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Mary Orlin

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4 Late Summer Reading Picks on Wine and Perfume

Posted: 08/15/2012 4:02 pm

Remember those days when you had a required summer reading list from school?  Yeah, those lists made reading a chore.  Now as adults, we lament that we have no time to read.  But we get to choose what we read.  There's still time before the summer ends to pick up a book or two, especially when the subjects are wine or perfume.

In The Juice by Jay McInerney,  the Wall Street Journal wine columnist takes you on a journey through the world of wine.  This is a well-edited collection of Jay's work from the WSJ, and he takes you along to storied wineries and regions, such as Priorat in Spain or to Champagne, in an essay about the landmark 1996 vintage.  You get  the inside track on bold winemakers from Morgan Clendenen at Cold Heaven and a renegade Barbera grower in the middle of Barolo country, to what he calls "The Rock Stars of Pinot Noir," from Anthill Farms to Failla.

This is the third book of Jay's memoirs on wine.  The others are Bacchus and Me and A Hedonist in the Cellar.

McInerney is an engaging story teller.  He holds your interest, even when talking about something as mundane as soil types and vineyard slopes. The one thing I don't like about the book is that there are no publication dates for you to know when the article first appeared.  However, one of the essays, "Mondavi on Mondavi" is dated 1998, perhaps to give context to the postcript to the original story, referencing Mondavi's passing, which makes the book much more current.

What makes The Juice the perfect summer read is that you can put it down (when you doze off on the pool side lounge chair) and pick it right back up again.  Each chapter is a self-contained story.  The longest chapter recounts an astounding 37 course dinner at the famed (and now closed) El Bulli restaurant on Spain's Costa Brava.  It's a great history lesson on avant-garde cuisine and truly a vicarious reading experience, which is what summer reading is all about.  

Margrit Mondavi's Sketchbook is a colorful read that I can't put down.  I've been fortunate to meet Margrit Mondavi several times, and I like to call her the original Wine Fashionista.  She's got an artist's eye that comes through not only in what she's wearing or her lively paintings, but also in her passion for promoting the arts in Napa Valley.

Margrit's stories about growing up in Switzerland, living on a remote army base where there was no wine, to how she became the first female tour guide in Napa Valley, at Charles Krug are compelling.  Her account of how she brought music to the Robert Mondavi Winery is often hilarious.  She recalls how the summer concert series grew to become a major event, in spite of all the mishaps, including bailing a band out of jail so they could play their concert. She also shares how she and Robert Mondavi met and eventually married, writing in the first person as if she's talking directly to you.

Credit both Margrit with Janet Fletcher for the intimate feel of the book.  It's filled with Margrit's artwork, including the menus that she illustrates for events at the winery and dinners at her home on Wappo Hill, entertaining friends, family and the wine trade.  Margrit also loves cooking, and some of her recipes are in the book.  She talks about the famous chefs, such as Julia Child and Paul Bocuse, that she brought in for the Great Chefs program at the winery.  Margrit's insights, from her vantage point in the middle of the wine, food and art worlds provide a rich history of Napa Valley and her role in making the valley a world class destination.

In Coming to My Senses, author Alyssa Harad takes you on her scented path down the rabbit hole that leads to her perfume obsession.  She calls this a story of perfume, pleasure and an unlikely bride.  I share Alyssa's obsession and was relieved to read that she also has a perfume closet (my collection is  in the linen closet).

Alyssa happened across a perfume blog while writing a freelance project about something mundane (Alyssa holds a PhD in English).  She's intrigued by discovering this fragrance community, a world previously unbeknownst her, and keeps going back to read more and more.  She's hesitant to jump into the comments, but after months of standing on the sidelines, she can't help but join the conversation.  Alyssa learns about the world of artisan perfume, and starts ordering samples of these indie scents.  She recounts how generous perfume heads offer samples or bottles of rare and extinct fragrances.  She treats the samples as if they were liquid gold, dolling out precious drops at a time.

Coming to My Senses is rich in characters, including the Curator, who runs a private perfume lab in Austin, Texas.  Mystery and suspense surrounds him.  Alyssa also writes about many of the perfume bloggers, deftly describing each one's prose and personality, who are rock stars to her. Along the way, fragrance leads her in new directions and gives her the nudge she needs to go ahead and marry her fiancee, wearing, of course, a beautiful, floral perfume.  In Alyssa's eyes, the fragrance is more important than the wedding dress.

What makes Coming to My Senses a good summer read is that you escape into another world and realize that you too could find something that awakens an untapped passion.  Alyssa's path to self discovery through perfume changed her life.  And she gives you permission to find that obsession, whatever it is.

In another perfume memoir, Celia Lyttelton takes you on a fragrant adventure in The Scent Trail.  She sets off on a series of journeys to destinations around the world that grow or manufacture raw perfume ingredients.  Celia's goal is to create a custom, or bespoke fragrance for herself, created with the scented materials she brings back from her travels.

Part history lesson and part travelogue, Celia's stories are captivating.  She begins in Grasse, France in search of the mimosa that this perfume capital is known for.  In one chapter she's hunting down neroli and petitgrain in a Morrocan souk; in another she's in India, seeking out jasmine.  Celia's quest gives her entree to the customs surrounding perfume in each of the countries she visits.  She shares meals in family homes and connects with the raw material purveyors.  Sometimes she finds what she's looking for; other times she comes up empty-handed but richer for the experience.

In Celia's search for her custom perfume, she learns the stories behind the raw materials.  She shares in-depth tales about the origins of ingredients such as ambergris and nutmeg.  I didn't even know how often nutmeg shows up in perfume until I read Celia's account.  I just wish that the book's pages were scented with each of the raw ingredient aromas.

In the end, Celia gives the materials she's found to a perfumer in London who specializes in creating bespoke scents.  When she finally smells her finished perfume, she writes "it is not at all how I imagined it would be," but as the scent unfolds on her skin, she is mesmerized by it, and as she smells each note, she is transported back to the places she visited on her journey.  At the end of The Scent Trail, Celia provides the formula for the fragrance.  Just try not to peek at this until you finish the book.

 

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