Wine. Food. Reviews. Recipes. Lap it up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"First Big Crush" by Eric Arnold

Eric-ArnoldEric Arnold was a stand-up comedian from Brooklyn who needed a day job. He inventoried his personal skills, and after deciding he was pretty good at drinking wine he called Allan Scott at his winery in New Zealand and asked if he could work there for a year for free so he could write a book about the experience.

Scott agreed (as Arnold later found out, help is hard to get in New Zealand) and the twentysomething aspiring writer soon found himself in the middle of New Zealand farm country, far from anything resembling his native urban environment. And put him to work Allan Scott did — by the time a year had passed, Arnold had participated to some degree in every step of the winemaking process, from ripping old vines out and planting new shoots to evaluating the final product at a wine competition.

Arnold took copious notes — even chronicling his frequent visits to the Cork & Keg to drink beer with the rugby-playing Allan Scott winemakers Josh Scott and Jeremy McKenzie, and besotted escapades with a local Kiwi lass or two — and the result is a fun, readable and quite edifying book called First Big Crush, subtitled The Down and Dirty on Making Great Wine Down Under. Part travelogue, part instructional documentary and part Tourette's syndrome (just a mild case), it's an engaging and enjoyable book that leaves the reader with a very good idea of what goes into the winemaking process, along with a craving for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

And if the cast of characters seems familiar, it's because their products can be found on the shelves of your local wine shop. In addition to Allan Scott's family, Arnold introduces the reader to people involved with Cloudy Bay, Spy Valley, Villa Maria, Dog Point, Amisfield and Nobilo, among many others from the Marlborough region. Arnold's experience also makes it clear that winemaking isn't the romantic endeavor that wine writer Jennifer Rosen tongue-in-cheekily described as a process where "A good winemaker is but a shepherd, gently guiding from first bud, through spontaneous fermentation until the moment the stuff hops into a bottle and labels itself."

Nope, it's work — backbreaking farm work, tedious winery work and mind-numbing bottling work, along with painstaking lab work and educated guesswork, coupled with the fact that in an island country with no Mexico next door, dependable labor is not easy to get. Machines break, mistakes are made, uncooperative weather is a constant threat and birds and rabbits are eager to dine on the fruit and vines. (Ahem. I have a bit of experience with critter control, and have one word of advice for vineyard managers: Weimaraners.) But ultimately, wine gets made.

And, as it turned out, really good wine. (I love a happy ending, don't you?) The 2005 Allan Scott Sauvignon Blanc was named a Top 100 wine by the Wine Spectator, and most of the other wines mentioned got 90-point-plus scores as well. And Eric Arnold landed a job as new editor at Wine Spectator, a position that he may have had to eat a little crow to get, since he roundly castigates wine "experts" in his book. (But now that he's a wine expert himself, Arnold probably knows just what varietal to pair with crow.)

If you're interested in what really goes into making wine, this book is for you. You'll laugh, you'll learn — and if you're anything like me, you'll lap up some Sauvignon Blanc while reading it.

First Big Crush by Eric Arnold is published by Scribner's and will be available after September 18 from local booksellers and
M. Zane Grey, 11:10 AM