John Briscoe’s Crush: The Triumph of California Wine is a lively introduction to California’s wine industry. Though blessed with a superb climate and geography for cultivating grapes, California winemakers endured centuries of obstacles, from a plague of vine-munching lice to the long years of “the ignoble experiment of Prohibition.” Briscoe vivaciously recounts it all, along with intriguing portraits of the eccentric, passionate characters who shepherded California wines to their rightful place among the world’s first-class wines.
Crush is made authoritative by primary-source accounts, chapter notes, and a thorough bibliography. Wine labels, maps, and other illustrations add historic flavor. Frequent sidebars about wine tasting, varietals, and farm-worker rights lend nice balance, as do the author’s tart opinions on everything from the destructive mission period to “neo-Prohibitionist” forces.
Briscoe evokes clear pictures of the changing California landscape. Images of San Francisco firefighters pumping wine through their hoses into offshore tankers during the 1906 earthquake are dramatically recalled, and Briscoe makes it easy to imagine how the first epicenter of California’s wine industry, Los Angeles, was once a rural oasis of orchards and vineyards.
Short biographies of noteworthy vintners, business owners, and other historic figures personalize the story of the zigzag ripening of the California wine industry. Fine wines take time to grow, harvest, and age, and Briscoe pointedly documents how impatient investors and distributors often undid the efforts of visionary winemakers and other wine heroes in the timeless battle of quality versus quantity.
Crush is a hopeful saga, with the forces of oenophilia winning out in the end as California wines enter the pantheon of the world’s fine wines. It’s a tale written with panache and wry opinions, and is a smooth introduction to five centuries of California history, as seen through the curved lens of a wine glass.
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