Monday, January 20, 2014

Reading Mark Oldman's Brave New World of Wine

From October of 2010. I suppose he has long since published his next book by now.


Here's a delicate subject. The kind people at W. W. Norton asked me if I would like a copy of Mark Oldman's new book, Oldman's Brave New World of Wine. After contemplating the offer for about a second I replied, Yes, I'd be delighted to have a look at it.

I read it in an afternoon. Mr. Oldman, television host, educator, and wine writer for Everyday with Rachael Ray, is good; he lays out brief descriptions of over forty wines presented as unusual and economical alternatives to the same old things many of us safely buy and drink, or to the very grand things that, chances are, we'll never buy and drink. Each chapter is followed by a chart summarizing most of that chapter's information, grouped under short headlines like "Bravely Said" (a pronunciation guide), "Label Logic" (answering the grape-or-place question), or his trademark "Poosh it!" (being a small, interesting  detail on the wine). Each chapter ends, and the major sections of the book begin, with a unique invention, namely scatterplots tracking where various dots representing particular wines fall on an X axis showing price, and a Y axis showing adventurousness. 

I learned from him, in short easy doses. Moschofilero (mos-ko-FEE-la-roh), a Greek white that is not retsina, and Txakoli (choc-OH-lee), a Spanish white that is not albarino, were both new to me. And there were more. But naturally much of what Mr. Oldman considers "brave new pours" are a matter of personal preference and the luck of experience. Depending on where the reader is in his explorations of wine, the book may seem indeed deliciously adventurous or way too advanced or just random. For example, I happen to know Mavrodaphne, a sweet Greek red which he does not approach because he thinks it too obscure for anyone to find on a grocery store shelf (we carry it). And I am surprised to see him devote a chapter to New Zealand sauvignon blanc, as an "Audacious Alternative" to sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. This is a wine which I should think even newer drinkers know. The same reaction applies, of course, to those unique and inventive scatterplots. Why is an Australian riesling necessarily low in adventurousness while a madeira is high? It all depends.

These are minor quibbles. What most impresses me about the book is the way it is so carefully and painstakingly arranged as a tour de force of wine-publishing marketing. Brave New World was assembled for a purpose, and I have the distinct sense that Mark Oldman, while certainly the face of the little world that assembled it, the chief ambassador you might say, is not remotely the entire diplomatic party. When a book credits a Production Manager (Devon Zahn, here) in the fine print on the back of the title page, you may be sure you are holding in your hand the fruit of more than one man's mind.

I salute them. Wine publishing is tricky. There is a big audience out there comprised of "wine newbies" -- I absolutely consider myself one -- who want good-looking, cheerful books that give them correct, "insider" information on this complex topic. More importantly, this audience also wants its bedside reads to reassure them that wine is not complex. A paradox, no? No matter. We like to know that experts disagree with one another on the way wines taste and should taste, and on what foods go with them. We appreciate a reassuring story about an expert sloshing ice into her glass, albeit only for the four seconds needed to dilute some of the alcohol (see Chapter 26, on Lettie Teague doing this to her Cotes du Rhone "at New York's acclaimed Eleven Madison Park"). My old paperback friends The Wine Avenger (by Willie Gluckstern) and Fear of Wine (Leslie Brenner) gave me that same reassurance and encouragement, in the same flip style, when I first began borrowing wine books from my local library.

