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An interview with George Taber, author of In Search of Bacchus
Q. What was the inspiration for this book?
While researching my previous book on the future of corks, I traveled to wine-growing regions all over the world. I had a couple of free days in Portugal so I decided to go to the Douro Valley. I like to stay at hotels run by wineries, if I can, because it's a great way to get a good feel for the winery and its wines. I stayed in a wine hotel high above the Douro River. My first morning there I got up and went out for a walk. As I looked down on the valley, a distant boat was slowly making its way up the river, and there were rows and rows of ripening grapes at my feet. I thought that this had to be the most beautiful spot in the world of wine. But then about six weeks later, I was in New Zealand staying at another winery hotel just outside the town of Christchurch. I got up early again and looked at vineyards that seemed to stretch all the way to beautiful snow-capped mountains in the distance. So this was the most beautiful place in wine tourism. Finally, I concluded that they don't make wine in ugly places. Each place seems more beautiful and interesting than the last. So I began to think there was a book in that.
Q. Why did you decide to call your book In Search of Bacchus? Could you tell readers a bit about the mythical Bacchus?
Bacchus was the Roman god of both wine and theater. While doing research for the book in Chile, I ran into the film director Francis Ford Coppola at the Veramonte winery. When we talked, he told me about his wine ventures in California and his belief that wine tourism must combine both aspects of Bacchus.It's about wine, and it's about theatre. The combination can be intoxicating.
Q. Is wine tourism something new?
People have been traveling to wineries for centuries. I wrote a short chapter on three pioneers of the pastime: John Locke, the 17th century political philosopher, Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century, and 19th century author Robert Lewis Stevenson. But the mass popularity of wine tourism is relatively new.
Q. Why is wine tourism so popular?
Wine tourism brings together two of life's special treasures, wine and food, and it takes place in stunning rural settings. So it pleases several of the senses at the same time. And most wine people seem to be inherently interesting personalities who are fun to be around. I was struck by the number of tourists I met along the way who told me of earlier wine trips they had made and future ones they were already planning. They often built all their vacations around wine trips.
Q. How did you research the book?
I decided to choose one region from each of the main wine countries in the world. It would have been possible to write a whole book about wine tourism in France or Italy, but I wanted to get a global view of what was happening around the world. I picked eleven regions and then added the country where archeologists believe that wine was first made, which is Georgia, the former Soviet republic that is now an independent country.
Q. What were the regions?
In the order in which I visited them, I went to Napa Valley, California; Stellenbosch, South Africa; Mendoza, Argentina; Colchagua, Chile; Margaret River, Australia; Central Otago, New Zealand; Rioja, Spain; Douro Valley, Portugal; Tuscany, Italy; Bordeaux, France; Rhine/Mosel, Germany, and Kakheti, Georgia. I visited all of them in just over six months.
Q. What was your favorite region you visited?
They all had things that I found fascinating. But if I could return to just one, it would be Tuscany. It has the magic combination of great wine, wonderful food, friendly people, and gorgeous scenery.
Q. How did you research the regions?
I spent several months doing my homework on each area, learning about its history and development. Then I communicated with a lot of people by phone and email to determine the key people behind wine tourism in that region. In each place I was looking for the people who had made wine tourism happen. People like Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley.
Q. Can you give some examples of these influential figures?
In Chile, a guy named Carlos Cardoen, who happens to have made his fortune as international arms merchant, is the father of wine tourism. He sold cluster bombs to Saddam Hussein, who then used them with deadly efficiency in his war against Iran. I spent half a day with Cardoen. In Italy the key person is Donatella Cinelli Colombini, who owns two wineries in Tuscany. The key person in South Africa was Charles Back, who founded the popular "Goat wines" such as Goats do Roam and Bored Doe.
Q. What was the most surprising innovation you saw at a winery during your travels for this book?
It wasn't so much an innovation as a safeguarding of an ancient tradition— the practice in Georgia (the country not the state) of making wine in giant clay jars that are stored underground. The process goes back to the birth of winemaking, which experts now believe started in that country 8,000 or 9,000 years ago. The Georgians are proud of their ancient wine, and it was a unique experience to taste it.
Q. To what wine destinations do you return again and again? What draws you there?
I go back most frequently to Napa Valley because it is the closest region to where I live. Napa is now very popular, some would say too popular. And while there are a few places I visit every time I go to Napa, I also like to discover new and unexpected wineries or experiences. That's one of the great joys of wine. You never stop experiencing and learning. There's always a new winery or a new vintage or a new grape.
Q. Describe the most beautiful winery you've ever had the opportunity to visit.
Can I have two choices? One is Château Mouton-Rothschild, which I first visited in 1976 as the guest of Baron Philippe de Rothshild. He was a charming host, and we shared great wines and great stories. One of his favorite things was to offer guests the wine from their birth year. I have returned to Mouton since, and it always brings back memories of that first visit. The second is Bodegas Ysios in Rioja, Spain, which I visited while researching this book. It's a very modern winery with stunning architecture and it makes for a magnificent sight set against a backdrop of mountains. The wines are good too…
Q. You've spent a lot of time at wineries around the world-what's the best piece of advice you can offer to people looking to make the most of their wine tourism experiences?
Experiment, experiment, experiment. Don't get into a rut of doing the same things over and over. There is always something new to discover out there if you stretch beyond your comfort zone. You'll be delighted by what you find at that unexpected winery.
Q. You've started a website on wine tourism, travel4wine.com. What's the goal of that and when will it go live?
I hope to create a community of people interested in wine tourism, where they can exchange information and maybe pictures about their experiences. I believe people would like to tell others about their travels and offer suggestions of places to visit or perhaps the ones to avoid. I think it will be a very useful service to wine tourists who are planning trips. You can visit the site starting September 1.
Q. Can you tell your fans a little bit about what you're working on next?
I'm currently doing preliminary research on two topics. One involves wine, but one would be a totally new subject for me, but it's something I've been thinking about for years. At some point, I'll probably have to decide on one or the other. It will be difficult decision and a bit like asking a father which of his two children he likes better.