Book Review: Viticulture by Stephen Skelton MW

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.

Trellising Systems

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.)

Saint Joseph granite
Granite from the Northern Rhône

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! 😉


Viticulture: Crossings

My best friend sometimes calls me Tracy Flick. Coming from her, it’s meant as a term of endearment (I hope) due to my “go getter” attitude when it comes to wine studies. But anyone who has seen the movie Election knows that Tracy Flick was not a very likable gal – she had an annoying and incessant ambition that rubbed people the wrong way.

Tracy Flick
Me in my WSET class?  Let’s hope not. :-/

While her persistence (nevertheless) 😉 got her ultimately where she wanted to be, Tracy’s know-it-all attitude and hyper-preparedness bugged the crap out of almost everyone along the way.

Admittedly, I can see a hint of Tracy Flick-ness in me. Case in point: I’m registering for the WSET Diploma next year. I’m just waiting for the schedule to come out at the Neptune School of Wine and then I’ll decide if I want to head down there for classes, or do the first units online. In the meantime though, I’ve already started in on the “recommended reading” from the school’s website.

Right now, I can FEEL your eyes rolling at me.  And I totally get it.

Am I prematurely popping the cork on this? Perhaps. But I’ve never taken a viticulture class, so a lot of this material is relatively new for me. By doing advanced reading (and outlining, of course!) I’m hoping all this information will sink in my brain better.  Then, when it comes time for the actual Diploma classes, I won’t be cramming all this in because a lot of it will already BE there. 🙂

One of the first topics tackled in the textbook (Viticulture by Stephen Skelton) is vine crossings. Something that intrigues me, and baffles me (the latter usually is the case with anything remotely science related). Recently in the wine community, there seems to be a renewed interest in exploring vine crossings (also called vine breeding) due to climate change and an increased focus on organic and biodynamic farming methods.  The primary goal of most vine crossings is to produce vines that are disease resistant, can be grown with little to no chemical intervention, and that are capable of thriving in more marginal climates.

But just because we CAN create new varieties with these traits – should we? I have such limited exposure to crossings (although I have yet to meet a Zweigelt I didn’t like!), that I’m not going to opine on this.  Very un-Tracy Flick like, I know.

However, I did find this piece on Jancis Robinson’s website quite interesting . . . it was written by an MW after sampling several wines produced from newer vine crossings:

“But my real conclusion was that I didn’t really want to drink any of them that much, whatever level of scientific knowledge and endeavour had gone into the breeding of them. Maybe I should be more concerned about the environment and less hedonic but it seems like an awful lot of work to produce not very exciting wines. If a site is not suited to the production of existing varieties with high quality potential – because of climate restrictions or disease pressure or both – perhaps it is better not to try to grow wine grapes there? They may make it possible to produce wine, or different styles of wine, in marginal climates, but that doesn’t seem sufficient reason to go to all that effort to produce wines that are drinkable but not exciting.”

I think it will be interesting to follow the development of vine crossings and hybrids and see whether they gain acceptance in an ever-changing wine world.  I’d be more on board with giving these a chance since they have valid and compelling reasons for their creation as compared to something utterly ridiculous like, say, blue wine.  Now I’M rolling my eyes.

Here’s the outline on Crossings for a little more information.