Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dr. Frankenstein's legacy looms larger

There's a famous (and very old -- 1959) book by C.P. Snow called "The Two Cultures" which laments the divide between scientists and everyone else. The problems are deeper now and the essence of the scientific issues have changed greatly.

But despite the hand-wringing of every scientific generation, the problem gets worse.

The problem gets worse because scientists have tried to solve it by themselves. They have successfully created an environment where ordinary people view them as a caste apart, a priesthood of the anointed who have the theological rights to intercede between the masses and the God of science. The publishing industry has bought into this and manages to make the problem worse.

My little thread of current agonizing about this begins with a Wired Online article, "Why is There so Little Science in the Sci/Tech Section of Google News?".

That contains links to two good nanotechnology blog posts: "Five lessons in nano outreach" and,

"'Science has a serious marketing problem,' says Google founder at 2007 AAAS keynote"
. (AAAS = American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

What's bad about these links is that they seem to advocate spin-doctoring as a solution rather than translating the science into a form that can be understood by the whole congregation rather than just the high priests.

Now, let me tell you a little story.

Back in the middle to late 1980s, I was a consultant to technology companies. At one point, I had more than half of the divisions of Hewlett-Packard as clients. Back then, HP was a totally engineering driven company, famous for bomb-proof test equipment, engineering workstations, semiconductor simulators and so forth. They made their billions selling engineering to engineers.

Then they got a consumer bent. Maybe you think that was the HP LaserJet which broke open the entire laser printer market. Nope.

The first product they wanted to sell into the consumer/business market was the HP plotter they felt people would want to have, especially to create color charts and graphs from that new PC program, Lotus 1-2-3. This was before inkjets. State of the art for PC printing was the dot-matrix, impact printer.

The HP's plotter division in Rancho Bernardo (east of San Diego California) was my client. When I first got there, the engineers proudly showed me the heft and strength of their plotters and the torture chamber in which HP's plotters would work perfectly in subzero temperatures and those in which you could literally fry an egg if you left the frying pan in long enough. They spent hours talking about obscure engineering protocols and how those (and the torture chamber photos) were what the felt were their competitive advantages over Calcomp -- their main competitor whose plotters were significantly less expensive.

Those worked when you sold to engineers, I told them, but failed to answer the consumer "who give a shit?" test.

They listened to me because I had once been a programmer and worked as an engineer. We began to create a program which translated the technology into something that passed the "who gives a shit?" test.

They became the market leader in business and consumer products. It's also no accident that, before the 1980s were over, the LaserJet had made the transition from a massive-steel-framed behemoth that could shelter you from a nuclear attack, to a light, streamlined, consumer-friendly product.

I'd say that science in general remains mired in the same trap. The public doesn't give a shit about something that they've been led to believe they won't understand anyway. The few that press on to understand get turned off when they buy a book by a Ph.D. which is either too complicated, too flimsy and in both cases fails to address the "who gives a shit?" issue.

Phrased in less scatological terms, for the vast majority of the rapidly shrinking universe of book buyers, none of the books offers a good answer to: "Why should I care? How will knowing this make my life better or help me understand my place in the universe?"

Just as engineers are not sympatico with consumers, pure scientists will never be able to answer those questions adequately enough to bridge the divide. The alternative will be greater reliance on superstition by the general public and deepening suspicion of science and scientists. Is there any doubt here why novels and movies usually portray scientists as Faustian madmen?

Dr. Frankenstein's legacy looms larger

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Science Illiteracy

People are getting dumber and dumber about science even as it assumes a greater and greater role in society.

Publishers of "popular" type science books bear much of the blame. Almost everything they publish is:
(a) Devoid of any real science content and condescendingly tries to explain things with the equivalent of hand puppets or
(b) Written way above the heads of intelligent people.

It's not just a book segment destroying itself, it is culturally destructive.

Religion and science both started as ways for people to try and understand the world around them. Science now shows us many things we once attributed to the supernatural. That means that intelligent people seeking the meaning of things try to grasp the science.

But the scientific establishment has developed into a priesthood of fancy mathematics that is impenetrable -- not only to the layperson, but to many, many scientists as well.

