My Review of A Rite of Paso

a rite of pasoHave you ever read a book that you wish you’d written?  Well, A Rite of Paso: Paso Robles Wine Country by Chris Kassel is, unsurprisingly to those who know me, just that book. While I’m not sure that I could have made it as easy to read and clever as Chris did, I wish I’d thought of what he did and just taken on the challenge.  Of course, The Day Job™ may have had something to say about that.

This is a book that beckoned for me to give it two reads – one for the sheer beauty, fun, and irreverent use of the language, and the other for the story itself.  A Rite of Paso reads like it was a collaboration between Dick Tracy, Walt Whitman, Humphrey Bogart, and Truman Capote.  With Woody Allen overseeing the plot twists.  Except there is no plot. Uhh…does real life have a plot?

Well, if it does, it reads like this book. Here’s the plot: a wine blogger who’s more or less a lunatic decides to spend a month in a wine country that he doesn’t know anything about. While there, he makes acquaintances and observations about his month there and writes about it.

The wine country was Paso Robles. Am I envious or what.

Chris’s writing style is one that speaks to my heart because I am a word geek.  Beautiful descriptions, side-splitting observations, and just plain ol’ clever writing are the hallmarks of this book.  The following paragraph, for instance, is pretty typical of the style that’s in the book:

Derailing demagogues and denouncing divinity is one of Paso Robles’ core competencies. In fact, many Paso winemakers claim they wouldn’t let Robert Parker Jr. near their winery if it was on fire and he was carrying the world’s last water bucket. Similar slurs are aimed at a certain West Coast editor whose name I will not utter beyond saying he is (and will remain) double-plus uncool to these hardcore mavericks no matter how many tattoos he gets; memories are long and this fellow once interviewed a local cabernet sauvignon maker – a good one – and asked rhetorically, “So, are your cabs as good as those from Napa?”, which struck said winemaker as a question on the idiocy level of asking Banksy if he’s as good as Dali. It pretty much depends on the qualifier, fuck you very much.

And another excerpt:

And one deep truism among our social species is that it is hard to dislike someone who likes you. But seriously, for me, in the end it’s more fun to hear about a specific wine given a high score because everyone local knew that the critic liked the vintner’s wife’s tits; that psycho-specific schmoozing often translates to unearned points and that real winemakers – i.e., those who know Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator’s picks and preferences so well that they don’t even bother sending samples, but instead, send letters stating, ‘I just released my 2010 Estate Syrah. It’s worth 89 points on your scale. Thank you.’ – are not intimidated by Realpolitik reviews written by people to whom the power to influence buying habits is more intoxicating than the product they’re reviewing.

In other words, you damn well better have your brain engaged and your “feelings” in check when you read this book, because this man is a wine and word wonk of the highest order.  I just have a hunch that he doesn’t care if brain cells die, people offended, or the dictionaries come out while someone’s reading this book; he expresses what he has to say – to paraphrase Mozart – using just enough words to do so. I read it the first time with the book on one side and on the iPad on the other.  I only did occasional visits to the Urban Dictionary web site.  That was kind of comforting – it tells me that I’m not quite as uncool as I may have thought.

Because of my personal attachment to Paso Robles, I think I read and felt it more than the average person would.  I know some of the characters that Chris speaks of; for instance, his interview with Tobin James was gentle, humorous, and respectful.  He described Toby has having characterroir, which I couldn’t agree with more!

On the other hand, he was less than gentle with the late, not-so-great Eagle Crest Winery, whose “castle” was so kitschy that it was no doubt a great part of its eventual downfall.  Before restrictions for new wineries went into place, Paso Robles was the best place for a fledgling operation to start.  Eagle Crest failed miserably at time when they should not have. You have to read the book to get the whole ugly story.

Of course he talked to some of my friends while there, including Alex Villicana (and noted why many of us are dreamy fans), Tobin James as noted earlier, and Jason Haas of Tablas Creek.  In addition, he wrote about some of the lesser-known crops of Paso Robles, including olives and walnuts. I knew about the olives, but the walnuts were new to me. I now have a new goal for my next visit, using the book as a guide!

I found myself envying Chris for being able to take the time to do what I still want to do; that is, travel to Paso and spend time interviewing everyone and writing about it. And it is possible – even though the book is copyright 2013, there have been even more changes in Paso, and the 11 AVAs are a part of it. Let’s just say that this quest is one of the first things in my bucket list to do.

I will happily admit that this review is less than objective.  Chris was generous enough to send me the book (and didn’t nag me in the months it took to finally read it the second time), I’m a huge fan of well-written text, and the book was overall very positive about what could easily be called my favorite wine country.  Of course, Chris is an excellent writer and fellow wine blogger.

What’s not to love?

Chris Kassel, a Certified Sommelier based in Northern Michigan, is the writer of the blog Intoxicology Report, and has been a finalist in the Wine Bloggers awards.  In addition, the San Jose Mercury News honored him as Blogger of the Week last April, an honor indeed.

Credits: Chris Kassel photo from San Jose Mercury News, book cover from Amazon




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