from) in 1993. She is one of those writers whose skill with words makes it a wonder that she isn’t better known.

This is a fable for all ages and is an easy read as well as an incredibly moving one. It has nothing to do with wine but is extremely satisfying with a glass of wine of it.

This calibre of writing begs to be read in a single sitting. It turns traditional story telling on its head because the denouement comes at the end. The most powerful pages are the last ones – and they only make sense after reading the whole book.

If climate change, war, famine and the current global political situation concern you at all, here is a stunning parable about all this and more.

Beautiful writing. Highly recommended.

Author: Joelle Thomson

I am a wine writer, author and educator... first bitten by a big buttery Chardonnay on a dark and stormy night in the 1980s and there was no turning back... Follow my tastings and join some too on this new site.

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