Monday, November 9, 2015

Blind Book Review: Kelli White's "Napa Valley Then and Now"

Why is it no one solicits book reviews from the HoseMaster of Wine™? My feelings are hurt. All sorts of second tier bloggers seem to have received copies of Kelli White’s “Napa Valley Then and Now” for review, but not me, and I'm top tier. Which is pathetic on the face of it. OK, maybe it's top tear, but you get the idea. I suppose it could be because I review wine books without actually reading them, which, when you think about it, is the only legitimately objective way to review books. Television hosts have done this for decades, and very successfully. You don’t really think Jay Leno read all the books of the authors who appeared on “The Tonight Show,” do you? It’s possible Jon Stewart may have read all the books he promoted, but it’s pretty unlikely. Television hosts have staff to read the books for them, staff who then provide notes to make the host seem glib and well-read. Which then sells a lot of books. I don’t have any staff to speak of. Lo Hai Qu doesn’t read wine books, she reads toenail clippings (which, according to her, can foretell the future, as well as make interesting tea cozies). So, since I didn’t receive a review copy of “Napa Valley Then and Now” I will review it blind. It’s the only honest way to review.

It was a joy to not read “Napa Valley Then and Now." I enjoyed it Not Then, as well as Not Now. 

I’ve always believed that the worst possible place to work as a sommelier is wine country, especially wine country with a lot of obscenely wealthy winery owners. Kelli White is a sommelier at Press restaurant on Highway 29 smack dab in the middle of Napa Valley. And now she’s published a book (well, rather, the owner of Press, Leslie Rudd, has published her book—the guy who owned the restaurant where I worked wouldn’t even lend me a book) about, TA-DA, wineries in Napa Valley, and Napa Valley itself. I wonder what the people who own wineries not mentioned in her book are saying to her these days? “Yeah, so, Shypoke Winery is in the book, but I’m not? How ‘bout I shy poke your eyes out?” I’m guessing Rudd’s winery is in the book. And whoever tips her a lot when having dinner at Press is probably in the book. Though you can starve to death in the sommelier business waiting for obscenely wealthy folks to tip you well, so that’s probably not that much of a factor.

A lot has been made of the size and weight of “Napa Valley Then and Now.” I think the answer to why it’s so huge is pretty simple. I think Kelli told Mr. Rudd she wanted it to be a coffee table book, so he made it a fucking coffee table. Just add legs. And a dash of MegaPurple.

But let’s face it, the book is mostly about Napa Valley Cabernet. So why wouldn’t you make it huge, unwieldy, overblown, self-important, overpriced and sporting way too much wood? It’s perfect! The book itself is exactly like the wines it describes.  When a critic tells you it’s “exhaustive,” he means he crapped his pants trying to pick it up to read it. It may be very big, but I doubt it has much to say—again, just like the wines! It’s a brilliant concept, really. Next up, “Mendocino Then and Now,”  a book made from hemp. “Napa Valley Then and Now” covers 200 wineries in Napa Valley, a region with, according to Wines and Vines Analytics database, more than a thousand wineries. “Exhaustive?” So 800 just ain’t worth mentioning. They rarely come in for dinner.

Ms. White also works for Antonio Galloni at Vinous, though I don’t read that either. She manages to give him the fifteen-pound-book finger by having Galloni’s old boss, Robert Parker, write the foreword to the book. That made me laugh. Shows you who White thinks actually has clout in the wine business.

Press seems like an appropriate employer for Ms. White. That’s what this book is. Press. For all the wineries featured. It’s sort of “Vanity Fair’s” show biz issue meets wine country. Annie Liebovitz does cult wines. (I’m just hoping there’s a Helmut Newtonesque photo of Bill Harlan in his underwear.) It’s all size and no substance. It’s got more puff pieces than the Pillsbury Doughboy, and it's twice as floury. What else can this book be but one gigantic vanity project? “My first published book weighs more than your first published book! I’m talkin’ to You, God. And Your youdam book was made of stone tablets. Thou shalt bite me.” But, again, maybe a vanity project about Napa is appropriate—vanity is ubiquitous in Napa Valley. Only they’re around vanity so much they seem incapable of recognizing it anymore. It flows in their vains. This big, reverential book—porn for the wine trolls on Wineberserkers—probably seems just right to Rudd and White, and all of the wineries involved. If anything, it’s not grandiose enough. It’s only barely the Castello di Amarosa of wine books. Though White got the torture chamber right.

I’m an enthusiastic fan of blurbs. Send your newly minted book to all of your friends and admirers, as White must have done, your employers and fellow employees, the people you are certain will praise your work, then excerpt their remarks on your website and in your marketing materials. Never disclose your relationships to them because, well, genuine book critics don’t review books that are written by their friends or relatives and you want people to believe the praise is objective. It’s hilarious. It’s Hollywood, and, therefore, it’s Napa Valley. It’s like believing what friends and relatives say about your newborn, but basically ugly, baby being cute.

