Simon reviews Kevin Begos's new book "Tasting the Past - The science of flavor and the search for the origins of wine"

Tasting-the-Past-Book-CoverWhen I first heard about Kevin Begos’s new book, my own magnum opus was about to roll off the printing presses. As it shared some historical ground with “Tasting the Past”, fellow authors may understand my mild panic. Might this book hold answers to puzzles I’d failed to resolve, or illuminate topics that I’d under-explored or even neglected? Could it render my entire thesis null and void, just days before I was about to offer it up to the world?

It certainly sounded like there was treasure within. Begos’s inspiration stemmed from a random bottle of Palestinian red wine enjoyed in a Jordan hotel room in 2005. His quest begins a few years later, as he attempts to discover more about Israel and Palestine’s long and seemingly undocumented history of making wine and cultivating indigenous grape varieties.

Begos puts his journalist’s shoulder to the wheel, and uncovers a slew of detail about the Holy Land’s vinous past, over the course of a decade and several return visits to Jerusalem. His research is original, the information pretty much exclusive. I was gripped. Israel is a dark corner when it comes to winemaking history, poorly understood and seldom explored. Its latter-day wine industry quickly adopted French and other international grape varieties, flying in winemaking expertise from equally foreign climes and obliterating the past.

From here, Begos sets off on various tangents, linked by the wish to solve the eternal riddle “where did the first wine come from?” It’s something of a personal journey, as he progresses from near-neophyte to wine expert over a ten year period. It’s this element that ultimately threatens to derail the book. There’s a slight lack of focus, even evident in the ‘cover-all-bases’ sub-title. The book doesn’t pursue its primary goal single-mindedly, but wanders agreeably down several more or less obscure rabbit-holes, as Begos hunts down an impressive list of experts who might be able to help him in his quest – or sometimes just explores other wine-related conundrums that happen to divert him.

Committed wine geeks will be familiar with many of the characters, and the tales they have to tell. Begos spends time in Valais (Switzerland) with José Vouillamoz, perhaps the world’s most prominent and important grape geneticist, and also hooks up with Dr Patrick McGovern to learn about the celebrated discovery of 8,000-year-old grape pips in a qvevri in Georgia. Of course, he explores Georgia too, and has an in-depth conversation with the monks at Alaverdi Monastery about the nation’s winemaking traditions.

Begos’s prose is straightforward and easy to read. There’s extremely minimal embellishment, which allows the factual and historical nuggets to take centre-stage. Begos himself is the catalyst through which the book advances its dramatic arc. Readers of any of Alice Feiring’s first three books, or Robert V. Camuto’s Palmento will feel at home, although Begos stays in the background to a much greater degree than either of these authors.

Chapters 15 & 16, “American wine grapes” and “The dark side of wine science” are where the focus seems to drift more seriously. While it’s fascinating to read about the Frankenstein-like attempts to synthesize wine, and similarly diverting to explore the efforts of modern-day American wine growers to utilise hybrid varieties, these stories are only tenuously linked to the book’s main thrust.

I’d hoped to hear more about the ancient world and the forgotten traditions in the middle east and the Caucasus, so for me the book didn’t fully deliver on its early promise. Begos struggles to find a definitive answer about wine’s origins, as have many of the redoubtable experts who feature in his book. That said, “Tasting the Past” is a thoroughly readable traverse through many of wine’s ancient and modern-day hinterlands. It tackles many of the big questions that continue to provoke and trouble wine lovers, in an intelligent and sympathetic manner.

For the moment, there are no revelations that Jesus served orange wine to accompany the bread and fishes, or that Jerusalem was the birthplace of wine. Be that as it may, Begos has made it very clear that the Middle East should not be ignored by any serious wine historian. I’ll be taking that to heart for the second edition of Amber Revolution.

Tasting the Past is published by Algonquin Books and available from all the usual outlets, price around €25.
Buy from Indiebound or direct from the publisher.

My copy was provided for review.