Serious Reads: Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson

Book Reviews

Drinks-related books to add to the stack on your bedside table.


[Photos: Sterling Publishing Co.]

In Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes, Evan Dawson tells the stories of the winery owners, winemakers, and grape growers who helped launch the Finger Lakes wine industry in upstate New York. The Finger Lakes region is particularly known for its stunning white wines, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, and the book's title is an obvious nod to this. During the summer these crisp whites refresh. Served any other time, they conjure summer's warmth with their straw yellow color, their aromatic noses, and their hints of honeysuckle and tropical fruit.

But I can't help but think there's a bit more to the title than the obvious. Because after reading the tales of the Finger Lakes pioneers that are recounted in Summer in A Glass, there's one thing I can tell you: upstate New York is unforgiving. The winters are long and cold. Vines get stressed and die. The people in Dawson's story have trucks that break down, wineries that catch fire, work visas that are denied, and firings that are conducted by terse telegram. If there's one thing these stalwart folks require to survive, it's promise. Promise delivered though a magical glass of wine, a golden glass that hints at the warm days and ripe grapes to come.

Dawson is clearly under the spell that is in a glass of wine from the Finger Lakes, and the people he writes about are too. Each chapter begins with a notable turning point in the life of one of the personalities he chronicles: Tricia Renshaw, a single mother, who after one day on the bottling line, decides to forgo the stability of her teaching job to become a winemaker. Fred Merwarth, who tastes an Alsatian white while studying abroad and decides, on the spot, that winemaking is what he must do. Sam Argetsinger, who uses the influence of the Iroquois people to tend the land, helping it produce it's best grapes.

Dawson documents not just the epiphanies, but the calculated decisions that led these people to the Finger Lakes instead of Napa or the Willamette Valley. Each page demonstrates the passion, perseverance, and pride of these Finger Lake pioneers, who helped create one of the fastest growing wine regions in the United States.

Dawson is both narrator and character. He tags alongside winemakers, observing their craft. He sorts grapes and stays up late into the night drinking and talking. He even admits to showing up at a winery ready to taste but with a face caked in two layers of make-up after a day of taping. "(Foundation and bronzer, thanks for asking)." Now that's gumption.

But this rash display of mettle shouldn't be surprising. Dawson is a trained journalist, a news anchor for the ABC affiliate in Rochester, New York, and the Finger Lakes wine editor for The New York Cork Report. He's an expert storyteller, and the characters in this book jump off the page. There's dialogue. Occasionally there's gossip, but it feels tempered by professionalism. Rather than reading like an industry 'tell-all,' Summer in a Glass reads with the intimacy and heart that only a true insider can provide.

Unlike other books composed of profiles of great winemakers or wineries that often feel outdated the second they are published, Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes will last. It is a history of a time and a place, a chronicle of people and personalities that will be both useful and enjoyable for years to come. Just like those Finger Lakes whites, Summer in a Glass is bound poetry and promise.