Book review: Todd Kliman’s The Wild Vine

“The Wild Vine” is an important book, and not just because author Todd Kliman is writing about regional wine and the norton grape, two of my favorites. It’s an important book because Kliman offers some much-needed insight into the history of American wine. It’s a perspective that says, “Look, pay attention. Long before Robert Parker and scores and California, there was a U.S. wine industry. And if a few things had happened differently. …”

Disclaimers first: I know Kliman, and consider him a friend. But that in no way changes my opinion of the quality of the work. A few thoughts about The Wild Vine:

Kliman says this isn’t a book about wine as much as it is a book about history and the people involved and larger truths about our culture and how we became who we are. And he is right. But it reminded me of The Boys of Summer, which was about a lot more than baseball, yet is one of the best books ever written about baseball.

So Kliman presents quite possibly the best explanation I have ever read about terroir and what it means and why it is so difficult to understand: “The word refers to the almost mystical combination of soil and air that, in the impassioned view of the French, for whom it is a kind of referendum on the national character, is imparted to every bottle of wine.”

Kliman’s depiction of the regional wine business and the people who are in it, both in their strengths and weaknesses, is uncanny. And his description of his first bottle of norton is not unlike what happens to most of us when we taste it for the first time, and why we keep coming back to this odd and strange wine for reasons we can’t quite figure out: “It was dark, it was earthy; there was something wild, something alive in the glass. … I had seldom tasted this earthiness in California wines.”

Yet, as Kliman says, there is more to the book than wine. It’s not always easy to see, but it is worth looking for. It’s in his visit to Missouri’s Oak Glenn winery, and the bachelorette party he encounters. It’s in his friendship with Jenni McCloud, who owns Virginia’s Chrysalis Vineyards and makes some of the best nortons in the world. It’s in his fascination with Daniel Norton, the physician turned horticulturist whose amateur fumblings created the grape.

Most of all, The Wild Vine is worth reading. It may not change the way people think about regional wine and norton, but it should make anyone who reads it think about America and wine and why we approach it the way we do.

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