Author’s Expertise Makes Book an Intoxicating Read

Paul Lukacs, author of “American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine” (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), has written another great book about American wines that every wine lover, especially Francophiles, should own. The beauty of his new book, “The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages” (W.W. Norton, 2005), is that Lukacs avoids the common trap of selecting the greatest single wine a winery has to offer. Instead he selects wines, such as Shafer’s Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, that are consistently delicious but also have historical or regional importance in the development of the American wine industry. Lukacs, who is rapidly becoming our leading expert on domestic wine, explains with engaging prose how these wines, and the people behind them, have been essential to the coming of age of American wine.

The reader learns a lot about wine in general, almost by accident, because Lukacs’s style sucks you in. There can be no better description of syrah than from John Alban, whose “Reva” Syrah is profiled. Alban notes that syrah “always tastes a little wild. Compare it with Cabernet. A first-class Cabernet is like an investment banker, a polished gentleman in a three-piece suit. But Syrah is a cowboy in a tuxedo. It’s like Clint Eastwood all dressed up. He looks great, but he’s not completely polished. There’s always something raw about Syrah.” Reasonable tasters can quibble whose syrah in any particular year is “the best.” But all agree that the current high quality of American syrah is due in large measure to Alban’s devotion to the grape over the past two decades.

Similarly, Lukacs succinctly defines great Napa Valley cabernet with Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon by quoting Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez, the winemaker: “We had to learn to listen to the vineyard. We needed to stop trying to make a wine that was like something else. We needed to learn how to be ourselves.” Lukacs rightly points out that Napa cabernet has evolved from a wine whose greatest accolade was that it resembled a great Bordeaux to that exemplified by Shafer’s Hillside Select, a wine with “vibrant fruit yet pliant tannins. . . that has an identity all its own.”

December 29, 2005.