You could be excused for thinking Layne Witherell drank wine from his baby bottle instead of milk. I’m pretty sure he knows more about wine than anyone in the world, and I’m absolutely sure he’s had the most interesting life in the wine business.
Layne’s new book, Wine Maniacs – Life in the Wine Biz, is phenomenal, entertaining, very informative, and something that will surely improve your selection and enjoyment of wine.
It was my good fortunate one day, wandering into the wine section at the back of Trader Joe’s in Portland, to have Layne recognize me and begin a conversation. In person he is very engaging, but what impressed me the most was one of the first things he told me, as I was reaching for a fairly expensive bottle of wine.
“Put that back,” he said. “There’s a better chianti over here, for less money.” Ever since, I let him choose my wine. In fact, the Italian sangiovese he suggested has become our favorite – at just $4.49 a bottle. He now knows what Linda and I enjoy, and without exception he’s chosen some excellent ones for us to enjoy – at very reasonable prices.
Layne has tasted over 100,000 wines in his 40 years in the business, been a newspaper writer, radio talk show host, professor of wine for 15 years at the University of Virginia, and a wine buyer for his own company and others – a job which took him all over the world. He’s advised some of the country’s best wineries, knows everyone in the business, and tells us about many of them in this book.
I first saw the book in 2014 and loved it, but knew – and told Layne – he needed an editor. We all do. And I could tell, from the very first paragraph in the 2016 edition, that’d he found just the right editor: Portland’s Elizabeth Peavey. She “said to dig into my background,” Layne told me, “and tell who I am.” And he most certainly does that, in chapters that take us along for a ride through his amazing career.
From California to Oregon to Montana to France to Virginia, he shares his great stories, and in chapters on everything from wine corks to wine books, restaurants to wine stores to wine dinners, he tells you all you need to know about wine. And he doesn’t hold back. For example, he reports “my conclusion was that we Americans are too carried away with the flavors of overblown, oversized wines.”
Who knew that wine glasses make a difference? Certainly not me. But Layne tells us just what is needed to assure the maximum enjoyment from your wine. Yes, glasses matter.
I really love his stories – like this one, at Thomas Jefferson’s historic home at Monticello. I was “standing with Gabriele in Jefferson’s vineyard at Monticello as Jefferson would have experienced it in the early morning with fog rolling in. On one side was Monticello, with its architectural purity, and on the other, the mountains with their ruggedness. What an exquisite feeling. Gabriele and I tasted wine from the barrel in a winery that was about the size of a large coat closet. Everything was done as it would have been in the 18th century. What an exquisite story.” Indeed.
Linda and I love Italy, especially the wine, so Layne’s report on Italy really grabbed my attention. “Italy, wallowing and asleep producing its billion or so gallons of wine during the 70s and 80s, erupted in the 90s to become progressive and downright thrilling,” he reports. Before one of our trips to Italy, I asked Layne for recommendations for wines we should try. He sent me a reference work on more than 300 wines! I said, “Layne, how about just 5 or 6 to try!”
Layne’s done several hundred wine dinners over the years, and as travel writers, Linda and I have done and written about a half dozen. His stories, and advice, are priceless. I particularly enjoyed his story about the wine dinner that featured pizza: “not ordinary, everyday pizza but cool pizza,” he writes. “Six courses, each of your own tiny pizza, accompanied with different wine.” Wish we’d been there! As Layne notes, “It was magic.”
Layne’s advice on how and where to buy wine will save you lots of money. And he even recommends other books that will turn you into a wine expert. At his recommendation, we purchased What to Drink with What you Eat by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. It’s a very comprehensive book. “You can crunch down your choices depending on what is for dinner before you enter the store,” says Layne. “It will focus you. Imagine, a world focused on wine shoppers!”
In 2005, Layne and his wife Judy sold their home in Richmond, Virginia and moved to Portland, Maine. He had promised Judy, when they married, that someday they would move to the place of her birth in Maine. For a number of years, Layne worked as the general manager of Maine Beverage, which won the state contract for distribution of all spirits in our state.
At the age of 65, he was nearly killed when a reckless driver plowed into him, but his airbags saved his life. And that was when he decided to retire. But it didn’t take long for him to recognize that retirement was not for him, so he took a job in the wine department of Trader Joe’s in Portland. They are very very lucky to have him.
In the book’s afterward, Layne notes that, “After 40 years of living, drinking, teaching, tasting, and writing about wine, I have some thoughts.” Indeed he does! And we should all be grateful that he has shared those thoughts with us in this marvelous book.