A MOVEABLE THIRST: Tales and Tastes from a season Napa Wine Country
By Rick Kushman and Hank Beal
Wiley Paperback Hoboken, N.J. 2007ISBN-13: 978-0-471-79386-1
336 pages, $18.95
Napa County, the crown jewel of the California winemaking industry, has somewhere in the neighborhood of 475 wineries. The seemingly Sisyphean task of cataloging, visiting and reviewing each of these has been cheerfully undertaken by authors Rick Kushman and Hank Beal with their new book, “A Moveable Thirst.”
The bona fides of the authors are more than sufficient to the task. Since this is also a buddy story one is tempted to pigeonhole them with a simplistic Abbott and Costello-like characterization, but that would be inaccurate because they make a formidable team for their purpose. Kushman is the Sacramento Bee television columnist who brings his extensive journalistic credentials to the table. Beal is the head wine and liquor buyer and for the Northern California Nugget Market chain. Kushman has the role of the wine novice whose thirst for all knowledge wine related is steadily quaffed as Beal, the straightman, parses out the knowledge in satisfying portions.
The first half of the book explores the Napa Valley itself, physically and culturally, devoting chapters to each of the 11 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that lie within Napa. These are officially designated regions that have been determined to possess growing conditions that produce uniquely identifiable wines. The second half is the nuts and bolts portion listing wineries by region with salient information visitors will need to know when paying a call. The book offers a lot of tips and useful tidbits that will help visitors prepare for a visit and choose where to go.
Guidebooks have an inherent drawback in that the “use by” date often passes quickly after publication. Given the explosive growth of the wine industry and the attendant tourism in Napa this could prove problematic for such a guidebook. But that would be to miss the point since the book offers much more than maps and vital statistics of wineries (those can be found at the Convention and Visitors Bureau). Kushman’s self-deprecating perspective is front and center here and it works because most of us fall into his camp, that is, we arrive armed mostly with ignorance. It is also reassuring to those who might otherwise be intimidated by the thought of tackling the mysterious and venerated world of wine. Again, Kushman’s light touch delivers the appropriate irreverence necessary to remove the intimidation of the subject brought on by the fatuous wine writing with which most people are familiar. Kushman strips away the chimera of pretentiousness and replaces it with the useful idea of learning and having fun.
One criticism I have here is that the book tends to be too generous in its appraisal of the serving staffs at wineries, too often describing them as knowledgeable and well-grounded in wine. My own experience is that, while that may be true of the mom-and-pop wineries, the larger places are geared to serve a multitude of visitors and their servers are inclined to engage in patter that is too practiced and comes off as programmed information rather than genuine knowledge.
One comes away from “A Moveable Thirst” with an appreciation for the manners and mores of the wine culture of the Napa Valley. More importantly, they remind us that it is supposed to be fun and interesting. Although our intrepid authors did indeed undertake a Sisyphean task, they reveal the slope to be not too steep after all.
--reviewed by Michael Eady