The Geography of Wine

Ξ July 23rd, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine History |

It often happens that wine books especially those taking up scientific topics, plunge into the middle of the subject. An unrealized level of academic sophistication is required for many wine enthusiasts to get much out of them. And it is for this reason I welcome Brian J. Sommers’ fresh effort The Geography of Wine, How Landscapes, Cultures, Terroir, and the Weather Make a Good Drop.
Prof. Sommers works in the Geography Dept. at the Central Connecticut University. His discipline shows. He begins by providing necessary, positional knowledge. The first two chapters introduce readers to such important principles as ‘the morphology of landscape’, terroir, growing degree days, the ‘Köppen system’, and broad climatological distinctions. No need to worry! Prof. Sommers makes these concepts readily accessible. In fact, every chapter is capped by an international example so that a reader may pair a vinous experience they’ve had with geological notions they might not have imagined. The chapter on Microclimate and Wine ends with a gloss on the Rhine and its tributaries. That of Viticulture, Agriculture, and Natural Hazards, California, of course.

But beyond geology, geophysics and its cloud of related sciences we will also read about urbanization, communism, temperance, multinationals, and wine tourism. Each topic is conducted with the conversational ethic of a good teacher; no one gets left behind.

Indeed, I asked him a few questions about his book. Here is what Prof. Sommers himself had to say:
Admin How is it you became interested in the world of wine?
Brian J. Sommers I became interested in wine and its geography thanks to the teaching of John Dome. I was his graduate assistant at Miami University (Miami of Ohio). There is some background on this in the book. He taught a geography of wine course that involved nightly wine tastings. Through it I discovered two important things. First, I discovered that wine was a lot more than Manischevitz. Second, I learned that you can actually pursue academic studies of those things that you enjoy in daily life.
Have you ever worked in the wine industry?
B.J.S. I have not worked in the industry. I just kept going to school until I got a job teaching in one.
Do you provide vineyard consultation?
B.J.S. I do not provide vineyard consultation. My interests are more toward teaching about wine through classroom experiences or through study tours/travel. My colleagues and I have significant experience taking students abroad on geographic study tour. As a follow-up to the book’s publication, I had planned to turn my wine knowledge and travel experience into wine tours (for a general-not academic-audience). But given rising travel costs and the growing disparity between the Dollar and Euro, those aspirations have been put on the back burner.
Are you part of a larger oenology/viticultural program at Central Connecticut University?
B.J.S. In my wine interests I am all by myself here at CCSU. I did have a colleague in the History Department who was very active in wine research. But he got a great gig as a wine researcher at Cal-Berkeley.
Who is your target audience?
B.J.S. My target audience is those individuals whose interests in wine are such that they want to learn more about it. My target is not a person sitting in a classroom. It is the person sitting at home who enjoys reading about wine while they relax with a glass. Two weeks ago it might have been a wine history book. Last week it could have been a literary journey through Provence and its wine. Next week it might be a book on wine vintages or food pairings. Maybe some week it will be a book on wine and its geography. In doing so, I would hope that the readers would gain a greater appreciation for wine and a greater understanding of geography. Even though it is not aimed at a classroom audience, the book does touch upon all of the major subject areas that I would cover in an introductory geography course. We are just covering them using wine as the subject matter.
Do you have reading suggestions for those interested in transitionin to more technical texts?
B.J.S. There are no technical texts in the geography of wine that are comparable. That was why my original book proposal was for a textbook. I never envisioned doing a book for a general audience. That was the challenge that my publishers posed to me. I actually had a heck of a time trying NOT to write in a textbook/academic journal format. Tim Unwin has a nice historical geography of wine (ie. a little geography and a heck of a lot of history). There are some books which deal with geography in a couple of chapters and then go into the description of wine regions. But interestingly enough, most are from an earlier time and are out of print. Given the absence of a true textbook, I am working on a web accompaniment to my book that will allow for a classroom application of the book. My intention was to have it done by the end of the summer. The reality is that I probably need a New England winter to get through that task.
Can you tell me a bit more about your tasting evolution? Were you a part of Prof. Dome’s tasting group? Perhaps a bit on how it was organized? By country, variety, climate, terroir?
B.J.S. He was an emeritus professor when I arrived at Miami U in 1987. He has long since passed away. When I was given the assignment I thought it was a joke. But after a couple of weeks in the class I came around. There were two sections of 90 students each. About 1/5 were ‘townies’ from around Oxford (just NE of Cincinnati) who took the course every time it was offered. They were great because they brought in food–always a welcome addition for poor graduate students. Many of the other students were Business majors who saw the knowledge as useful for shmoozing with future bosses. A few were geography majors who wanted to get the geography out of the course. Most of the rest were the drinkers that thought a $50 lab fee paid by their parents would ensure them of 15 weeks of getting drunk. The last group were roadkill at the first test.
Each night John would deal with a different wine producing region. It was a lot of slides (two or three 80 slide trays a night), a fair amount of geography, and then wine tasting. He dealt a lot with terroir as it is a natural for geographers. After all, terroir tells us that geography matters. What is more important than that??? In the class we would learn what made the wine regions tick. We would then taste 4 or 5 wines from that region. This was, after all, the 1980’s on a residential campus. My job was to prepare enough bottles for 90 people and to make sure that the drinkers did not heist the bottles as they made their way around the room. After class I was left to clean up and ‘dispose’ of the remaining wine. For the opened bottles this usually involved emptying them in the company of the other grad students who were working down the hall in the computer lab. The unopened bottles ended up back at my apartment. So I had the opportunity to taste the wines in each of the two classes. I then tasted them again after class with the other grad students. I then repeated the process in the months that followed as I worked my way through all of the leftover bottles. So while it started as a joke, it turned out to be the best ‘job’ that I ever had!
Thank you, Prof. Sommers. I certainly hope your fine book will be found by those who might otherwise be anxious to ask the questions you easily answer.


2 Responses to ' The Geography of Wine '

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  1. Wine Fan said,

    on July 23rd, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    With so many elements going into making great wine, geography is one of the least discussed and this is certainly the first book on the subject I have heard of. If global warming is to be believed then a better understanding of the geography of wine growing will be essential.

  2. D'Arcy Dornan said,

    on August 11th, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    As Brian points out above, understanding terroir, is a natural for geographers. Geography is all about understanding the relationships between humans and their environments, the physical, the cultural. This is exactly where grape growing and wine production come into play. I look foward to the web accompaniment and hope that others involved in vitculture, oenology, and the wine industry in general will read the book and peruse the website as Brian has made an important contribution with the publication of The Geography of Wine.

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