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BOOK REVIEW

Writer's journey is quite palatable

The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World, By Lawrence Osborne, North Point Press, 262 pp., $24.

The most influential wine book written in last 20 years may well be Kermit Lynch's 1988 "Adventures on the Wine Route," an under-the-radar classic whose sheer frankness and earthbound common sense broke the mold in wine writing. The book was all the more extraordinary because Lynch was and is a wine merchant, rather than a writer.

With "The Accidental Connoisseur," British-born New York resident Lawrence Osborne has given us the flip side. Osborne is a stylish and accomplished writer who, by his own admission, is no expert when it comes to wine.

Ostensibly, Osborne has an agenda: Do a sense of place and authenticity of style refer to something real, or is it all so much self-referential claptrap? Is quality in wine something that can be judged objectively? How does someone acquire good taste?

But this is no treatise. It's more of a talky travelogue -- with personality.

Professing a depth of ignorance he may not actually possess, Osborne strikes the pose of the peripatetic philosopher, the faux naif eager to engage in conversation with the famous and obscure, recording their banal, implausible, and only occasionally enlightening responses with equanimity.

The results are frequently hilarious, as when nonagenarian Robert Mondavi and his none too obsequious wife Margrit skirmish "like a pair of toy triremes" over whether a 1999 Mondavi Carneros pinot noir is a better wine than a grand cru Burgundy. Mondavi eventually acknowledges that the Burgundy, an Echezeaux, is more complex, but tirelessly wheedles the group into entertaining the highly dubious notion that though his pinot may be a simpler wine, it is nonetheless "more pleasing."

By "more pleasing," Mondavi clearly means more in tune with generic American palates. In fact, the question of whether Americans and Australians are the unindicted coconspirators in a global plot to convince drinkers of the superiority of simple, fruit-driven varietals is the not-so-subtle subtext here. Lurking on the periphery of nearly every conversation is the shadowy bulk of Robert M. Parker Jr., the former attorney whose "Wine Advocate" newsletter has become the most influential wine publication in history.

Parker reaches only 40,000 or so subscribers directly, but his influence can't be overstated. He annually tastes and rates perhaps 10,000 wines, and his scores (based on a 100 point system) are cribbed for use in retail shops and wine lists. Parker and his scores seem to be a topic of conversation wherever Osborne travels. In France, where Parker's palate has reshaped the wine landscape one cellar at a time, Osborne finds that the antipathy runs from the mildly disapproving (his taste is "square," "obvious," he exerts "undue influence") to the apoplectic ("A pirate!"). Osborne is briefly confronted with the mighty one in the waiting room at Chateau Lafite -- or so he thinks. Sadly, the Parker interview, which could have been the book's centerpiece, never occurs.

Encounters with California celebrity winemakers such as Mondavi, self-styled "Rhone Ranger" Randall Grahm, and zinfandel wizard Paul Draper are deftly sketched, though these episodes occasionally end abruptly. Absent meaningful transitions, the reader is sometimes left to guess why Osborne chose a particular property or personality to visit next (his interview with 70 year-old French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, so promising, yields little of interest). But the vignettes of a day spent with an Italian winemaker obsessed with making "a Bob Dylan wine" or an evening with a French family whose members festoon the walls of their home with Native American schlock as they seek to "follow the way of the pipe" are sweet, and more in tune with the "Adventures on the Wine Route" genre Osborne acknowledges he is working in.

Those thirsting for answers to the more serious questions Osborne claims he has set out to address are bound to be disappointed. Unless you're awfully good at reading between the lines, you'll find no conclusions here. Compensation, however, comes in the form of the author's pitiless eye and stylish prose, which has the quality of being effortlessly tossed off after a night of diligent elbow-bending. Osborne is an accomplished and entertaining raconteur.

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