Book Review: Summer in a Glass

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-21-2011

I’m a big fan of economist Tyler Cowen. And when it comes to books, I urge everyone that’ll listen to follow Cowen’s “first rule of reading: You need not finish.”

As a recent Bloomberg profile explained, “[Cowen] takes up books with great hope and no mercy, and when he is done — sometimes after five minutes — he abandons them… an act he calls a ‘liberation.’”

These days, most of the books I pick up are about wine. Consequently, so too are most of the books I quit reading. I didn’t quit Evan Dawson’s Summer in a Glass. In fact, I couldn’t put it down.

Many oenophiles will recognize Dawson’s name. A television news reporter and anchor in Rochester, he’s best known in the wine community as the managing editor and Finger Lakes correspondent for New York Cork Report, a online publication that offers news, reviews, and commentary on the New York wine scene.

In Summer in a Glass, Dawson chronicles the story of the Finger Lakes wine region by profiling 12 key winemakers and growers, detailing why they decided to make wine in the Finger Lakes.

As Dawson explains in the introduction, “To appreciate what is happening in the Finger Lakes region, it is not enough to meet the winemakers as they are now. The journey must start at the moments when these men and women started down their path to the Finger Lakes – a region many of them had never heard of before they arrived her.”

The dozen characters are at various stages of their careers, and Dawson introduces each character by identifying the pivotal point that motivated each to pursue winemaking in the Finger Lakes.

The oldest is the seemingly cantankerous Hermann Wiemer, one of the Finger Lakes’ wine pioneers.

He was a founding father of the region, releasing his first vintage in 1980. But he never curried much favor with other Finger Lakes winemakers. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, he described “most” Finger Lakes wine as “rubber hose quality.” And unlike most winemakers in the region, Wiemer didn’t believe in collaboration.

But by teaching consumers that “a bottle of Riesling could be dry and crackling just as well as it could be sweet and lush,” Wiemer helped the Finger Lakes region gain critical attention. As a result, every Finger Lakes vigneron should be grateful for his efforts.

Dawson paints a very honest portrait of Wiemer, and by the end of his five-hour meal/interview, can’t “help but like the man.”

That Wiemer’s story is presented to readers as if we’re flies on the wall at a dinner is typical of the book. Dawson writes as both a narrator and character, bringing readers along on his two-year research journey where he tagged along with winemakers – sorting grapes, attending blending sessions, enjoying meals, talking, and drinking.

One of the new winemakers Dawson writes about is Tricia Renshaw, a public school teacher who decided six years ago, at the age of 35, that she “wanted to make wine for a living.” On her very fist day at Fox Run Vineyards, Renshaw – and by extension, winemaker Peter Bell – discovered she had a knack for tasting and smelling wine.

Evan Dawson.

Sent to appraise eight samples of Fox Run’s Tawny Port, Renshaw “smelled dried apple and clove, and then – mincemat pie? Yes, it was undoubtedly mindemeat pie, and she said aloud, ‘What kind of wine smells like mincemeat pie?’ Taking a long swig, she found flavors of apple, caramel, and fig. Then the mincemeat piece showed up, and she began writing furiously once more.”

The notes were so detailed – and so accurate – that Peter Bell briefly thought he was being conned. She’s been at Fox Run ever since and is being groomed to replace Peter Bell when he eventually retires.

Dawson also introduces us to winemakers like Tom Higgins of Heart and Hands, whose passion for wine is detailed by what almost became a Sisyphean search for limestone-based soil on which to grow Pinot Noir in the Finger Lakes. He succeeded, and according to Dawson, is making some pretty delicious wines. (Higgins was recently featured in our Weekly Winemaker Interview series.)

We also meet the wacky-but-endearing Sam Argetsinger, a grape grower who insists on occasionally speaking in Iroquois; German immigrant and winemaking extraordinaire Johannes Reinhardt; hippie-cum-businessman John Ingle; and many others.

Each profile is incredibly compelling, and not only because Dawson is “gleefully afflicted with an uncommon, energetic love for wine.” He’s an excellent storyteller, which is why the book is so difficult to put down.

I still haven’t visited Finger Lakes wine country, but now it’s near the top of my to-do list. And thanks to Dawson’s book, I’ll have a great guide for my trip, whenever it happens.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful review. You are more than welcome to come up to the Finger Lakes and hang, taste around, share a meal… Let me know what I can do to arrange visits. I’m enthusiastic about the quality wine coming from the region, but there are plenty of misses to go with the hits. Fortunately, the hits are becoming more common.

    Cheers and thanks -


  2. I absolutely loved this book. It was engaging and a great read. The fact that I am moving to Geneva in 2 weeks makes it all the better….

  3. [...] to discuss Finger Lakes wine and his book, Summer in a Glass. As regular readers know, we recently reviewed Dawson’s book and recently interviewed Finger Lakes winemaker Tom Higgins of Heart & [...]

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