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.