That is why, despite all the shelves full of "popular" books on science by PhDs like Brian Greene and Michio Kaku, scientific illiteracy grows and grows. This BusinessWeek blurb (above) illustrates what I am saying.

The vacuum between all of the establishment-PhD-written books and religious texts is now being filled with new-age, truly flaky interpretations of quantum physics as spirituality. And people are buying into this. But the "science" is all twisted and wrong.

Those pseudo-scientific spirituality books are finding an audience created by the scientific illiteracy created by the establishment PhDs.

This is not encouraging.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Comic Wars: Book Review

This review appeared in Barron's on June 3, 2002.

If anyone decided to pattern a cartoon villain after Dan Raviv's depictions of Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn in Comic Wars, the concept would be laughed out of the marketplace.

After all, riveting cartoon villains usually have at least one redeeming feature.

But in Comic Wars, CBS News correspondent Raviv spins an irresistible morality play: Allied against the forces of darkness -- duplicitous bankers, profane lawyers, spineless yes-men, and Perelman and Icahn -- Israeli immigrant and Six-Day War veteran Isaac (Ike) Perlmutter arrives in America with $250 to his name. Thirty years later, he's worth $500 million.

Raviv portrays Perlmutter's triumph as a victory of the will to do the right thing. The ultimate entrepreneur, who could make brains and sweat work where others needed money, Perlmutter first built a fortune buying and selling surplus goods. This success allowed him to take on larger operations -- including whole firms -- like shaver company Remington Products.

The comic-wars part of the saga begins in 1989 -- when Ron Perelman acquires Marvel Entertainment Group for $82.5 million, hyping the company as a "mini-Disney," and floating more than $900 million worth of junk bonds. Then, he train-wrecks it, in a DotCom-like meltdown: Based on unrealistic hype about revenue growth, Marvel's stock soars from its $2 IPO price in 1991 to more than $34 in 1993 -- in part fueled by bankers who didn't look too carefully at their deals so long as they made their ample underwriting fees.

Perelman grossly overpays for a series of disastrous acquisitions. And his cost-cutting disembowels the staff of artists and writers. As quality plummets, so do sales, helped by a boycott of Marvel by disillusioned fans -- and a decision to create a distribution monopoly that drove many of its best retailers out of business.

Meanwhile, Perlmutter, who had bought a crippled toy firm in 1990 and renamed it ToyBiz, teams up with Ron Perelman in 1993 -- in a deal giving ToyBiz the right to sell action figures based on Marvel Comics' characters (Spiderman, X-Men). The no-royalty deal cost Perlmutter 46 percent of his company -- and bound his fate to Marvel. When Perelman took over Marvel, it had had a 70% market share. But by 1996, it was 25%. And the share price had plunged toward $1 by the time the company filed for Chapter 11 on Dec. 27, 1996. "The great Ron Perelman," Raviv writes, "the man who ... conquered Revlon, was now a schmuck who could not run a comic-book company."

Corporate raider Carl Icahn launches his hostile takeover attempt for Marvel in November 1996. All he'd ultimately accomplish was an exchange of toxic insults with Perelman. But with the moguls distracted, Perlmutter executes a courageous maneuver: On July 31, 1998, he takes control of Marvel, scoring one of the most impressive victories since David slew Goliath. The story of how he pulled off this acquisition is a nail-biting thriller -- filled with more backstabbing, lies, broken promises and unexpected twists than a stack of action comic books.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution: Book Review

An edited version of this appeared in Barron's on March 1, 2004

A stench wafts among the pricey vineyards of Bordeaux. According to Noble Rot by William Echikson, the stink comes from a cultural gangrene eating away at an arrogant and outmoded aristocracy so far into denial that it can’t see the mortal danger that corrodes it from within.

In the wine world, the term "noble rot" refers to a specific type of desirable mold that allows grapes to produce some of the world's most desirable and expensive sweet wines with Bordeaux's Château d'Yquem at the pinnacle. But Echikson uses the term as a metaphor for a syndrome of cultural and enological afflictions that have turned this august wine region on its Gallic nose. The fact that Château d'Yquem plays a key role makes the metaphor doubly relevant.