I perused White’s site to read her Press, her solicited blurbs. Allen Meadows, known as "Burghound" (or "Rudy’s Bitch"), goes so far as to drop the hoariest critical sentence available to a reviewer, “If you read only one wine book this year…”—right after he praises her for her “deft turns of phrase”! So, judging from his deft turn of phrase, he’s certainly an expert on great writing.

Alice Feiring writes that “White has pulled off a beautifully written guide—balanced, while clearly having an essential point of view—to the complex region of Napa.” A region, Feiring fails to add, that she herself essentially despises and rarely visits. I love this kind of stuff. It’s transparently hypocritical and utter bullshit. A gigantic book, ludicrously and unnecessarily large considering the subject matter (it ain’t Audobon’s lifesize "The Birds of America"), a book that is about as unnatural and environmentally irresponsible as a wine book could be, being praised by the Queen of natural wines. Does my heart good to see dear Alice selling out.

Antonio Galloni, for whom White writes, contributes a blurb that clearly proves he hasn’t even read the book. “One of the brightest voices of our generation, Kelli White provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Napa Valley and its evolution over the last several decades. The stories behind the valley’s great wines and the people who make them are told with boundless passion and enthusiasm. Napa Valley, Then & Now is a must-have for anyone who loves Napa Valley wines.” It’s a Mad Libs review. Replace “Kelli White” with “Wink Lorch,” and Napa Valley with “the Jura” and, there you go, another review for a different book. Or substitute “Livingstone-Learmonth” and “Rhône Valley,” and you have another. Galloni’s got a lifetime of book reviews in just one paragraph. Eerily like how he reviews wines.

In conclusion, if you don’t read only one wine book this year, "Napa Valley Then and Now" is a must-not-have from one of the brightest voices of our generation. Unfortunately, compared to Feiring, Meadows and himself, Galloni just might be right about that last part.


Eric V. Orange said...

I can feel the heat.


Batmang said...

I love the idea of a blind review and was planning to post a blind comment but I made the mistake of reading the blog post. After I got through laughing I can't help but think of that remark from the late, great philosopher Yogi Berra who said, "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

Ziggy said...

I can't afford the freight either way: book($95) or shipping ($495).
Appreciate your valuable time Hose.

Dave Miner said...

pretty sure I'm not in it.... I think I will read the Canterbury Tales instead.
I'm not in that either..

PaulG said...

This is absolutely the best and most objective way to do a book review. It's the book review equivalent of blind tasting. If you actually read the book first, you can't help but be biassed. If you know only the basic info - the title, and in this instance, the weight - your opinions are truly unhampered by any preconceptions. I'd like this approach to be applied to movie reviews also. I mean, once you've seen the movie, you know who the hell is in it! How can you be objective after that? You like Jennifer Aniston (well, who doesn't?) and by God, there she is in a new movie you're supposed to be reviewing. There goes your objectivity. Congratulations my friend. Once again, Señor Hose, you have broken ground as well as wind!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

You're sitting on your cigar.

You know, I love the idea of a blind comment! Hell, all my pieces are about the same. Though, now that I think about it, for years I've received blind comments. They go something like, "Great post, Hose. I spit coffee all over my screen."

Thanks. The time it took to not read NV Then and Now I could have not been doing something more valuable.

I don't think you're in her book. At least I didn't see your name when I wasn't reading it. Maybe you need to have dinner at Press a little more often, my friend. I'm available...

So you're saying there isn't "A Miner's Tale" in Chaucer? I was sure I studied that in college. Which is where I learned to review books without having read them.

Precisely. It's easy to review books you've read. Doing it blind is so much more challenging, and so much more honest. Though, of course, I did know who wrote it, and I've always loved Jennifer Aniston's wine writing.

jock said...

Ron. You must have been a goody two-shoes when you were young. I learned how to review books without reading them in High School.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Fuck, I knew I should have gone to high school.

Quizicat said...

You missed Carly Simon's quote on the book... 'You're so vain, you probably think this book is about you.' And many were correct.

Tom In Real Life said...

I think you're on to something here. Next up? Reviews of books no one has written. As usual, thanks for the Monday-morning chuckle.

Robert Millman said...

Ron--May I suggest a book for you not-to-write that we cannot read: Pimps and Bitches: the Definitive Guide to the world's Best wines Writers
bob Millman

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Carly must have been singing about the Warren Beatty Ranch Vineyard. Now there's an obscure Napa reference.

I've been on to this something for years now. I think my first Blind Book Review was for Asimov's "How To Love Wine." And that's a couple years ago, anyway. There's a whole list of the blind reviews in my Compost Heap. As for reviews of books no one has written, I did the only objective thing--I didn't write them. Though a few I raved about.

Good suggestion, but I'd never not write a book that had "Definitive Guide" anywhere in the title. That's a sure sign it's schlock. Though I could write a Definitive Guide to Definitive Guides, I guess.

My head is starting to hurt.

Rob Romano said...

It flows in their vains...

Love it! True.

gabriel jagle said...

Excellent, and exactly what I would expect from Napa Valley. Next up, you should blind review a book about the Willamette Valley. Nobody has read it, but they've all heard it's good.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Williamette Valley? Where's that? Who'd write a book about that? Is that in Virginia?

