Books on Wine Evening

Diana Stockton
Diana Stockton
Posted on

Alder Yarrow, Essence of Wine

Saint Helena Public Library
Friday, February 20, 2015

Alder Yarrow, author of the award-winning wine blog “Vinography” provided an excellent history of creating his book, The Essence of Wine, at our Books on Wine Evening in the Napa Valley Wine Library wing of the Saint Helena Public Library on Friday, February 20.

“I feel like Madonna!” exclaimed Alder, looking over the assembled throng as he began his presentation. He said his book tour has been entertaining and fun. Alder self-published his The Essence of Wine just before Christmas, and joined us after taking part in the four-day annual Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley.

Growing up, there was no wine on the table in Alder‘s house. His first sip of wine was at a party when he was a teenager. The 1990‘s found him taking junior year abroad from Stanford University at Oxford University and eating in Oxford‘s colleges with other students, he recalled with a grin, really introduced him to food and wine. He began to cook and to trundle down to the local “Odd Bin” for interesting labels or interestingly shaped bottles–like Mateus and Chianti.

Alder Yarrow

Alder said he graduated from Stanford with degrees in photography and communication knowing HTML, so he went to work helping start a web design company and spending his income on food and wine. Alder‘s parallel development as a wine geek had also begun: keeping notebooks on the wines he tasted. “Ten years of Moleskines!” And two of those ten years he spent in Tokyo where he kept being asked by those he was with to pick out something in the way of wine.

In 2004, new web design clients asked him, “What‘s a blog?” And as Alder learned about blogs he realized he could start his own about wine to send to his friends. There were only one or two other wine posts and Googling the name “Vinography” brought up zero search results. Alder called the time “a very green field” for his blog. All fifteen of his friends were visitors to it within two or three weeks and in six months “Vinography” had several thousands of visitors. Alder says he wrote every day, but that initially, 11 plus years ago, what he wrote he thinks were inanities as he started learning and exploring. He now has a six year-old at home, so Alder no longer writes every day (only about 10 to 20 hours on Vinography and 60 hours at the office), but was able to parley writing for his blog into writing for several outlets: Jancis Robinson, the SOMM Journal (, Jim Gordon‘s Opus Vino, plus lots of speaking engagements—the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, CIA‘s “Flavor! Napa Valley.” This was his tenth year at the Wine Writers Symposium. Wine and “Vinography” have given Alder “…something of a second career: As if I were knitting. It is fulfilling, creative.”

Alder then described a parlor game he made up of guessing ice cream flavors. His favorite source for guessing at home is nearby Mitchell‘s Ice Cream in San Francisco. The game consists of choosing a number of ice creams all the same color—he generally picks orange—each a different flavor (especially tropicals) lining them up and then guessing which is which.


He went on to say that it is hard to put words to things we smell and that there is a physiological reason for this. “Taste” is 70 to 95% “smell.” The senses of see, touch, hear go to our language center first, while smell and taste go to the amygdala and hippocampus, very old-fashioned parts of our brain that process emotion and memory. Survival once depended on knowing if something were rotten or safe to eat. Sex, memory–episodic experience is enmeshed with food: taste and smell. Alder became familiar with UC Davis professor emerita Ann Noble‘s Aroma Wheel, which he finds maddening. Why is it round? Why can‘t it show different relationships? It doesn‘t have half the things he wants and it can‘t go into a wallet! A few years ago, Alder posted his own Aroma Card on Vinography. Free to download on his site, it is now in seven languages.

For Alder, “Flavors and aromas are magical, really magical; each a really remarkable thing. How amazing that we have cherries–gastronomical hedonism!” In his book you will find an iconic photo of each aroma. He didn‘t want to lose the magic as his idea for a book percolated. When he met photographer Leigh Beisch, who had shot a cookbook authored by Joyce Goldstein, he knew a book was possible: the essences of wine in photographs accompanied by a list of wines sharing those tastes and smells. Alder wrote a proposal, submitted it around, to a resounding “No”. Twenty years ago that would have ended the project he says, but not today. He decided to do it himself and initiated a Kickstarter campaign. [In July The Essence of Wine was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer Wine Writers‘ Award for 2015 as Wine Book of the Year. Weeks ago in London it received the rare distinction of the Roederer‘s Chairman‘s Prize (from Charles Metcalf).

Q & A‘s

Alder read a few flavor and aroma entries aloud and then asked for questions.

Q: Will the wine lists go stale?

A: No; no vintages were given. I chose wines that year in and year out have a signature consistency. Taste and smell are the same, the “aroma.” This book is about that essential magic, celebrating the delights of the palate.

Q: What about wine glasses? Riedel, with its four types of glasses?

A: Smell is affected by shape but taste is not. In your nasal cavity is how you taste the wine.

Q: What about how thin the glass is?

A: Purely a matter of sensibility. As long as the mouth is smaller than the bowl, it doesn‘t matter about thickness. It is about tasting the wine, learning about it on the table at dinner. Wine is as deep as you want to go. It is a matter of training yourself to taste the deeper levels–flavor profiles: naturally occurring versus additives. 60% of the wine that is sold is under $6.00 a bottle and is “manufactured”—stabilized, color-adjusted, and so forth. Like canned soup. There is a certain inauthenticity in those flavors for someone who cares about wines. Certain yeasts generate certain compounds, producing a spectrum of authenticity. Paul Draper [of Ridge Vineyards] is all about artisanal: an aesthetic end product, a cultural product–like organic produce and small bookstores.

The Essence of Wine is available online at