The obscure and irrelevant Classification of 1855 stars as the lead pathogen in Noble Rot. As Echikson points out, the old guard in Bordeaux still clutch at the 1855 classification in a last-ditch effort to sell inferior wine at very high prices to gullible snobs who crave tony labels. Indeed, this 1855 list was never about quality from the beginning, but about price and prestige. Not coincidentally for this book, Château d'Yquem came out on the very top of that listing.

Leading the revolution against the established order are les garagistes, a feisty band of winemakers, mostly from St.-Emilion and environs who, zut alors!, think that Bordeaux's over-priced, thin, musty swill should give way to quality wine produced through proper vineyard management and winemaking techniques. While there are some larger, well-financed operations in this movement, most have been labeled garagistes after a number of prominent winemakers who literally began in their garages and produced wines that sell at hundreds of dollars a bottle at retail.

The fact that many unclassified garagiste wines are now selling at far greater prices than those with a noble, classified château on the label has outraged the establishment which, in Marie Antoinette fashion, scream, "Let them drink plonk!"

Echikson gives the reader a very readable, enjoyable sand factually grounded account of how the upstart garagistes first tried to change the ossified classifications which stood like the Maginot Line between them, formal recognition and the establishment's pricing and sales system. When that failed, they simply swept around the flanks, establishing alternate pricing, sales and distribution channels that cut the old guard off like la guillotine.

Noble Rot could easily have been like most wine books: morphine for the soul, filled with geek-speak, pedantically self-important and impenetrable prose suitable only for treating people with a sleep disorder. Yet Echikson avoids this and has produced an accessible, thoughtful book so filled with interesting material about the business, the winemaking and the culture that it begs to be sipped and contemplated rather than quaffed.

What makes the book so engaging is the way that Echikson spins his story by following some of the key people on both sides of the movement, leading us through the conflicts, offering context and illuminating quotes that promote understanding.

We have the challengers: true garagistes such as Michel Gracia and well-heeled newcomers like Florence Cathiard of Château Smith-Haut-Lafite who are bound by a passion for great wine regardless of classification. On their side are avant garde merchants like Jeffrey Davies, modern wine consultants like Michel Rolland and Denis Dubourdieu and well-known wine critic Robert Parker.

The old guard sees evil in the fact that Davies and Parker are American as are many of the new vineyard and winemaking practices is evidence, according to the old guard, that this was "part of a grand conspiracy to destroy France."

Echikson aptly shows that the French don't seem to need any outside help to destroy their country since government regulations, a refusal to modernize, a pervasive rear-view mirror on progress and a general xenophobia are doing a great job without American intervention.

Noble Rot uses this attitude as one of the major manifestations of denial that keeps the decadent aristocracy from addressing the real issues, which is why American wine regularly out-scores French wine in France and that top global honors for that icon of French culture, the baguette, has gone to one of my local Sonoma bakeries on more than one occasion.

Commanding the defense of the old order is Château d'Yquem's Alexandre Lur-Saluces. Noble Rot details his decades of subterfuge, double-dealing, and attempts to cheat family members out of their rightful ownership and control of Château d'Yquem all the while running the place into the ground. The tale, told through a combination of interviews and extracts from court cases paints a gothic image that would never have been believable even on Falconcrest.

The old guard cast would not be complete without the context that most of Bordeaux's old guard were Vichy supporters and Nazi collaborators who received many a fascist pat on the back for shipping Jews off to the gas chambers, something that grand cru lovers might want to keep in mind.

Noble Rot begins with many threads which Echikson skillfully weaves together in the last part of the book to form a unified, disturbing and yet optimistic tapestry. As the author of wine books, I have visited Bordeaux on a number of occasions and met many of the people Echikson writes about. I found that after reading Noble Rot, I had a far more coherent framework on which to hang my episodic visits and knowledge.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

California Vintners Still Delusional

When my book, The Wrath of Grapes hit bookstores in 1999, I predicted a massive glut of wine would sweep through California and hammer wine prices starting in 2000/2001.

The wine industry responded like like stoners who've been smoking their shorts. "Glut? Ain't gonna be no stinkin' glut!"