The Blind Book Reviews are fun to write, but they also point out the foolishness and emptiness of most wine book reviews. I haven't read NV Then and Now, and for all I know it's a great resource. Doesn't matter. That's not my point. My point is that so much of what surrounds the marketing of books relies on fake reviews, sycophantic reviews, and thoughtless reviews. Mine simply admit to that. In fact, maybe next time I'll write a Blind Book Review that absolutely fawns over a book, though it would have to be the right book. Maybe Blinky will publish one.

Meanwhile, if your intention is to write a serious and scholarly book about Napa Valley, isn't it shooting yourself in the footnotes to publish it in a seven-pound format on very expensive paper with giant photographs of wine bottles? It's the definition of all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Charlie Olken said...

This is the kind of book that winds up on the remainder tables in a couple of years for 75% off. By then, I still will not have read it and it still won't be a bargain.

But I do appreciate your not reading it so I don't have to.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

It won't end up on remainder tables because it's not really distributed. But it just may end up propping up wobbly tables in Press.

Charlie, you're the one person (and maybe your partner Stephen) I wish had read Ms. White's book and had written about it. I'd love to hear your perspective on the book and it's Napa Valley history, what she gets right and what she missed. And, truly, I think it's odd she didn't send you a review copy. I wonder if Bob Foster got one to review for California Grapevine... Probably not. Instead, she sends it to Alice Feiring and Allen Meadows! Yes, world-renowned CA wine experts.

Am I the only one who points out who stupid this is? I guess it's not that hard to play wine geeks for fools.

Charlie Olken said...

Other than overdosing on late harvest Zinfandel, writing a wine book these days is one of the best ways of killing a lot of gray cells. Sure, the occasional book finds an audience like The Wine Bible but most books about wine come and go in a flash and never amount to a hill of beans in compensation for a couple of years of extracurricular research.

That is why I know longer write books that no one will read--whether or not they get reviewed without having been read. Instead, I pen a blog that no one reads. The emotional cost is a lot lower that way because it is only an hour or two--usually late at night.

The day of great winewriting is past for the same reason that independent newsletters sans advertising are going to fade away. The internet is partly responsible for letting a thousand voices loose on the wine world, but so too are the people like Hugh Johnson whose good works have filled the world with so much of the most important literature on wine. The Wine Bible breaks new ground for the massive amount of existing information stuffed into a one pound package. I applaud the feat but am not sure how useful the book really is in today's world.

As for Kelli White's book, when a book is filled with pretty pictures and costs $95, it cannot be a serious work for winelover's contemplation. The price alone will keep most people from the book.

susan wu said...

When I typed her name and the book, I saw Antonio had hosted a private dinner to celebrate the launching of the book by pouring expensive old Napa Cabs. Now that I've known the $95 price tag of the book, I can imagine the magnitude of the check for that dinner. Seems that some have started to reap their investment in Ms. White and the book. I also saw from online volume of the book - though it covers only NP - has doubled the height of Jancis' world wine atlas. Does that remind you of the voice from the guys who exhorted Mr. White to make the book big & sexy like a sexy top "ample enough to accommodate large breasts"?

Just when Ms. White was feeling chipper and about to celebrate herself gaining a foothold in Hollywood Napa and wine biz, there came the discriminating HoseMaster and Uncle Ron who marched to a different drummer.

It's agonizing when one starts to think about the amount of nature's resources - trees for paper, electricity for running a printer, plants for ink, and so forth -that have been sacrificed to please some folks' appetite for fame.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Your points are well-taken. If you want to write an interesting, scholarly, informative book as a resource, why publish it in that kind of format for that kind of price? Vanity. No other reason. Though I'm guessing I'll see it in 200 wineries in Napa Valley, if I'm ever foolish enough to show my face there. It's a Napa Valley book down to its very empty core. Honestly, it's almost Volume 3 of the Winery Dogs books.

Susan Darling,
I'm not that concerned about the waste of natural resources--one issue of Wine Spectator is far, far worse. What made me laugh was Alice Feiring's glowing blurb of such an unnecessary waste of resources about a region she mostly disparages.

No one cares what the HoseMaster says. I'm sure there are a lot of orders being shipped as we speak. When you have a cellarful of Napa Cabernet, compete for attention on chat rooms, create an identity you want people to associate with rare and expensive wines, $95 is nothing. I don't care if she sells a million copies. And I don't blame her for the book's format. I'm sure that wasn't her idea. It was a book designer working for Leslie Rudd, probably, as you aptly point out. But, me? I wouldn't want my name on that book's cover.

Which is why I'm a measly blogger, and she's a bigshot. Leslie told her so.

Tom In Real Life said...

We just received our copies for resale. (We were told, not asked, to carry it) Tossed one on the scale and it weighed in at... 18lbs! It's absurd. We're charging $15 to ship it and I'm certain we're losing money. I feel bad for the UPS driver and the poor bastard who gets one of these as a gift this holiday season. Yikes.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

That's funny. Though this time of year, most of the turkeys weigh 18 pounds.

Well, it may not be the best, but it's easily the heaviest wine book of the year. Very handy if you want to drown kittens.