Red, White, Expensive, Cheap, Fake, Poisoned—Great Stories About Wine

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Aug. 5 2012 7:15 AM

The Longform Guide to Wine

Red, white, expensive, cheap, fake, poisoned—great tales from the world of wine.

Glass of red wine.
Stories with a great finish

Photo by Photodisc/thinkstock.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

Luckily, writing about wine requires far less pretension than talking about it does.


Fortune • 1934

One man’s dream to turn America into a post-prohibition wine utopia.

“The statistics told Mr. Garrett more. In 1918 some 3,000,000 gallons of wine were imported to fill the slippers of chorus girls and the gullets of the rich. Most of the 51,000,000 gallons produced domestically was sold in bulk and drunk by the foreign-born people of the cities. Of the 159,000,000 gallons consumed in 1928 only a few thousand were imported and only 5,000,000 produced legally and domestically for refreshment while communing with the Lord. That left 154,000,000 gallons which were made illegally in cellars and legally in homes. Since the foreign-born population has not increased since 1918, it seems logical to conclude that much of the 100,000,000-gallon increase in those years was due to new habits contracted by the rank and file of the population. In other words, prohibition has done something very startling to the taste of this nation.”

Maximillian Potter • Vanity Fair • May 2011

Who would poison the vines of the tiny, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine?

“Whoever was responsible, de Villaine was convinced, knew exactly what he was doing by targeting the D.R.C. It was clearly someone who had been sneaking around in his vineyard, and for quite some time, to produce such a detailed sketch. What’s more, it appeared to de Villaine that whoever it was likely knew a great deal about wine. The second letter included sophisticated wine-making terms, like décavaillonnage and démontage.

“And there was this fact: from what the police had discovered, the criminal, or criminals, used a syringe to inject the poison. This was especially significant—over the centuries, vignerons had used such a pal or syringe-like technique to inject liquid carbon disulfide into the soil and save the vineyards from devastating infestations by the phylloxera insect. Meaning, the very methodology that had been used to preserve the vines was now being employed in an attempt to kill the vineyards of Romanée-Conti.”

Dana Goodyear • The New Yorker • May 2009

Fred Franzia makes a lot of money selling really cheap wine.

“Not long ago, Fred Franzia celebrated the sale of the four-hundred- millionth bottle of Charles Shaw, a wine that costs $1.99 at Trader Joe's and is known by the chummy nickname Two Buck Chuck. ‘Take that and shove it, Napa,’ he said. ‘Four hundred million and climbing.’ Franzia owns forty thousand acres of vineyards, more than anyone in the country; he crushes three hundred and fifty thousand tons of grapes a year, more, he figures, than anyone but his cousin Joseph Gallo, at E. & J. Gallo Winery; and his company, Bronco, has annual revenues of more than five hundred million dollars. Franzia's objective is to sell as much wine as possible—he sells twenty million cases a year now, which makes Bronco the fourth-largest winery in the United States, and would like to reach a hundred million—and his strategy is to charge next to nothing for it. He believes that no bottle of wine should cost more than ten dollars. Jim Carter, a salesman who represents Bronco's products overseas, says that at these prices the competition for wine is bottled water.”

Benjamin Wallace • New York • May 2012

The rare-wine world gets conned.

“The high-end-wine community was bewitched by its newest mystery man. Kurniawan wore clothing that was L.A.-hip and noticeably pricey: selvage jeans, custom Hermès suits, Patek Philippe watches, Chrome Hearts glasses, crocodile boots. He’d flap open his jacket to reveal a silk lining printed with a repeating cursive ‘Rudy,’ or tease someone for having merely a Platinum Amex compared with his own Centurion card. Occasionally, he’d have a woman on his arm, such as a hostess from one of the restaurants he patronized, or be accompanied by a brother visiting from Asia, but usually he arrived alone. He was an hour late to everything, which struck some as a trust-fund slacker’s nonchalance and others as arrogance. And he disclosed only the wispiest details of his past. He’d moved from Indonesia to the U.S. to attend Cal State Northridge on a golf scholarship, he told one friend, then dropped out and opened a golf store. His ethnic-Chinese family owned a major Asian beer distributorship in Indonesia, he would say, and paid him a hefty monthly allowance to stay out of their hair. The beer was Guinness. No, it was Heineken. He got $1 million a month. No, $2 million. Though Wasserman invited Kurniawan to his house several times, Kurniawan always had an excuse and never reciprocated. Wasserman chalked it up to ‘OCD issues, or a certain amount of intimacy he didn’t want to have.’

“Among a privileged set, though, Kurniawan’s quirks and résumé gaps were of much less interest than his generosity.”

Calvin Trillin • The New Yorker • August 2002

Investigating whether or not anyone can really tell them apart.

“Why? Because, as best I can remember, it was from Bruce or one of his acquaintances in the Napa Valley that I first heard about the color test given at the University of California at Davis, whose Department of Viticulture and Enology is renowned in the wine world. I got the impression that the Test was often given to visitors from the wine industry, but since this was about twenty years ago, such details are hazy. I was definitely told, though, that the folks at Davis poured wine that was at room temperature into black glasses—thus removing the temperature and color cues that are a large part of what people assume is taste—and that the tasters often couldn’t tell red wine from white. After Bruce returned from a short course at Davis in the mid-seventies, he had someone at the Joseph Phelps winery, where he then worked, set up a red-white test with black glasses. Bruce got three out of five.”

William Langewiesche • Atlantic • December 2000

A profile of wine critic Robert Parker.

“But here's how strong he has become: many people now believe that Robert Parker is single-handedly changing the history of wine. That's saying a lot. There are more than forty wine-producing countries in the world today, of which France is the first and the United States is the fourth; China is on the list. These countries have planted 30,000 square miles of vineyards and are making the equivalent of 35 billion bottles of wine every year. Parker directly controls the merest patch of all this -- a micro-winery called Beaux Frères, near Newburg, Oregon, which he owns with his brother-in-law and refuses to promote. The wines produced there (from pinot noir grapes) are not necessarily among the best, but they keep Parker from sounding off about winemaking as, he says, a eunuch might sound off about sex. He is not an exporter, an importer, or a money man. He is a self-employed consumer advocate, a crusader in a peculiarly American tradition. It's really very simple, or so it seems at first. Parker samples 10,000 wines a year. He sniffs and sips them, and scribbles little notes. Some of the wines are good, and some are not--according to Parker. If he is changing wine history, as people claim, it is purely through the expression of his taste.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

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