Book Review: The Essence of Wine

When you put your nose in a glass, you may love what you smell, but how often are you at a loss to describe that essence, that bouquet?

Ah, the mystery of our sense of smell. It is powerful and we can’t really control it. When we smell something, our response is direct and primal. Sniff something and the response is immediate because the sensation goes directly to our limbic system, the part of the brain connected to memory and emotions. If you’ve ever had the experience of smelling something that immediately takes you back to your grandmother’s kitchen, an old lover or a long forgotten destination, this is why. But our language function operates in a different part of our brain and that’s why we are sometimes at a loss for words to express what we are smelling.

essence_cover_smallerNow a new book, created with the backing of a successful Kickstarter campaign, takes that approach to demystifying aromas in wine. Alder Yarrow, wine writer and author of the blog Vinography does this in a beautiful and sumptuous way.

“I’m just an ordinary consumer who just decided to start writing one day and never stopped,” Alder says about the blog he launched in 2004. He calls himself the original wine blogger.

“One of the things that led me into a passion for wine from an ordinary drinker was the incredible array of aromas and flavors that you find in wine that was magical to me, and still is to this day.”

Alder wanted to find a way to help his readers better understand wine aromas. He couldn’t find the right tool, so he made his own Aroma Card, that listed common scents — fruit, vegetables, spice, etc.

“In the process of putting the tool together I was again marveling at all these different flavors and aromas, each one of these things is really beautiful and singular on its own. I thought how cool would it be to create an essay about just that aroma or flavor.”

That’s exactly what he did. In January 2012 Alder posted the first essay of the series “The Essence of Wine,” which was “Earth.” He teamed up with noted the noted food photographer and stylist team of Leigh Beisch and Sara Slavin to create visual depictions of these essences.

The photos are juicy, luscious. The flavors and aromas leap off the page as if the essences are coming alive through the words and photography. You almost feel the texture of the fruits, the spices, the oak. Your mouth begins to water looking at the perfectly ripe cherries or peaches. You begin to smell the mint, black pepper and green wood or taste the earthiness of mushrooms. All this translates to a tactile sensation you would have as you sip the wine.

“We shot seasonally, when things were really at their peak,” says Sarah who sourced all the elements for each essence. She also pulled from her vast collection all the plates, platters and other backdrops to create interesting textures that showed off each essence.

Plums_v2_21661“We like to work spontaneously,” says Leigh about how they created the set up of each essence. “We kind of let the fruit or material tell us in a sense of what to do. We found a beautiful plum still on the branch with one leaf. We want to keep this shape, what kind of little environment can we create in this photograph that will tell a story about the pluminess and the juiciness.”

“Some of the stuff I’m like how did you take such an interesting photograph of grapefruit,” Alder says. “I would have bet $50 you can’t take an interesting photo of a lychee, but that’s one of the most beautiful photographs I’ve seen in my life.”

As Alder published more “Essence” posts, it became clear to him that he needed to create a book.

He was turned down by three publishers who told him it was a book for a niche market and would be a hard sell to traditional book retailers. So Alder turned to Kickstarter to raise money to cover the costs of making the book — the photography, the design, the paper and the printing.

The experience, Alder says was nerve-racking. “It’s one thing to put myself out there and write for free and and put up my blog,” he says. ” It’s another entire thing to go out and ask people to give me money. Knowing that if you fall one cent short or one dollar short you don’t get anything was very stressful.”

Despite that his campaign raised $24,240 from 183 backers, more than the $18,000 goal. Alder sells Essence through his blog and is working to place it in specialty book sellers.

Essence is not only a great reference and guide, but just fun to flip through. There are 47 essences in total in the book, along with wine recommendations for each one, culled from Alder’s extensive 10 years of wine tasting notes. He chose wines that are readily available and a classic expressions of each essence. I love that typical imagery isn’t used. For oak, there are no oak barrels, just shavings of the wood. Chocolate is not just a hunk of chocolate, it is shaved and grated instead.

“This project was so much about capturing the essences versus the mere visualization of something,” says Leigh.

You also won’t find any photos of wine labels, and there is only one shot of a wine glass, at the very beginning in black and white. After all, how many more shots of wine labels and wine glasses does the world really need?

Warning, The Essence of Wine is thirst-inducing. It is best enjoyed with a glass of wine.

Book photography courtesy Leigh Beisch and Alder Yarrow.