Let's Open a Bottle -
My Journey through the Spanish Wine Revolution
Let's Open a Bottle is a casual travelogue of sorts that covers all major regions of Spain, exploring the winemaking and social life of each region. It is ostensibly a guide to Spain's wine regions, but as the author, Brian Murdock states several times, he went into this not knowing much at all about the topic. He learned as he went. While at times this is charming, it also makes the book a bit difficult to read.
Normally I read through books at a prodigious rate. I get hooked into them and, with books like Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code, finish them in an evening. I really have an interest in Spanish wines - I took Spanish in school for 6 years straight and my father spent some of his childhood in Brazil. So this was a book I was keen to read through and learn from. But for whatever reason, I kept getting slowed down by the writing and would put the book down. I'd pick it up again a few days later, eager to get back into it, and the same thing would happen. In the end it took me quite a while to get through the entire book. And what did I learn? Right now I am not looking at my notes at all, and I remember -
* Roads to beaches get very congested during vacation time
* Various relatives and kids can be alternately cranky or helpful on wine trips
* One winery was down a long, dangerous road
* One winemaker stood in his vineyards, completely happy to be doing what he was doing
Usually I'm far better at actually retaining content from books I read - so I think you can see the point here. What's funny is that at the end of the book Brian even offers a little quiz to see what you remembered - and he expects that you have forgotten everything. Well, everything except a bit he had just mentioned about a boar. But that's not how a well written book should be! Sure, you shouldn't have all of the wine regions memorized, or know exactly what comes from here. But because of the "then we went here and my kids were crying, and then we went there and the winery wasn't even open", the valuable information gets lost in there with everything else.
That's not to say that there is NOT valuable information in here. I took many pages of notes while I read the book, and I did have some nice information by the time I was done. But that could have been done up front, for us. There's no overall map of Spain and its wine regions. The table of contents just lists the names of the chapters. You get an intro, a few myths, a quick history and then you leap into "Aragon". Now you get a map of the Aragon region, but again, the information is given in a storytelling fashion, so you never really get a good overall sense of what the region's basic output is all about. In fact, in this section the author tells how he bashes friends from giving him a wine from a sub-region here, because he'd never heard of it before. I'm not sure if that is a great attitude for a wine writer to have - to pick on a region's offerings before even tasting it!
Then we move province by province across the country - or maybe around in a spiral - I'm really not sure how the given order was chosen. Sometimes you get summaries at the end of an area of what to see and do there, so it feels like a travel book. At other times it's about a specific winery. Sometimes it's mostly a rambling about what happened along the way. It's amusing because obviously the trips were not taken in the order the book is now set - sometimes there is one child, sometimes there are two.
I struggle to put a finger on just why I had a problem with the book. Maybe it was the whole way in which the writer went about describing his exploits, as he talks with chum Jose about being "raped by a tavern keeper's lusty and lonely daughter" - the "ones with big breasts". On the other hand there is the page-long complaint against Levante turning a lovely beachfront into a concrete jungle. I didn't make notes on either of those - I just now flipped randomly through the pages and stopped to see what I found. There's a lot of non-wine verbiage to weed through to get to the nuggets of information. And with how the book is laid out, it's hard to make use of the information unless you compile your own notes.
My suggestions? Start with an overall map. Have a table of contents that briefly describes each region, and keys it to that map, so you can go to the section you want. Have an intro that clearly defines the region's wines, the major wineries there. THEN go into a travelogue if you want, to talk about your fun experiences. But even so, I just don't think that the writer's writing style happens to match up with what I like to read. Again, I really love travelogues. They are some of my favorite types of reading material. But this just wasn't something I connected well with.
So how to summarize? Keep a notebook handy. Get a bottle of Spanish wine and a block of cheese. Get your own map of Spain's wine regions and lay it out as a reference. Then start in on the book. Who knows, this style may captivate you and you may read it end to end! But if not, just do a chapter a sitting. Get a bunch of knowledge on each region, and summarize it for yourself. What makes this ironic is that the writer is a teacher. In any case, when you finish, you'll have more information about Spain than you began with, and know far more about Brian's family, friends, and secret desires for plump serving wenches than you ever cared to learn!
Author: Brian Murdock
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