The Wine Savant, A guide to the New Wine Culture, Michael Steinberger

30th Jun 2014

Have you ever noticed that the trailer for the new “best movie this summer” ends up being the best thing about  it?. Sitting in front of the 4D screen , we are promised groundbreaking effects, award wining cinematography and a plot to make you weep for a week. So off we go to spend our £10 on this golden glimpse of heaven. And by the way, either I haven’t been to the cinema for a really really long time or the news we are in a recession hasn’t hit, but I remember a ticket costing £4.70, back in the day I suppose? More often than not, the film is adequate to fill in 2 hours of our day but does little to impart anything particular on us and you cant help wondering as you leave the cinema, popcorn stuck to various parts of your clothing,  what else could I have spent my £10 note on?

The sleeve on a book is like a movie trailer, and sometimes, hiding at the back of Waterstones, I even imagine the rich dark tones of the voice over man reading out loud those enticing words that begs me to spend another of my £10 notes in my purse. Steinberger’s new book, The Wine Savant, I think does just that. It promises scandal, sensationalism all topped off with the panache of expertise… I quote “punchy, polemical and brimming with insights to educate and entertain…Steinberger tramps through the world of contemporary wine from three-buck chuck and bucket list Bordeaux… to give the inside scoop on key concerns facing new generations of wine lovers.” Sounds great doesn’t it?

As books go and especially wine books, this is surprisingly easy to read. Steinberger is a competent writer. Not only does this show in the confident flow his book takes. His constant reminders to us that he use to write for Slate,  a US wine magazine, certainly confirms that, yes, he definitely use to  be somebody. There is a lot to like with this book, and I really wanted to like it. He covers some big topics with relative ease, including Bordeaux verses Burgundy in “The  Beaune Supremacy”  and a very approachable take on the difficult topic of biodynamic wines in “The wrath of grapes”. He offers a witty insight into issues he obviously feels passionately about and his writing style is very easy to absorb.

He spends a good deal of time at the start, explaining the intricacies of wine drinking, wine tasting and how to write good notes. He seems to imply, certainly for a large chunk of the first part of the book that he is writing for the wine enthusiast. Indeed the chapter “Becoming a Wine Maven” gives you precise instructions of how to taste, how to write notes and who to read. And as if to make my point, he even recommends books to read if you are starting out, including “An idiots guide to wine”. This chapter, whilst still witty and light in texture, feels like a waste of his talents. He offers a particular type of wine writing and this section of the book would have been better served with another of his witty stories about the highs and lows of the wine world.  And here is where my problem starts; if I was looking for a book to read to get learn abit more about wine, this simply isn’t a book that you would stumble upon.

And I did struggle with other elements of the book. For all its high points, I was never quite convinced that he actually enjoys or respects the wine world. He seems rather too comfortable dismissing some of what makes the wine world, just that. A small particular world that is completely and utterly focused on wine. I am not saying  that this is always a good thing, but it is how it is. Just like the world of banking or education, there are ways to behave, things you do and don’t do, how to behave, the critiques and the rave reviews. On many occasions, he tries to identify with the reader by belittling the very world that he operates in and indeed has given him a decent living for the past 20 years. His dismissive attitude to his counterparts, be it other wine writers, critics or Sommeliers makes me really rather frustrated with this man. He has talents and on the whole, he is putting them to good use. But in the end, will the lay person, the person picking up this book respect the wine world any more for reading this book? Or, as I suspect, feel it, “the wine world” is all a little more foolish that at first suspected. We desperately need more writers like  Steinberger, talented and very particularly adept at spinning a good yarn, but we really could do with more of them batting for our side. 


Further reading