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Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution [Paperback]

William Echikson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

31 Oct 2005
In the wine capital of the world, a battle royal of tradition against innovation in the quest for ratings and market share.

For wine lovers the world over, Bordeaux is the centre of the universe. But in the past two decades, revolutionaries have stormed its traditional bastions, making their mark - and their fortunes - modernising the production and marketing of wine.

Noble Rot introduces us to the figures who epotomise the changes sweeping Bordeaux: the noble family behind Chateau d'Yquem engaged in a soap-opera feud; a stonemason turned winemaker whose wine, made in a garage, sells for $100 a bottle; the Maryland, USA-based critic Robert Parker, whose opinion routinely makes or breaks a wine; and the New World operations that have used branding to undercut Bordeaux's supremacy. It also delves into the mysteries of the legendary classification of 1855: how it became the bible of Bordeaux and how it was at last successfully challenged.

William Echikson takes readers inside the centre of the French wine business to examine the schism between defenders of the old order and architects of the new.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Ltd (31 Oct 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393326942
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393326949
  • Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 14.3 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 709,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Noble Rot excels 4 Jun 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an inspiring book. It is eminently readable - and presents wines in such a way that you can almost taste them in your mouth.
"Noble Rot" covers the dynamic changes occurring in the most famous wine region of the world - Bordeaux. It describes the frictions - sometimes pleasant, sometimes much less so - between Right Bank and Left Bank producers, between the old and the new ... and in my own personal opinion from tasting, between the historically good and contemporary outstanding.
Here you will find insights into the world of wine making, the history of Bordeaux, family relationships and corporate takeovers, and on almost every page the sheer enjoyment of a glass of wine.
The storyline keeps you hooked; the information would not overwhelm a novice, but has sufficient detail for the connoisseur; a smallest criticism would be that it would help at some stage to have some charts and maps showing who people are, the wines they make, and where their chateaux are. No doubt this is something for the second edition, of which there is sure to be one.
For a book which will keep you entranced, and cause you to salivate at the wine (and even the descriptions of French food) - I have read none better.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Tippling Point 24 Feb 2006
By Bevetroppo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Noble subject matter, rotten result 24 Feb 2005
By Ronald Holden - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Echikson is one of these writers who feels that if he was there, whatever he saw must be described as if it were the most important part of the story. And if he wasn't there, he'll make it appear as if he was. He applied the same technique to Bernard Loiseau's quest for a third Michelin star in "Burgundy Stars," a book about gastronomy that failed to show how anything was actually cooked or what it actually tasted like.

In this volume, he muddles two good stories. First is the family upheaval surrounding the sale of Chateau d'Yquem. Second is an attempt to pin down changes in winemaking style influenced by wine journalist Robert Parker. The former is a classic drama; the latter a Wall Street Journal feature. The timeframe of these two tales overlap, and Echikson intercuts the narratives to give some vague sense that they're somehow related. No way.

Worse, it's clear, time and again, that Echikson hasn't got a clue how wine is actually made, so he relies on gossip about the winemakers. A very frustrating book. Thin, bitter, stylistically simplistic. Ptui.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating look at the Bordeaux wine industry 23 Jun 2004
By Gary M. Greenbaum - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
William Echikson gives us a very accessible look at the Bordeaux wine industry and how it has changed in recent years. The "noble rot" of the title refers to the fungus which aids in winemaking, but it also refers to the collapse of the traditional, often aristocratic men who once dominated the trade.
We are shown the traditional growers, the "garagistes" or new small growers who have revolutionized the trade, the merchants, the brokers, the consultants--and perhaps most important of all, the reviewers, led by the highly influential Robert Parker, whose reviews can make or break a wine.
Among those who are discussed at length are Michel Gracia, stonemaker and garagiste, whose wine at its peak sold for over $100 a bottle, and the family Lur-Saluces, owners and producers of the famous Yquem, whose family infighting and arrogance leads to foreign takeover. They are fascinating stories, spread out through the book inbetween looks at co-ops who produce vast quantities of less stellar wine, and explanations of the hidebound 1855 classification system that, pre-Parker, once dominated Bordeaux.
A worthwhile read from someone who clearly knows his field and loves it. Highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inside Dope for Wine Buffs 6 Feb 2006
By Stephen B. Selbst - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
William Echikson has written a solid account of recent events in what is France's most important wine region, Bordeaux, but it's not a book for a general audience. Most non-wine lovers just aren't going to care about some of the wine-making minutia he gets into, nor will his profiles of the personalities be very compelling. But for wine lovers, the book offers a very thorough look at Bordeaux's recent triumphs and travails -- and the people who are making that happen.

As virtually all wine lovers know, Bordeaux has been roiled by various controversies in recent years, the emergence of upstart "garagiste" winemakers, the hotly-disputed powers of Robert Parker, the world's most influential wine critic, and the changes in ownership in many of the leading chateaus and estates.

Another controversy has been the recent spike in prices. Echikson does a very good job of explaining how the Bordeaux market works, including the roles played by merchants and brokers in the process. And using the 2001 vintage, he shows how the system worked to help establish prices for what was a decent, but hardly outstanding year.

But the real dish in Echikson's book is his look at some of the larger-than-life personalities in Bordeaux, including Michel Rolland, the oenologist to the stars, Robert Parker, Count Alexandre Lur-Saluces, and some of the leading garagiste winemakers. For people who know and care about fine wine, Echikson's book contains detailed profiles of these major players, and while some of the information in his book is not new, it is surely the best overall source of information about the people who are important in Bordeaux today. Echikson pays particular attention to the long-running battle for control of Chateau Yquem, the world's foremost producer of Sauternes, which underwent a bitter battle for control of the family-owned business, and which ended with global luxury goods maker LVMH owning a majority stake.

Echikson is also very good at describing the squeeze that's on in Bordeaux as its products must increasingly compete with New World wines that are often every bit as good as -- and sometimes better -- than the grand old names. Nobody needs to weep for the grand cru growers; in decent years they make adequate money, and in great years, like 2000, they coin it. But one of the most interesting parts of Echikson's book is his analysis of the bulk wines made in Bordeaux, and how the production of solid, drinkable wines around the world is affecting the ability of the Bordelais to sell lesser product. What Echikson's book shows is that globalization has seriously impacted the wine business. The bulk co-op wine producers face the same hard choice as so many other industries: improve your product or risk the failure of your business.

All in all, an interesting and brisk read for people interested in the wine industry.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Noble Rot excels 7 Jun 2004
By Carl Chambers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is an inspiring book. It is eminently readable - and presents wines in such a way that you can almost taste them in your mouth.
"Noble Rot" covers the dynamic changes occurring in the most famous wine region of the world - Bordeaux. It describes the frictions - sometimes pleasant, sometimes much less so - between Right Bank and Left Bank producers, between the old and the new ... and in my own personal opinion from tasting, between the historically good and contemporary outstanding.
Here you will find insights into the world of wine making, the history of Bordeaux, family relationships and corporate takeovers, and on almost every page the sheer enjoyment of a glass of wine.
The storyline keeps you hooked; the information would not overwhelm a novice, but has sufficient detail for the connoisseur; a smallest criticism would be that it would help at some stage to have some charts and maps showing who people are, the wines they make, and where their chateaux are. No doubt this is something for the second edition, of which there is sure to be one.
For a book which will keep you entranced, and cause you to salivate at the wine (and even the descriptions of French food) - I have read none better.
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