You wouldn’t imagine that America’s most interesting wine writer would come from Detroit, but there is truly nobody who writes wine like Chris Kassel. It takes, perhaps, the perspective of a sober alcoholic living a continent away from the infantilizing comfort of ‘wine country’ to understand the beauty of this particular beverage.
Kassel begins his intriguing 2013 study of Paso Robles Wine Country “A Rite of Paso” with a cross-country train ride that slams us quickly into his fraught history with this beverage.
“A train because it’s symbolic, of course; California because on a westbound carrier, it’s the end of the line. Plus, it’s where the wine is, and if I should not - cannot - drink any more of it, I have spent my entire adult life writing about wine, millions of words in dozens of outlets, and writing about wine and wine’s inhabitants is still my comfort zone, even when the comfort zone of a low-grade buzz is no longer an option.”
Chris Kassel innately understands that wine is inherently something beyond the pleasant buzz in the head. It also is something beyond the mere organoleptic game of a blind-tasting sommelier or the Pinterestingly staged images of organic food, wood furniture tasting bars, and ‘wine country casual’ lifestyles. And he isn’t interested in reviewing wines and telling you what to drink.
A Rite of Paso peels away all of that and focusses on a world of real people - often flawed but never boring - who happen to be in Paso Robles Wine Country.
Chris Kassel is actually engaging in Journalism. Writing like this shines a bright light of how much wine writing is merely sales and marketing copy. Those things have their place, but we need much more writing like A Rite of Paso.
I’ll finish out this review with a couple of quotes from the book that will give you an insight into the style of the writing.
On Pest Control
“Steve Thompson has been known to sit in the canyon opposite his vineyard, drink a bottle of wine and unleash live-fire hell upon the ground squirrels. He’s also developed a sort of John Wayne vs the Injuns technique while driving his red Polaris wherein he steers with one hand and fires his shotgun with the other. In either case, on a particularly productive whack-a-squirrel day, he may send three hundred rodents into oblivion.”
On the Tarantulas that are a core part of the vineyards of Paso Robles
“About five years ago, I saw a spider a quarter of this size on my washing machine at 4:00AM, and considered that my options were either to fetch my .22 from the gun chest and shoot it or wake up my sleeping teenager to kill it for me. In the end, what the hell? I figured the gunshot would have woken him up anyway.”
And Pinot Noir
“Diaphanous and dainty from vineyard to vat, pinot noir was born with a thin skin, making it hypersensitive to weather and prone to viruses like leaf roll and bunch rot. It’s recalcitrant in handling and as difficult to vinify as it is to farm; it has, as a result, often been described in feminine terms, including ‘voluptuous,’ ‘high-maintenance,’ ‘delicate and driven to drama,’ ‘seductive, wily and sexy.’ Of course, as the French - who have been growing pinot noir since Jesus had milk teeth - well know, the better it is, the harder it is to describe. One thing is for sure: If pinot noir is a woman, it is Carla Bruni compared to cabernet sauvignon’s Kim Kardashia