Jay Palmer at Barron's wrote a detailed, well-documented article on this and came to the same conclusion. The wine industry mounted a massive PR blitz aimed at neutralizing Palmer, me and anyone else who dared look at the statistics. Brokerage analysts played their puppet roles well, mouthing corporate press releases and failing to look at the facts.

They were all treading water or floundering when the predicted glut hit in 2001. Right on schedule.

And every year, year after year, they pronounce the end of the glut. Only, no one ever uses the "G" word.

This year is no different.

Premier Pacific Vineyards, a Napa-based vineyard investment firm issued a rose-tinted report this week taking about the decline in "non-bearing" vineyard plantings and implying that, somehow, this was yet another harbinger of good times ahead and even hinting at shortages.

Bull feathers!

It's true that non-bearing acreage can help foretell future prospects. It takes a newly planted vineyard three to five years to begin production. But if you're savvy and take your own look at the stats, you'll see that the numbers reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture don't show the flood of California wine ending anytime soon. It just shows that the insane rush to plant new vineyards has decreased from delusional to merely out of touch with reality.

The USDA's 2007 Grape Acreage Report indicates that non-bearing acres decreased from 47,000 acres to 43,000 acres. WhoopieDOOO! Sure, you can talk about a, 8.5 percent decline. But the REAL story lies in the acres still producing enough wine to keep the Two Buck Chuck tsunami flowing.

The last time that California wine production came close to a balance with demand was 1995-96 when the state had about 300,000 acres of bearing wine grapes. Feloniously optimistic projections about demand from pump-and-dump artists and those standing to profit from the expansion of vineyards created a planting spree.

The 2007 Grape Acreage Report shows California with 480,000 acres, the same as 2006. This comes despite vineyards being ripped out and grapes rotting on the vines, even in premium areas of Napa and Sonoma Valley.

The reality remains that California has, probably, two-thirds-MORE acres of wine vineyards than it needs, a good portent for regular wine consumers needing something to ease the pain of oil and real-estate prices.

More factors aggravate the situation for vineyard owners, the most important being a worldwide glut of wine which has helped boost the market share of imports from about 12 to 15% in the mid-1990s to about double that today.

Significantly, California crushed about 3.7 million tons of wine grapes in 2007, according to the USDA. At the current levels of consumption and imports, that's probably 750,000 tons higher than supply and demand would merit.

Wines wizards of unreality will respond that those overall numbers don't really apply to the haute-appellation wines of Napa and Sonoma. More bullfeathers!

This wine, Castello Da Vinci, is a negociant bottle, filled with a Bordeaux blend from Napa Valley's trendiest appellations. The highly, highly respected winery that made the wine sold it for more than $100 per bottle. But they had 30,000 gallons of it they couldn't sell. So it was shopped on the bulk market for about. Some of it ended up in the Castello Da Vinci bottle and sold for $25. About $5 of that went for wine. Another $3 for the label, bottle and all other costs.

Napa is not immune no matter how must they protest.

DISCLOSURE: Castello Da Vinci is my own wine, created by for a character in my current novel, Perfect Killer. Sourcing the wine on the bulk market confirmed everything I had known anecdotally about prices and the availability of very fine wines.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Planets -- Book Review

This is my original draft. The edited review was published in Barron's on Nov. 7, 2005.

The Planets
, By Dava Sobel, $24.95, 288 Pages, Viking Adult, New York, ISBN: 0670034460

More imagination has been lavished on Mars than any other planet in our solar system -- from "War of the Worlds" to mass fascination with canals, and fantasies of little green men (and women, one must presume). I admit being caught up in that during the summer of 1967 which I spent as a budding rocket scientist at the Westinghouse plant in Horseheads, NY, hand-building solar flux measurement instrument tubes for the Mariner 6 and 7 Mars flyby satellites. It's a miracle the tubes worked, because my attention kept wandering off by a billion miles or so as I imagined what these pieces I had laid hands on would find when the Martian Canals came into view.

Dava Sobel's Planets resurrected all those archival memories in a daringly experimental mix of writing styles seeking to capture the feel of the planets rather than create one more scientific icecap of data lists and telemetry.

