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Ethos Priorat Elizabeth Hecker (forward by Andrew Jefford)

Two new books landed on my porch the last few days, and they are as different as two books could be. Though both are ostensibly “wine-books” – and one actually is – they intersect only obliquely.

The first of them is author/photographer Elizabeth Hecker’s self-published Ethos Priorat, and in its way it’s a masterpiece, provided you don’t demand that it jump through the usual “wine-book” hoops. In effect the book is wine-adjacent. Its origin lay in a glass of Priorat the author tasted in 2003 (at the Telluride wine and food shindig, where the two of us first met), and which was one of those moments of ignition when you encounter a new wine that reorders your reality.

Of course she remembers what it was: “Montsalvat from Cartoixa Montsalvat by Francesc Sanchez-Bas, presented by Doug Frost and Steve Olson.” Two years later she made her first of several visits (“each one longer than the last…”) until she finally bought a house and decamped to the region for good in 2009. She has lived there ever since, and her creation is a kind of tone poem to the region. Lest that seem overly ethereal, Hecker’s book is anchored by a host of informative passages as regards the region’s geology and geography, the grape varieties it grows, its history, and most saliently its human culture. The author herself sees the book as photography secured to text, but I saw it the other way around, and found – if I have any cavils at all – that it was perhaps excessively illustrated. Then again I’ve read a lot of wine books over the last four decades, and pictures-of-vines make my eyes blur a little. The photos themselves are lovely.

It isn’t easy to write rapturously. It can seem overly fulsome and sometimes too sweet. But Hecker is able to turn her emotion into a thing she can carry, drinking from it when she is thirsty and setting it down when she is not. This is less a book about a wine as-such than about a place from which a certain wine hails, and her wide-angle view of that place is holistic and for some sensibilities, elliptical. She conveys, if you will, the umami of Priorat.

Her prose is charming, sometimes earnest, often helpfully grounded in facts and contexts, and when she’s writing about families, full of love. The book as a whole is a considerable achievement, not to mention the testament of a grateful heart that has found itself a home in the world.

Yet it is not, exactly, a wine book. The sort of “wine person” who craves a wine book could be frustrated by Hecker’s more evanescent point of view. She is extremely cogent and articulate that it was a Priorat that sent her into transcendent orbits, but she demurs when asked how or why that happened. She knows this about herself: “[I] struggle to go into details about the wines [I] tasted. I try to remember wines I particularly love but I don’t have words for why. I have images in my mind of what the moment looked like, where it came from, [even] the label, but not always.”

I’ve known people with those savant-like palates, and often they are acutely insightful tasters, but this time one of them has written a book that sits uneasily among others of its (ostensible) genre. And so the question becomes, is Ms. Hecker’s book sui generis? A case could be made that it is. And a further case could be made that the book’s real topic is the value and spirit of Place. And though it was a random encounter with a wine that ultimately led Elizabeth Hecker to Priorat, she doesn’t really express the particularity of that wine, those wines. Nor should we demand that she does, any more than you’d ask someone “Well what is it you love about her?” Neither should we forget that these things have a way of rippling outward, so that Hecker’s homage to Priorat could be anyone’s homage to anywhere their souls found a true place to live.

I may be indulgent of books with their hearts on their sleeve (ya think???) but Hecker had to surmount my indifference to the wines of Priorat. She doesn’t know this about me, and will be dismayed. I don’t like inky reds with high alcohol, but in this instance I rather wish I did, because there is so much to admire about the wines in theory and about the region as a whole. But notwithstanding my unease toward the wines, I am moved by what I see in these pages; the outpouring of a happy heart. And I respect the scholarship she brought to bear. Her book feels weightless, but it doesn’t float away.