But Willie and Leslie muscled their way into print back in the '90s, which is tantamount in publishing to the late Cretaceous I suppose. They may have had reason to thank some people in their acknowledgments, as opposed to Mr. Oldman who generously thanks a small army, but on the whole their books still seemed the result of one writer sitting down with his ideas, a word processor, and perhaps a great, clunky cordless phone. Brave New World, with all its bells and whistles, is different, very much a la mode. It makes me wish I had been a potted plant in the room -- so much nicer than being a fly on the wall -- during the brainstorming sessions when it was all planned, when ideas were offered, decisions taken, projects allotted to people in cubicles at Norton, Hollywood publicists contacted, and balls got rolling. I don't doubt that the original rough sketch may have been Mr. Oldman's, but beyond that surely it had to have been quite the team effort. Only a committee could think of dividing food pairing recommendations into the two tiny little, at-a-glance categories "Loveable Feast" (general good matches) and "Locally Lusty" (what Greeks eat with moschofilero). The hundreds of celebrity quotes alone cannot have been items the author himself solicited, collected, filed, and then retyped in pleasing order in lengthy blocks throughout his manuscript. (We're glad to know Jodie Foster likes Chateau Petrus when she visits her sister in France.) And we have not even reminded ourselves of the summarizing charts, the scatterplots, the page-devouring appendices at the end laying out most of what was said before. All of it must have demanded -- what is the a la mode, cubicle word? -- major facilitating. 

Of course I could be wrong. Mr. Oldman himself may have done it all, and really lived through every story, including the one about racing to a restaurant through gangland Sao Paulo in the car with the bulletproof glass. At any rate surely he is responsible for Brave New World's prose.

That, regrettably, is a problem. There's not much of it -- perhaps half or even just one third of the book is actual writing. Facilitators seem to have kept him firmly to four or five paragraphs per wine. Reading everything through for the first time, I concluded he missed his true calling, which was to have been a gag writer for the Tonight Show, preferably in Johnny Carson's mid-'70s heyday. Enjoy him, or try, on the difference between chardonnay aged in oak and that not aged in oak: "Vintners hijack the pink Cadillac that drives so many warm-climate chardonnays and switch out its sheepskin seats for the spare elegance of cold leather." On txakoli: "... all in all, a spritzy, pleasantly sour rush that will revive you faster than Eskimo-kissing a round of smelling salts." On merlot which is too jammy and aged in oak too long: "Expensive merlot can be the opposite: overripe, sun-baked fruit plagued by more wood than a foreclosed Miami condo."

And this goes on and on, almost every sentence it seems another wisecrack, all of them adding up to a production (memo to Mr. Zahn) about as leaden as the Tonight Show has been for fifty years. Any good writer will recognize a pattern like this and put a stop to it. Or his editors will. If you haven't got an editor, you've still got Samuel Johnson, whose 18th-century advice remains priceless: "Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

There is much Mr. Oldman should have struck out. But stop. Even if you do lose patience, give him a second chance. Go back and read him again. He is rich in wine knowledge, and when he unbends and stops being too cute for words, when he stops being a personality and an ambassador for an excellent marketing project, which I hasten to say is not a bad thing to be, he can write plain English and pass on to adults some of the richness he has mastered. It's no coincidence that he rises to it when he faces either the Everests of the wine world -- Burgundy, chapter 18, Bordeaux, chapter 23 -- or something truly obscure, like the strange Napa winery called Scholium Project ("a cult favorite among in-the-know sommeliers"). He calms down then, and tells us useful things. Even his paragraphs get longer.

It's also these few passages that have a bit of, if not quite the eternal in them, then shall we say at least a little age-worthiness. For the rest of it, Brave New World can only be a book you'll dip into a half dozen times, looking up temporary novelties. You will soon exhaust its whirligig treasures, and for knowledge's sake will probably want to invest instead in a good, inexpensive paperback encyclopedia like Ron and Sharon Herbst's New Wine Lover's Companion.

Nevertheless I look forward to Mr. Oldman's next book (not only because I'd hate to be denied access to any future delicate subjects but also) because I think he can do far better. The wine publishing world is obviously athirst for material, and with these 283 pages plus appendices, a good team has produced a topical triumph. Bravi. Incidentally all readers seem to adore it, as they uniformly adored his first book. The weight of very favorable responses for him, not only from the great critics but even among the anonymous souls at Amazon.com, is downright startling. Brave New World boasts 19 reviews there, all of them five-star. His previous Guide to Outsmarting Wine, called "perfect" by the Wine Enthusiast, has 45 reviews, no less than 43 of them five-starred.

Yes, bravi from the potted plant in the conference room. Only as I stand eavesdropping I wonder -- what could Mark Oldman do entirely on his own?

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