I recently finished reading Viticulture: An introduction to commercial grape growing for wine production by Stephen Skelton MW. Like many of my friends, I assume your first response may be “Why?!?!” Well, the book is recommended reading for WSET Diploma students, so way back in October – well before I could even register for the Diploma – I ordered it. Anyone who knows me is probably not surprised by this fact. However. . . I’m embarrassed to say that it took me until the end of January to finish Viticulture. At 123 pages, this means that I averaged just about one page per day. A fact I’m not particularly proud of.
Viticulture is one of the densest, most information-packed texts I’ve ever read (yep, this includes my three years at law school) which might help explain why I went through it at such a snail’s pace. Another
excuse explanation is that a lot of this stuff was new to me and I wanted to absorb it slowly. My only other academic exposure to this particular subject has been (i) my WSET Level 3 course last Spring; and (ii) my current enrollment in Northwest Wine Academy’s Viticulture class with Sparkman Cellars’ winemaker, Linn Scott (who is incredibly knowledgeable and has an awesome ability to make the subject matter more interesting with tons of personal stories and experiences.)
Yet another reason why this book took awhile for me to get through is because, well, . . it deals with science. Much to the disappointment of my metallurgical engineer-working, astronomy-loving Dad, I’ve just never taken to science ever since I got a D+ in Life Sciences in 7th grade (thanks a lot, Mr. Santner!). Even today, it’s just much easier for me to memorize the 10 Crus of Beaujolais, or the 13 permitted grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, than for me to learn the different types of rootstocks or soil pH levels.
Even though Viticulture is a science textbook at heart, the author thankfully writes in a humane and comprehensible manner. Overall, I found his writing style to be straightforward and educational, a fact that is greatly appreciated by those of us who are scientifically-impaired. I also enjoyed the occasional personal anecdote or opinion – particularly on the topic of biodynamic viticulture.
What’s this book about? The book covers everything from the annual cycle of the vine, to site selection, to canopy management. As with most viticulture texts, several pages are dedicated to phylloxera, its history and its “solution” via rootstock development and grafting. Viticulture digs deep (pun totally intended) into the various soil layers and their characteristics. And there are two entire chapters on diseases, viruses and vineyard pests. The author goes into such detail about these various insects, larvae and bugs that I found myself getting the heebie jeebies. (Sidenote: surprisingly, the heeby jeeby is, in fact, NOT a vineyard pest – but the ever popular Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer is.)
Who’s this book for? This is neither a light, nor particularly fun, read. So I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s just curious about viticulture and is looking for some general information. Pick up The Oxford Companion to Wine or The Wine Bible instead. Viticulture is way too intense and detailed for the lay person merely looking for a broad overview on the subject.
However, if you’re studying for a higher level wine certification, or working in the wine industry, or you’re my Dad, then this book is perfect for you. Just give yourself plenty of time to digest the subject matter – this isn’t a Dan Brown page turner.
At this point, I have no idea whether this book covers more (let’s hope so!) or less than what I’ll need to know for my first WSET Diploma exam in June. But I do know that having finished Viticulture I’ve gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on the subject that I simply didn’t have before, so for that Mr. Skelton, I thank you. Viticulture will undoubtedly do wonders in helping me with my never-ending pursuit of wine education. Now let’s just hope that I can do a little better than a D+ on the exam! 😉