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31 January 2012
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10 February 2012

Taking wine and words to new places


Robert Camuto is a career American journalist who moved to the South of France in 2001 and started snooping around cellars and vineyards to write about the changes taking place in France’s 21st Century Wine World. The product of that Exploration was his first book Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country (2008), which was translated in French and has won several prestigious awards. His second book Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey (2010) was referred to by Eric Asimov in the New York Times as “beautiful, enthralling work.” Robert writes for several U.S, publications including the Wine Spectator, Food & Wine and the Washington Post Travel. He writes:

Oenologists analyze it, critics grade it, snobs show off with it, some try to politicize it and sommeliers wax eloquent about it —all in an effort to define an experience that is personal and subjective. The more we seem to know about wine the less we understand it.

This might seem like a heresy coming from someone who has spent much of the last decade writing about wine and winemakers, but I think it’s true. The fact that some wines still defy codification makes it worthy of spilling more ink and drink.

My background is journalism, and after moving to the South of France, I started following the currents of French wine. It was a compelling story: after decades of industrialization, new generations of winemakers were returning to smaller production and simpler methods. Forgotten, unknown or unappreciated wine regions were suddenly turning out interesting wines that reflected a sense of place. This renaissance has since spread across Europe and the winegrowing Old World.

My explorations in France and my ancestral terroir of Sicily have led to two critically acclaimed books which feature some of the characters – and I mean characters—that have shaped the world of wine in those places.

These neo-paysans or contadini not only have a far greater contact with and understanding of nature than most of us, but they also tend to be quirky, independent-minded individuals who pour a lot of themselves into what they bottle.

Over the years I have met hundreds of winemakers including refugees of modern society, neo-peasants with degrees in design, eastern philosophy or engineering, aristocrats who view the land practically as a family member, and those who simply have wine in their blood.

Are these personalities evident in their wines? Absolutely.

It is natural that we modern humans have developed technical analysis and a vocabulary for describing wine as well as sophisticated ways to control production and drive the markets. Industrial wine science has developed all kinds of corrections and tricks to make wines that hit all the right notes. You want  “black cherry with hints of tobacco and road tar” you got it. In the luxury wine industry grand crus are traded as if on a stock exchange.

But often our wine vocabulary is often incapable of describing the soul of a soulful wine.  Wine is a living thing that joins us at the table and is a dinner companion among our group. Wines, like people, have moods and personalities that change over time and the seasons and with whom, when and with what they are drunk.

Several years ago, the Cote Rotie winemaker Gilles Barge told me, “A good wine is a wine you find to be good. A great wine is a wine you remember… All the rest is literature.”

He had a point, but that hasn’t stopped me from going deeper into that literature and discovering some surprising wines along the way.


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