I like Natalie MacLean's entertaining and often cheeky writing about wine. Other wine writers might describe riesling as "refreshing in a world awash with vanilla, oak, and jam." But how many of them would follow that up with this aside ("In life and in wine: too much foreplay is frustrating and too quick satiation is boring.") without us collectively screaming "Nooo!! TMI!"
But in MacLean's writing, such sassiness works. She's an everywoman of wine, and in her latest book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Wines, MacLean turns her attention to "demystifying wine pricing in relation to quality." That's fancy talk for finding impressive wines at affordable prices.
The adventure recounted in Unquenchable is this: MacLean travels the globe making calculated stops in regions with "natural advantages that make winemaking inexpensive, whether that's climate or cheap land and labor." She visits Australia, South Africa, Provence, Sicily, Argentina, Portugal, Germany, and Canada, driving the wine routes, touring the wineries, and offering delightful descriptions of the characters encountered along the way.
I'm a sucker for good narrative, and I found it in Unquenchable. Yet solid narrative can't cover up some inherent flaws. Unquenchable works hard to show the personal, romantic side of wine. MacLean's overtures indicate that there's romance in budget-priced wine (cute winemakers, a connection to the land, decades of tradition and artistry) but that's not always completely true, and to characterize bottom-shelf bottles as artisanal is both unfair and sometimes a little misleading. Thus, I found myself wanting MacLean to cut to the chase—I wanted advice on a bottle to open with dinner tonight.
Thankfully, some information could be found at the end of each chapter. These "Field Notes" were undoubtedly my favorite part of the book, so much so, that I'm wishing for a pocket guide filled with MacLean's insider tips, lists of top producers, best value wines, terrific pairings, recipe and menu ideas, and other resources that will help encourage informed quaffing.
But (there had to be a but!) it's important to note that not all the wines she recommends will appeal to all palates. For me, personally, the hot-weather regions she recommends aren't all that appealing, and I'd have far preferred less romantic narrative and a deeper list of bargain wines from places like France, Italy, Austria, Greece, and Spain.
My favorite part of Unquenchable ended up being MacLean's lists of "Related Reading." The lists serve as an effective postscript to each chapter, and each comes with the following disclaimer: "The following books, while seemingly unrelated to the main subject matter of this chapter, provided enjoyable reading before, during, or after my travels." Some of these suggested readings are wine inspired, others are about history or travel. It's pretty clear how a reading of Evita might inspire a dalliance with inexpensive Argentine wine. But Heart of Darkness and Portuguese vino? Now that's a beguiling pairing.
A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks by George M. Taber also aims to demystify so-called "bargain wines." Taber is the Time Magazine correspondent who was in Paris for the iconic 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting where California wines beat out top French bottlings in a blind tasting. Later, he wrote a book about how that tasting inspired a New World wine revolution. Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine was both a best seller and the basis for the movie Bottleshock.
Now, Taber is at it again. Like MacLean, he seems to be in search of a bargain. The book is divided into two parts: The beginning is a narrative in which Taber argues why "bargain" wines should be taken seriously by today's drinkers. He profiles iconic cheap wine purveyors (think Two Buck Chuck's founder Fred Franzia). He ends with China...China? Did you ever wonder how China could influence our wine economy? This chapter is fascinating because Taber is, at heart, a reporter. He's good at laying a story down and telling readers why we need to pay attention.
The second half of the book is devoted to what I said I wanted from Natalie MacLean's Unquenchable: a straight-up buying guide in which Taber offers lists of his favorite bargain wines, the best brands (sorted by region and grape), and some token splurge bottles. In entirety, there are 400 recommended wines in this tome.
Taber defines a bargain wine as a bottle that sells for $10. And here's where things get sticky. On one hand, for plenty of Americans, $10 ain't cheap. On the other, there's some stuff in here that I'd never really want to drink—I'm not sure it's helpful that he included a Riunite Strawberry White Merlot in the guide.
I'd have been far happier with a more expansive list of what a friend used to call slutty wines—recommended cheap, easy drinking wines. These wines are mostly drunk right away, and they're not what you'd call refined. Big, boozy, easy-drinking party wine (a Mae West wine as compared to the more elegant Audrey Hepburn)—I'm still looking for good advice in that category.
There are more bargain wines in the world than ever before. But wine lovers on a budget want their sips to be better than drinkable—We want delicious! While both solid attempts, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World's Best Bargain Wines and A Toast to Bargain Wines only prove that finding a good bargain bottle isn't easy.
About the author: Anne Zimmerman is a writer in San Francisco Her first book, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher, was published in March 2011. You can read more about her work here or here. Follow her on Twitter at @poeticappetite.