Unquenchable: Natalie MacLean’s Terrific New Book on Wine

If, like me – overwhelmed by the hundreds of possible choices in front of you at the grocery store or local wine shop – you’ve ever stood in front of the endless shelves of stunning wine bottles and felt like just closing your eyes and grabbing a bottle, any bottle (preferably one on the lower shelves where the price stickers read below $10 a bottle), then, you’re going to just love Canadian wine writer Natalie Maclean’s new book, Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.

Wine can be fun. It can be tasty. It’s certainly sexy.

And, the best part: it CAN be cheap and good.

You probably don’t think that wine can be that last one, because like me, you no doubt have memories of Ripple or Night Train that prove the point that cheap wine is always plonk, no matter what.

But according to this award-winning wine writer, wine can be inexpensive and good. And not plonk at all.

From the very first sentence, written in Ms. MacLean’s unique chatty voice, Unquenchable draws you in. “The question I’m asked most often: ‘What’s your favorite wine?’ My answer: ‘The one someone else pays for.’” But when she’s not in a “smart-ass mood,” as she puts it, “It’s simple snobbery to suggest that only pricey bottles have the unexplained magic that leaves us reaching for the words to express what we’re smelling, tasting, feeling.”

Ms. Maclean trained as a sommelier and she’s the only person to have won both the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation and the M.F.K. Fisher Award for excellence in Culinary Writing from Les Dames d’Escoffier. She writes articles that appear in big-gun food media like Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and Wine Enthusiast. In another life, she danced her way to a championship in Highland dancing.

Unquenchable covers eight of the world’s wine-growing regions, arranged by days of the week (yes, Sunday crops up twice, you’ll under why when you get to the end of this review): Australia, Germany, Canada, South Africa, Sicily, Argentina, Portugal, and Provence. Ms. Maclean visited an average of thirty to forty wineries in each region and tasted thousands of wines in the process.

Each of the eight chapters in Unquenchable features one of these regions. This is not, however, a dull, dry, encyclopedic attempt to make sense of the world of wine.

No, Unquenchable reminds me of reading a great book of short stories, because of the vibrant writing and the amazing characters Ms. MacLean meets on her journeys.

Take the eighth chapter, “Sunday: La Vie en Rosé en Provence.”  Ms. MacLean is speeding down the autoroute du Soleil, “the yellow fields of Provence around me are ablaze with the red and blue of poppies and lavender. I can see the orchards heavy with apricots and plums … .” She pulls in front of the Château de Roquefort, meeting vintner Raimond Villeneuve, who lives in a one-room apartment in his twenty-three room chateau because he needed someplace to store two-hundred thousand bottles of wine! They walk out to noise of a braying donkey named Polie who loves her rosé and will even pick up bottles when she can and drink as best she can. And Mr. Villeneuve explains the magic behind the production of Provençal rosé. So well does Ms. Maclean convey the essence of the wine that you can just see yourself running to the nearest wine seller and buying a bottle of rosé to quaff, dreaming of sunshine and a long lazy afternoon, preferably mosquito-free.

Before she delves into her visit and her Sunday lunch to another Provençal winery, Domaine du Clos d’Alari, Ms. Maclean briefly describes other rosé-producing regions, giving you some perspective on other choices in case your local Kroger doesn’t carry Provencal rosés. And the whipped cream on the cake, so to speak, turns out to be Ms. MacLean’s visit with Peter Mayle, author of many books on Provence.

Filled with fact-rich conversations and observations, every chapter reads like chapter eight: pithy, earthy, and just plain engrossing.

But there’s more!

Each chapter ends with a section titled, “Field Notes from a Wine Cheapskate.” You get “Insider Tips,” a bulleted list of things to consider about the wines under discussion in the chapter. Then you’ll find the Web sites for the wineries Ms. Maclean featured in the chapter. Following that, the meat of the matter: “Best Value Wines,” with a list of the “Top Value Producers.” Ms. MacLean doesn’t forget that food and wine go together like, well, bacon eggs: she provides the menu and a Web link to the recipes under “Sunday Lunch for a Wine Cheapskate.” (Every chapter, designated a day of the week, contains a delicious lunch menu.) “Wine Pairings” help you to see what foods go well with the wines mentioned in the chapter. Then for the truly enamored and intellectually curious, a list “Resources” provides you with the wherewithal to find out more about the wines and the region. And finally, for the literary-minded, “Related Readings” brings in novels and other similar writings featuring the wines and regions.

Unquenchable – brilliant, informative, fun, and empowering.

(It’s also available on Kindle, so, if you wish, you can synch it with your mobile phone and click on it when you’re standing in front of those immense, foreboding shelves of wine.)

For more of Natalie MacLean’s work, check out her Web site, where you’ll also find the recipes for the wine lunches mentioned in the book, at www.nataliemaclean.com.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen