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April 21, 2007

'Educating Peter' by Lettie Teague

From time to time lately I've been getting invitations to review books, which I guess is one of the benefits of having a website that at least a handful of people read regularly. The problem is that for a long while they've all been cookbooks, and not even fruit themed ones, so they didn't seem terribly relevant.

Finally, though, I was offered a wine book, which was adequately fruit-centric for my liking: Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot, or How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert, by Lettie Teague. Ms. Teague teaches us about wine while teaching her friend, movie critic Peter Travers. They sample wines from assorted regions, cultivars, and styles, sometimes traveling to the regions themselves.

At the core, this is a perfectly adequate, even pretty good, book on wine, and for a relatively small book it's actually pretty comprehensive. But rather than livening things up and making this complex and intimidating topic more accessible and readable, the gimmick actually detracts. I generally found Peter's comments, often making strained parallels with movies and directors, to be superfluous and annoying, though he does occasionally come through with something amusing or insightful, particularly when addressing some of the more ridiculous aspects of the wine world.

My other problem with this book is that it doesn't really do what it claims to do. Contrary to the subtitle, the book hardly suggests that "anybody" can become a wine expert, nor is the process remotely instant. Peter hardly seems to me to represent the average Joe. First, he actually seems to know a fair amount about wine. Second, a movie critic, trained in the appreciation of another "art", is likely better equipped to grapple with the diversity in the art of winemaking. His training is time-consuming, world-spanning, and phenomenally expensive. After the first few chapters, I decided I was going to start tallying up the cost of the wines they taste, but my enthusiasm ran out before the end. Still, it seems like a minimum of half a dozen times per chapter they are cracking open a $45, $75, or $90+ bottle of wine, and the whole educational process is topped off with a $4,000 bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet (to be fair, this is given to them, not purchased as part of the Peter's education). Becoming a wine expert would be markedly easier if one had the option to taste almost any wine one liked, but that's really not a possibility most folks have.

Rather than demystifying wine, the books seems to revel in the mystique, which is a common flaw of wine books. I'm hardly an expert, by my advice on wine would be considerably more brief: Be adventurous in what you try, remember what you like, particularly the cultivar, and, most importantly, drink what you like.

On top of all that, the book sometimes cries out for an editor. The same thing is often explained repeatedly (we are told that Peter's term form tannic wines is "aggressive" over, and over again, for instance), and strange, irrelevant facts pop up here and there. For example, after learning that Beaujolais nouveau is only meant to last a season or two, Peter compares it to a summer release movie: "Nobody will want to see The 40-Year-Virgin six years after its release in August," he declared, naming the movie that stars Steve Carell that got a lot of attention on its release with the premise that the hero had never had sex until he was forty years old." How on earth is that all relevant? Is there some other movie out there named The 40-Year-Old Virgin that was a weighty classic of cinema, requiring the author to clarify which movie is being referred to? It's not horrible, it's just distracting, and kind of surprising from some one who has been a professional writer for a while. (And yes, to all my regular readers, I realize I am occasionally guilty of the same things. But I don't have an editor. And you're not paying for any of this.) (Although you're always welcome to send me money.)

Anyway, if you are a fan of either Lettie Teague or Peter Travers, you might enjoy this book, as would people with a beginning or intermediate knowledge of wine who are anxious to improve. Readers with a more advanced knowledge of wine will probably want more detail, and possibly less Peter Travers.

You can buy Educating Peter here.

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