Noble Rot offers an interesting and in-depth look at key developments in Bordeaux over the last decade or so, a time that has probably seen more upheaval than any since the horrendous scandals of the early 1970's. In many ways, the birth of the garage movement in parallel with the apotheosis of Robert Parker, two phenomena made for each other, set off a revolution that will reverberate for decades to come, even if Steven Spurrier and other learned interlocutors have already proclaimed the whole garagiste thing a fad on the way out.
The book's narrative spins several threads together to tell its story. The primary focus, hence the book's title, is on the history of Chateau d'Yquem, the most famous sweet wine in the world, whose grapes owe their insane concentration to a mold that "ennobles" them while they rot. The other major storylines are a primer on the influence of Robert Parker, a history of the garage movement including the rise of Parker's partner in crime, Michel Rolland, and a profile of a leading Entre-de-Mers co-op and its peasant-farmer president. Along the way are sprinkled a variety of entertaining digressions and insights into the workings of other significant Bordeaux properties producing both red and sweet wines, as well as portraits of some key figures like Jeffrey Davies (hitherto unknown to me) who played a key if somewhat quiet role in the emergence of the garage movement.
The deepest treatment is naturally enough reserved for d'Yquem itself, and here the author retells the entire history of the property since the 18th century, not only the more recent events. Others may well disagree, but I found this tale of seemingly endless family feuds, intrigues and falling outs to be fatiguing over time. Too much "Dynasty" or is it Knott's Landing (?) and not enough d'Yquem might be one way of saying it, and it began to dull my palate long before I got to the end. Other sections have more energy and move at a faster clip.
Having recently read Elin McCoy's book, The Emperor of Wine, about the rise of Robert Parker, I was struck by the concision achieved here in Noble Wine. The author manages to hit all the high and low points of Parker's career (focused of course on Bordeaux) without all the useless filler in the other book. It's a great and balanced summary of his contributions and shortcomings.
I've read other books and articles about garage wines over the years, but I must confess that Noble Rot helped solidify for me the points made by other writers like the estimable Andrew Jefford (see his interview with Jean Luc Thunevin on page 169 of his masterpiece The New France). How can it ever be a bad thing to meticulously pick ripe fruit by hand, discard rotten or unripe grapes, and make sure that only the finest representations of the vineyard and vintage make it into the final product? Noble Rot drives this point home effectively and also does a nice job of helping consumers understand some of the freakonomics that result in Bordeaux prices.
One downside of Noble Wine is the overall impression I got of both the writing and organization. The narrative jumps around all over the place, both from chapter-to-chapter but also occasionally on the same page. I found myself getting lost from time to time unable to follow from one paragraph to the next (maybe my brain is subject to Noble Rot). Interestingly, it wasn't until I finished the book that I happened to look up the author's biography only to find he is a Wall Street Journal reporter. I had to wonder at that point if this book wasn't somehow stitched together from dispatches or essays rather than written holistically. I don't know if that's the case, but it's easier to blame the author than admit I have Alzheimer's.
Overall I found this book to be well researched and revealing, with careful attention to the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of what is arguably the world's most important and influential wine region. Some of the other reviewers have referred to its gossipy qualities, and it's true there are a lot of reported conversations that it's hard to believe the author actually witnessed. Nevertheless, I think the book is well worth the effort even if the writing can be a little hard to swallow in places.