Sobel's first-person narrative of Mars, writing from the viewpoint of "Allan Hills 84001," a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984, works very well in leading the lay reader on an effortlessly educational jaunt that could easily have become a thicket of scientific jargon in the hands of a lesser writer.

"The collision that launched my journey dug a hole in Mars several miles wide," Sobel's narrative explains. "Astronomers think they have identified that particular crater on satellite images of mars near a small valley in the southern highlands .... As a Martian from a heavily cratered region, I was acquainted with meteorite strikes and in fact, already bore a fracture scar from having been crushed and reheated in a previous impact."

From such easily approachable prose as this, we learn about the meteoroid, which arrived 16 million years ago complete with a payload of biological fossils and a chemical composition that mirrored the Martian surface.

Scientifically trained readers will find no new trove of facts, but Sobel's unique series of presentations offer the ability to understand and appreciate the solar system in an aesthetic and creative way. In addition, she creates for the reader a significant sense of context by weaving a James Burke-esque fabric of historical, political, mythological, and literary references.

Not everything in The Planets is a planet. The book begins with the Sun (a star) and ends with Pluto (an overgrown asteroid or perhaps a planetesimal). In between we have all the usual suspects along with a smattering of moons, rings and a wonderful detour through the age-old connection among geometry, astronomy and music.

Pythagoras, Sobel writes, was the first to connect "'geometry in the humming of the strings' and 'music in the spacing of the spheres'." She leads us through Plato's "music of the spheres" through the Copernican "ballet of the planets," and right into the work of legendary astronomer Johannes Kepler who, in 1599, "derived a C major chord by equating the relative velocities of the planets with the intervals on a stringer instrument."

She finishes off this thread with Gustav Holst's popular symphony, "The Planets" which presaged World War I when he wrote the first suite, "Mars, the Bringer of War," in July 1914.

This web of connections illustrates the remarkable breadth and depth of Sobel's writing and is sure to offer both the hardest scientist and the rankest amateur new and creative ways of looking at the night sky.

But not everything in Sobel's experimental writing quiver works. Or perhaps, more correctly, not everything will work all the time for every reader. Her literary references – Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, C,S, Lewis, Oliver Wendell Holmes and many others – frequently set the tone of the surrounding prose, as if Sobel felt bound to emulate their style and pacing. What seems poignant or significant in the short quotes can grow tediously anachronistic if continued for page after page. "Night Air," the chapter on Neptune and Uranus, was the toughest for me to read, but should be a hit among fans of Jane Austen.

This is by way of saying that, there will be readers who will like "Night Air" the best and my favorites the worst. Each of the chapters is well written, but likeability will be a matter of taste.

In a day of scrapple-sausage writing, ground down to the lowest common denominator and written to fill a financially budgeted number of pages, Sobel deserves credit for having the courage to experiment and her publisher for making that experimentation available to readers.

As a former scientist decades ago turned to writing, I particularly appreciated Planets because it hollows out some daydreaming space among the facts and fosters a sense of imagination and wonder -- a right-brained oasis that could have been lost under the avalanche of data and left-brained logic. Sobel shows the reader why the imagination to dream is at least as important as the ability to reach out and touch the stars.

A New Kind of Science - Book Review

This review appeared in Barrons on September 2, 2002

The conventional wisdom in science is that complex systems and organisms can only be explained by equally complex rules and mathematics.

But regardless of whether one speaks of the behavior of stock markets and financial systems, sub-atomic particles, humans, apes or the very cosmos, scientists have developed enormously complicated mathematical models that fall short of anything other than "pretty good" most of the time -- and "pretty awful" whenever it comes to divining the inner workings of complexity.

Chaos theory, fractals, complexity theory and other promising paths have all managed to hit their own walls because, according to Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science, simplicity is the prime mover of complex behavior -- and traditional math is the enemy of understanding this.

So instead of the conventional math and calculus of the past 300 years, Wolfram makes an excruciatingly thorough case that real portraits of complexity can be drawn only if one uses powerful computers to make billions and billions and billions of calculations -- in order to repeat very simple cellular automation rules.

To understand cellular automata, imagine a grid, like graph paper. Color in one square. Then to figure out which other squares to color in, apply this simple rule: a cell should be black whenever one or the other -- but not both -- of its neighbors on the same line were black on the step before.

