The closest thing I have to a New Year’s Resolution this year is to try to read more. This is mostly because I keep getting lent/gifted/otherwise coming into the ownership of books, many of them food related, that just end up collecting dust. So without further ado, I present to you the first installment of the Food Bytes Back Book Club!
New year, new me, I fuckin guess. I’m not saying this segment is going to become a regular segment on the blog, but it will be something for weeks where not much else is happening in the food world (For instance- this introduction was written back in January, then shelved because something more topical came up, thus the whole New Year’s Resolution bit.)
99 Bottles: A Black Sheep’s Guide to Life-Changing Wines by Andre Hueston Mack was lent to me by a friend who got roped into a work-related virtual wine tasting hosted by Mack. Along with the bottles of wine for the tasting, he was also given a copy of this book, which he passed along to me for the sake of fodder for the blog. At first I was a little dismissive of it, assuming that the only kind of wine expert that would be organizing a virtual wine tasting would be someone who just wanted to stroke their own ego. But as my friend made occasional mentions of how his big takeaway from the experience was “who cares what snobs say, just drink wine you think tastes good,” I decided to give the book a second chance.
Mack makes it clear from the very beginning just what he means by “black sheep” in the title. Yes, he is a black man in a very white field of study. But the differences between him and many of his peers are not just skin deep: he says that being an outlier from the ivory towers of white wine culture gives him a different viewpoint, allowing him to forgo the snobbery that most people associate with the drink.
As the name suggests, the chapters go on to describe, as the title half-suggests, 99 bottles of whatever he was drinking (not necessarily wine) at various life-changing events (whether or not it was the drink itself doing the changing varies from bottle to bottle). In case you needed me to spell out just how unpretentious he is, the first “bottle” he describes is a 40 of malt liquor. He goes on to say that not only was it the first drink he had ever had, but that when he was the sommelier at the prestigious Michelin star restaurant Per Se, he would drink a 40 before doing inventory to calm his nerves and keep himself grounded. Other anecdotes include learning about sherry from watching Frasier, opening a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon onto someone’s fancy shirt, and watching a boutique store burn down while eating lunch. And he addresses each of those in a conversational tone that somehow has neither the sense grandiosity that one might assume something this close to a memoir would have nor the sense of humble-bragging that one might assume someone with his resume would have.
There’s other recurring themes, such as glimpses into how backwards wine culture can get, from customers repeatedly asking for a specific wine they know nothing about just because it’s trendy, to the backlash Merlot got after the movie Sideways came out, to getting served a champagne that had gone bad at a competing restaurant and getting paranoid that it was some sort of test. But no matter what weird snobby bullshit he ran into, his passion for chasing and sharing knowledge about wine kept him moving forward, all the way to making his own wines.
It’s also worth mentioning that each page isn’t a solid wall of text, it’s broken up with enough graphics that it doesn’t make sitting down and reading it feel like a daunting task. The majority of the notes on flavor profiles and where to find each drink are relegated to a graphic resembling the back of a baseball card, so if you really were just here to skim the book for beverage recommendations, you theoretically could. But that’s not really what this book is about.
I didn’t go into this knowing or caring about who Andre Hueston Mack is as a person, and while I feel like it would be a stretch to promise that you will care about him after reading, I think it’s safe to say you will care about his message. He set out to show that taste is subjective, that your tastes in wine are going to be just as shaped by your experiences as his was. He became a wine expert by tasting as many wines as he could and forming his own opinions on them, and, while you probably won’t be lucky enough to experience half of the things he has, that’s what he wants you to do too. Broaden your wine horizons, and don’t let the snobs keep you down.