You can (and should) buy it here:

The Wine Bible, 3rd Edition By Karen MacNeil

On a lark I looked into the Priorat pages in MacNeil’s now-legendary book, and I found what I knew I’d find: a pithy depiction of the wines with this author’s virtuosic use of imagery, and an observant and well researched portrait of the region, In five tidy pagesi

Back in my merchant days I honestly lost count of the number of people who’d approach me at tastings or whom I called on to make sales, who told me they’d “gotten into” wine as a result of taking Karen MacNeil’s classes at CIA Greystone. Many of them recounted the ongoing support and mentorship MacNeil provided, and all of this was really stirring, because Karen and I have been friends for more than thirty years. (Why yes, we did meet in kindergarten…) As friends, we don’t talk about work all that much, and I’m guilty of being parsimonious with praise, worried she might assume my flattery was motivated only by our friendship. That needs to end right now.

Karen MacNeil is a treasure as an educator and an author. She is doing something I’m not sure anyone else has managed to bring off: She is a reassuringly comforting guide to wines without dumbing them down and without taking short cuts for fear of intimidating readers with wine’s innate complexity. I am assuredly not the first to take note of her singular gift of combining the utmost scholarship with the utmost readability. She is simply a master at imparting reams of sometimes dense information in a tone so colloquial you feel like you’re taking a stroll with her. But as easy as she is to read, she doesn’t pander. You’re here to learn! She makes it comfortable, but she isn’t your pal.

She has easy command of information. She has a knack of finding curiously telling details. (Her sidebars alone are worth the price of the book.) She seems at ease with the gestalt, the larger outlines of a subject, but she’ll find the germ within it that makes it come to life. Her mind is both disciplined and rangy. She seems to have the strategic national reserve of perfect imagery, and that in turn is because she’s at ease in her own skin; she knows what she knows, and she isn’t scared to show emotion or to dance with the fanciful.

There are ways in which The Wine Bible is a curious book. Its very capaciousness gives rise to a question; if it is everything-you-need-to-know, then I wonder….everything who needs to know? Its audience has been vast, but who constitutes it? The book is much too serious to be a “lifestyle” object, yet is it also too large for the beginner? I imagine MacNeil can answer these questions; she’ll know who her readers are. Whoever they are, they should be grateful.

This new edition is in color now, and looks good. As always it is easy to use. As always it avoids solemnity and while it is scholarly it is not “academic.” But at the heart of the matter, The Wine Bible is two books. You have the surveys of the wine-growing regions, and these are apropos and helpful and as up to date as publication schedules allow. This part of TWB is admirable, but the jewels lay elsewhere. What is precious are the first 90 pages, in which the author lays out first-principles in a way I find entirely riveting, so much so that I had to ensure I was not just carried away because I agreed with nearly everything she wrote. I do, and she’s still superb. I’ll offer a single example. On page 61, in the course of a description of Sauvignon Blanc, MacNeil observes that the word “green” is often used as a cognate for the variety. Then she creates a sidebar of signal genius, called “What Green Can Mean,” in which she disassembles that metaphor into every damn one of its component parts, eleven in all, and the thing is entirely concrete and utterly brilliant.

Those ninety pages are writing one can luxuriate in, and if they stood alone they’d constitute a shining achievement in the literature of wine. They are joined to a reference work that’s a kind of Sat-Nav to the wine world. Are there errors? Could be a few. Are there infelicities of prose? There’d better be, in a book this size. Will a certain kind of reviewer nitpick in such a way, possibly because the book is so successful? I hope not. Trees versus forest, you know? When I hold the book in my hands, all I am is thankful. How fine that it exists!

Karen MacNeil and I are nearly the same age. I wonder what she does next. I hope she goes even more deeply into the kernel of her book, and rides the particulars of the soul’s engagement with wine as far into the heart as it can go. There aren’t many writers – nor very many people – who “get” that wine is a kind of fruiting body that emerges above the surface of the ground, but that the deeper truth is the mycelium of significance that squirms underneath, with all its mysterious energy, the thing we don’t see but which makes us love wine with inexplicable depth and longing. It is there, I propose, that her truest work lies.

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