After rule 90 (of 256) is carried out 50 or so times, an intricate, symmetrical pattern is produced. But after a few thousand iterations, the patterns appear to go completely random, producing pictographs with uncanny resemblances to leaf-vein structure, or crystal fractures, or animal ornamentation -- all phenomena which have been assumed to be results of very complicated processes.

The author proposes that the rules of cellular automata offer worthy answers to how we should approach the nature of the universe, the enigma of human consciousness and other lesser topics, like quantum physics and, finally, the ultimate fabric of reality: "All the wonders of our universe can in effect be captured by simple rules, yet this shows that there can be no way to know all the consequences of these rules, except in effect just to watch and see how they unfold."

In other words, things are a lot simpler than we thought -- but they can still be awfully unpredictable.

While some of the ideas expressed might be dismissed as the deranged babblings of a kook, or perhaps a genius with a frontal-lobe tumor, Wolfram comes with the pedigree of a visionary: He got his Ph.D. from Caltech at the age of 20, has a widely acknowledged career in particle physics and cosmology, found favor with such giants in physics as Richard Feynman and, as the writer of the much-admired Mathematica -- a program that aids scientists and mathematicians in making all manners of computations -- is a wildly successful software entrepreneur.

In the end, Wolfram's 1,197-page opus offers not a new kind of science but a new way of looking at science. True, many of the connections he makes are superficial or incoherent, but still intriguing. And this is a thought-provoking book with the heft of a cinder block -- making it the ultimate in heavy reading. It might even make for great vacation reading for some ... if you plan to take it along on all your vacations until 2005.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

House of Mondavi: Book Review

My original draft appears below. The edited review appeared in Barrons on Sept. 3, 2007.

NOT LONG AFTER the Robert Mondavi Winery went public in 1993, I found myself at a winery luncheon seated next to Bob and a few seats away from his wife, Margrit Biever. Salted among his usual ebulent pronouncements about food and wine were doubts about the wisdom of having gone public.

In my capacity then as founder and publisher of Wine Business Publications, the largest circulation wine trade magazine in North America, I had numerous occasions over the next four years to meet, talk and dine with Bob, his wife, his sons Michael and Tim as well as daughter Marcia, the Baroness Philippina de Rothschild and most of the winery's executives, board members and advisors.

During that time, Bob's upbeat personality darkened whenever matters touched on the wisdom of going public. In his 1998 biography, Harvests of Joy, he bemoaned the corporation's plummeting stock price and wrote: "We had taken an enormous gamble, one of the biggest of my life, and now it appeared to have blown up in my face. And worse was yet to come."

Just how much worse is described in excruciatingly immaculate but highly readable detail by Julia Flynn Siler in The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, (Hardcover, $28, 452 pages, June 2007, Gotham Books, New York, ISBN: 978-1-592-40259-5).

This is not light summer reading by any means. Based on exhaustive research and interviews, each page is packed with facts and footnotes which, by dint of superb writing, manages to engage the reader and avoid the data brain-lock which would have plagued a less-talented journalist.

To wine country insiders, House of Mondavi offers no new shocking surprises: family feuding, jealousies, infidelities, eccentricities, extravagancies and excess have long been known and acknowledged along with the brilliance, drive and perseverance that made the Robert Mondavi Winery an icon to wine lovers and the broad shoulders on which Napa Valley wine stood.

What Siler has provided is well-documented structure, context and detail behind the gossip and the harsh family cruelties which eventually ran the winery aground and its quality into the ground.

After the obligatory recitation of ancestry, immigration from Italy and the too-oft-related fisticuffs between Robert and his brother, Siler digs into the multifacted perfect storm that wrested control from the family and into the hands of Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company.

Siler makes it clear that some of the Mondavi's problems were not entirely of their own making, most notably the Phylloxera grape-vine epidemic of the 1990s as and the current wine glut. Phylloxera is a long-known pest which destroys grapevine roots and nearly wiped out wine production in America and France around the turn of the century. Various resistent rootstocks have since been developed, one of which -- AxR1 -- was heavily promoted to the industry by scientists at the University of California, Davis.

