Book Review: Beyond the Vines by Jules van Costello

Beyond the Vines by Jules Van Costello. Bob Campbell MW

Jules van Costello is well-qualified to write about wine in general and New Zealand wine in particular.

He has been working in the wine trade for 18 years in various roles as a sommelier, sales rep, waiter, writer and winemaker. He is a partner in a winery (Te Aro Wine), a wine retailer (Cult Wine) and a wine importer (Wild Bunch). He is also a partner in a group that owns three Wellington restaurants: The Ramen Shop, Daisy’s and Hillside Kitchen.

Beyond the Vines is a passionate, strongly opinionated and at times controversial account of New Zealand wine as Jules van Costello sees it.

When I received my review copy of Beyond the Vines, I scanned the chapter headings intending to put the book aside and read it in the weekend. A chapter headed The darker side of New Zealand wine changed all that.

It covers the challenging, sensitive and controversial issues of cultural appropriation, racism and sexism. Jules makes some good points while acknowledging that the New Zealand wine industry rates fairly well but faces future challenges as attitudes change. He confesses to not having any answers but raising awareness must surely help.

Once I started to read the book there was no turning back. I started with the chapter called 1998 which Jules labels as “unquestionably the most important year for New Zealand wine” (my pick would have been 1973), although he does a good job of justifying his choice.

From there to chapters headed Modernist and Postmodern New Zealand wine and the case for wines of subtlety, texture and a sense of place plus short-list of four winemakers who once embraced a traditional philosophy but are “reinventing themselves and creating something new and progressive”.

Under the chapter heading The Cult Icons, Jules lists half-a-dozen candidates that he believes are a good investment. I agreed with most of them but would add at least another ten names to the list.

Nine wine regions feature with a brief description and at least one wine producer with “inextricable links to each region”.

The Terroirists features eight winemakers that “… seem solely dedicated to vineyard expression”. All are worthy candidates but to describe them as “solely” dedicated to vineyard expression might be overstating the case. I am sure, for example, that they put “quality” on an equally lofty pedestal.

I liked Jules’ descriptions of the main grape varieties and their regional nuances. This is a man with an experienced palate and an ability to describe both taste and texture.

Alternative styles; skin-fermented whites; field and other non-traditional blends; natural, lo-fi and experimental wines and clean wines are discussed, often with plenty of passion and always with a great deal of knowledge.

The Naturalists are defined as “… the hardest core of the hardest core. Almost solely dedicated to the production of natural wine (or close to)” with seven producers described with enthusiasm.

The Rule Breakers, which Jules describes as “some of the most exciting producers around” while admitting that their disregard for rules pays off “most of the time”. Eight winemakers are listed.

Under Immigrants and Investors, Jules lists nine wine producers that “are committed to the long term and the diversity of New Zealand wine”, describing it as “one of the most exciting categories”.

Beyond the Vines is a passionate, strongly opinionated and at times controversial account of New Zealand wine as Jules van Costello sees it. It is a gripping read – I devoured it in one evening.

I was tempted to list the producers under the various headings, but I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to access that interesting information. Enjoy.

You can pre-order/purchase Beyond the Vines at the Cult Wine website for RRP NZD $40.

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