Two ambitious, exquisitely wrought books about the world of drinks (Champagne, Amaro) arrived on my doorstep this week. Alas, their exquisite production values are undercut by problems of organizational inconsistency and lack of editorial focus.
Let's begin with Amaro: the Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, by Brad Thomas Parsons. He's also the author of Bitters, which covers similar territory and won a James Beard award. You know these drinks, they're the ones chefs throw back when they get off duty, not a dainty sherry but a full-throated Fernet Branca. Similarly Campari, Averna, Cynar, Ramazzotti, Meletti, Baulio, Montenegro, Nonino, Luxardo,
The Germanic countries have their own family of spirits known as Schnapps: many are fruit-flavored, but others are based on bitters: Jägermeister, Underberg, Wlfberger, Unicum, Becherovka. Then there's the whole range of vermouths, more or less sweet, like Galliano, Salers, Suze, and Gran Classico.
Parsons' book is not always clear whether it's describing a brand-name amaro or an amaro-based cocktail recipe. Underberg gets the full-page, head-of-section treatment, overshadowing the more popular Jägermeister. And poor Salers, well-known all over southwest France, gets three lines.
Some years back, Campari ran a series of magazine ads (remember magazines?) featuring celebrities talking about "my first time." Turns out they were talking about their first taste of Campari. A companion ad was headlined "9 out of every 10,000 Americans prefer Campari."
Is there any hope, then? Perhaps, in the form of two aperitivi that combine sparkling wine and amari. I'm thinking of Prosecco Bitter (Campari topped with Prosecco), and its cousin, Aperol Spritz (which swaps Aperol for Campari and adds a splash of soda water).
One of the palaces of amaro is here in Seattle. That would be Barnacle on Ballard Avenue, where David Little holds forth. And where Parsons himself turned up a couple of nights ago. Cin-cin!
Then there's David White's But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World's Favorite Wine. Champagne, the wine, is the most popular category on the planet, with more than 300 million bottles consumed every year. Champagne is also the name of the growing region in France, extending over a chalky plateau two hours east of Paris. Some 85,000 acres are planted (chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier--twice as many vines as Napa Valley) divided into 17 top-level grand cru sites and over 300 villages cultivated by 20,000 individual growers. But most of the Champagne that reaches the US market comes from big brands that buy grapes, then blend and bottle wines to a specific "house" style. (The two biggest are Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, both owned by the luxury fashion house LVMH, which also controls Krug, the most expensive bottle on the market.)
So if I were writing a book to "demystify" Champagne, I'd try to reconcile the three elements: the army of tiny growers, the powerful Grandes Marques houses, and the parallel structure of some 5,000 family-run "grower champagnes." Not to mention that almost every growing region in the world also turns some of its crop into sparkling wine, although they can't legally call it Champagne. Sekt in Germany, crémant in Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire. Prosecco's actually a protected designation based glera grapes grown on a specific region of northeast Italy; Franciacorta's prestigious sparkling wines are made with "traditional" French varieties in the classic, second-fermentation-in-the-bottle style.
You wouldn't know this from White's book, but the biggest problem here is the lack of an index, so you have to be lucky or willing to read through long lists of names (in five sections!) to locate individual producers. This leads to the second issue. Is it "The Grand Marques," the "Grande Marques," or "Grandes Marques"? You could fail high school French on this question alone. Yet the publisher, an outfit called Skyhorse, seems to have abdicated the role of copy editor.