Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine

By mthomas

This book is a bit of a curate’s egg (or according to the authors, a cabinet of bibelots ) but perhaps none the  worse for it. They write well about topics that they are knowledgeable and passionate  about, and there is much to enjoy between the covers.  From wine and the legend of Gilgamesh to  salinity  technology as a saviour for the Australian wine  industry, they are divergent and expansive  in terms of focus and content. This makes for a slightly atomised, if entertaining, read for anyone interested in wine. Its unique selling point (USP) is still a mystery to me but I hope the title will draw in readers who are intrigued.

Burk is a Professor of History at UCL and Bywater a writer and broadcaster by trade. This book feels like a discussion or exchange of anecdotes between the two which has been recorded, transcribed and collated into one tome. But, it is never really clear whose voice we are listening to and this is perhaps the biggest flaw of the book. Because of this absence of a consistent narrative device, or voice, it functions best as something to ‘dip’ into. I have really enjoyed dipping in to it and sections, such as the one on ‘comet wines’, have as much to say about the present as the past. We may scoff at this type of superstition but many similar attributions are still apparent in the modern wine world.

There is material relevant to psychological dimensions such as issues of status e.g. the ‘potlatch’ ceremonies of the Northwest Pacific. There is also much about the limitations of language and one of the best comments I have read on the 1855 Bordeaux Classification;  ”The whole situation supports the theory that the human quest for certainty is stronger than the desire for a more truthful ambiguity”. (page 84)

A book containing so much information by such learned and informed people deserves a decent referencing system. There are no footnotes so following up on citations and quotations is difficult. Any future edition would be greatly improved by this. The illustrations are also poor when compared to the written content and the book deserved higher production values. However, neither fault detracts to the extent that the many pearls contained in this book become dull. Many of them shine out and are precious.

Burk, K. and Bywater, M. (2008) Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine  Faber

ISBN 978-0-571-2417-3