Anne Stinson - December 2008

Love of Wine

Love of Children

by

Anne Stinson

Cork Screwed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country by Robert V. Camuto. University of Nebraska Press. 212 pages. $24.95.

   Where else but in France, the citadel of fine wine making (okay, California has edged into their hegemony in recent time), could “Blonde” describe a wine on one part of a slope and “Brune” define another part of the same slope, growing the same variety of grapes?
    It happens.
    The French are notably described as a passionate people. Their real passion, according to Robert Camuto’s Cork Screwed, is wine. They savor wine with the depth of feeling of new lovers. They obsess over reds, whites and rosés, the men who grow grapes, who make wine and argue about it. Most of all, they drink it.
    Paradoxically, just as Americans are being lectured about the virtues of a glass of red wine for various ailments, the French government is tut-tutting drinkers for intemperance in their own country. One has to wonder about the condition of their livers.
    Camuto provides delightful observations of how much the French revere their food and wines. At one memorable feast given at a wine seller’s conference, lunch started at 2:30 p.m. and concluded eight courses later at 7 p.m. Each course had its appropriate wine. After further merrymaking, a late supper commenced before midnight and ended nearly 24 hours after the marathon bacchanalia began.
    That was admittedly an exception to the rule. In private homes of less grandeur, as well as tiny eateries in small towns, the meals were often simple, but always delicious and always with wine.
    Camuto’s journey lapses over several years and in his trek he visited small private vineyards and single-family wine makers. Many of these regional producers are finding new markets and fans of individual wines, made as they have been for generations.
    The front of the book has a map of France marked with regions familiar to oenophiles the world over. In a big circle, the names are familiar to anyone who’s ever popped a cork: Bordeaux, Rousillon, Langd’oc, Provence, up the valley of the Rhone to Beaujolais, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace and west to the Loire Valley and Normandy. The map is so helpful that if there’s a second edition of the book, the map should appear at the beginning of every chapter.
    Each of the 14 chapters looks at a different region and a different set of characters. What a diverse and vividly drawn lot of people they portray! The chapter heads alert us to the fascinating story in each journey of discovery.
    Camuto opens with a chapter that gives the background for his quest. Its title is “As the Corkscrew Turns.” He follows it with a visit to a “Rebel with a Chateau” in the ancient village of Saint Emilion, where 800 small vineyards in the area make dry red wines. It was here, Camuto relates, that the term “garage wines” was coined. That Patriarch of one of the families is full of pithy conversation. It’s an outspoken trait noted in many subsequent stops on Camuto’s pilgrimage.
   “The Wrath of Grapes” furthers the author’s quest to learn more about his favorite beverage. This time he’s in northern France at Alsace on the German border. For a week he tries his hand at harvesting grapes. He finds it to be the worst kind of stoop labor that gave him a fierce backache. Added to the muscle pain, the stem-cutting knives were awkward and dangerous for the uninitiated. The bonus to the job was the benevolent vineyard owner and the long wine-fortified midday lunches.
   “Drinking with Uncle Jacque” combines critiquing wine with a curmudgeonly old man and his maddening habit of repeating the same thing ad infinitum. Patience and compassion, softened by the grape, triumph with humor.
    The French have a name for the peculiarities of the soil in each region – they call it terroir, and it’s treated with respect. Modern mega-vineyards, the small winegrowers lament, have relied too much on inorganic sprays, herbicides and fertilizers. They’re killing the soil in the eyes of the traditionalists.
    Another chapter that will linger in the mind is a side trip Camuto took to the vineyards and wine makers of Corsica. Dark wine, dark rivalries, he writes.
    The author moved to France with his French-born wife five years ago and began his quest. The project overturned many of his preconceptions about wine. It also instilled in him huge admiration for the small vintners and their wines, redolent with the scents of soil, wildflowers, tobacco and, yes, animals.
    Whether you’re a wine lover, a travel lover or just a reader who loves a good adventure, this book should be a must for the cold season ahead.
   As Omar Khayyam wrote in The Rubiayat,
    I wonder often what the vintners buy
    One half so precious as the stuff they sell.

    So does Camuto, and so do I.

   Contrary to popular fears, most children past, say, the second grade, can read. And surprisingly, regardless of the passive entertainment of TV and the corrosive attraction of electronics (fill in the blanks with the toy of your child’s choice: computer, iPod, BlackBerry, Tivo, whatever else fills the mind with sawdust), some kids DO read. Yeah, actual books. Is that like weird or what?
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children could discover the magic that happens when words on a page make your own TV pictures in your mind?
    Here’s a book that fits that bill, just in the nick of time.
    It’s a great gift for the wee ones who are lap-sitters and page-turners, or pre-teens who can read for themselves, and even for certified adolescents who may or may not be persuaded to voluntarily pick up a book. It could fill a spot in Santa’s sack of goodies.
    For the “tweens” on your list, I highly recommend a lovely little book, Autumn Journey by Priscilla Cummings, Tidewater Publishers. 118 pages. $12.95.
    Cummings is the prolific writer of the beloved Chadwick the Crab stories and a long list - 17 in all - of Chesapeake Bay-flavored picture books for tots. This is her first novel, her 18th title.
    The circumstances of the tale should be familiar to any pre-teen who hasn’t been in a coma these last few months. Times are bad, young Will’s dad has been laid off from his job as a longshoreman on Baltimore’s docks, he can’t find work, had his house foreclosed, is bankrupt – the whole litany of misery.
    The only silver lining in this dark cloud is the family’s move to southern Pennsylvania to Grampa’s farm. Every summer since he was a toddler, Will has spent a month at the farm, trading the hot, noisy streets of the city for the woods, gentle hills and pastures and a creek. He adores Grampa and the love is mutual. His mom, dad and twin baby sisters settle in while dad looks for work - in vain.
    It’s been more than a year since dad brought home a paycheck and things are tense between Will’s parents. Will has the added stress of entering a new school and trying to lure his depressed dad into the things they used to enjoy together. Will desperately wants to go goose hunting with his dad and uncle, and when dad says no, Grampa steps in to teach Will to shoot.
    It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the plot by giving away more of the story, but both boys and girls will identify with the beautifully written story that limns an autumn journey for Will, his parents, siblings, new school friends and teacher, but most of all Grampa, a special traveler and the unusual bond that closes a circle of love.
    Cummings is at her best in this book that stays with the reader long after the final page. Never cloying, it creates drama without melodrama, and with a sense of the amazing resilience of kids in a bad spot. Her prose captures the fragile time between timidity and confidence of a growing child.
    It can’t be faked. Cummings has made it vividly real. I love this book.