Despite the fact that significant evidence existed about AxR1's vulnerabilities, it was planted in nearly every vineyard in California. Then, beginning in the 1980s, the pest feasted on AxR1 presenting California vintners, including Mondavi, with the a multi-billion-dollar for the massive meal.

Vines had to be ripped out and replanted, creating shortages of wine in the early to mid 1990s. Urged on by easy financing, rosy projections for wine consumption growth and brokerage analysts eager to maintain a suitable environment for public winery offerings, vineyards were planted, over-planted and over-planted again.

By mid-1995, Wine Business Monthly presented data that showed a glut beginning around 2000 and that wine prices -- and winery margins -- would suffer from the oversupply. Barron's expanded upon this with major news reporting in 1998.

House of Mondavi makes it clear that even as winery CEOs like Beringer's Walt Klenz and analysts for Goldman Sachs, Hambrecht & Quist and Nationsbank were touting "what glut?" the industry's shrewd operators who had no vested interest in maintaining public winery stock prices, were making their plans. Key among these was Fred Franzia, bulk-wine magnate, industry bad-boy and superbly innovative marketer.

Best known for his wines in a box, Franzia saw the glut building and as early as 2001 was buying glutted inventory from Beringer, Mondavi and others. One of Franzia's best known glut-baby successes was the now reknowned. "Two Buck Chuck."

But most other California wineries survived the same bad advice from analysts, financiers, IPO hustlers and other experts who knew better. Siler offers chapter after chapter describing what made the stormy seas fatal to the Mondavis.

To the delight of Napa Valley's eternally jealous schadenfreude addicts, House of Mondavi makes it clear that the men of Mondavi destroyed the empire with their devil's brew of arrogance, indulgence but primarily their pathological inability to put aside personal differences for the greater good of the enterprise.

Those interested in the intimate details of the Mondavi men's flaws will find them all here: Robert's driven perfectionism and infidelity; Michael's temper and arrogance, Tim's infidelities and the failure of professional managers, exceutives, psychologists to help any of the men recognize a greater good outside themselves.

I say, "men" here because Robert's daughter Marcia plays only bit roles in the book, reflecting her real-life involvement with an empire started and dominated by men playing out the masculine roles of traditionally Italian men.

In the end, House of Mondavi describes a man brought down by his own generosity. While the winery's 1993 public offering was seen as a way to pass the company on to the next generation and allow Robert to take some of his wealth from the company he had founded, it only accentuated the tensions among the founder and his sons and amplified their interpersonal flaws.

Siler offers a blow-by-blow account of how Robert and his sons were gradually eased out of the company, albeit with tens of millions of dollars in personal wealth. That might have been the whole picture but for Robert's generosity. Among his many charitable efforts, Robert had pledged more than $35 million to the University of California, Davis and another $10 million to Copia, a Napa wine and food center. All of the pledges were backed by his stock. Siler notes that when Mondavi stock dropped below $20 a share in 2003, Robert was essentially insolvent.

True to his generosity, Robert was unwilling to renege on his charitable obligations and thus ignited the final days of a Mondavi at the Robert Mondavi Winery. When Constellation Brands came knocking, Robert and his child eventually converted all of their Series B stock (which had been their anti-take-over protection) and sold it to Constellation.

According to Siler, Marcia received $107 million; Michael about $100 million; Tim, a little less than $59 million and Robert, about $70 million.

Worse had certainly come to worst for Robert. Siler describes the post-sale Robert as having suddenly aged, going from vigorous and far younger than his years to a shaky, wheel-chair-ridden man with hearing and memory problems more typical of people in their early nineties.

The final stories are yet to be written for Michael, Tim and Marcia, all of whom have started wine enterprises of their own. Only the coming years will tell whether they have enough of the right stuff they inherited from their father.

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army: Book Review

I review books for Barron's on a regular basis. Sometimes they assign me a book, sometimes I suggest one. While I am a registered Democrat and political moderate, they have never censored a review. Most of the time, however, I write too long and the reviews are edited to fit the space. Fortunately, their editors are very, very good and have never changed the meaning.

My honest reviews, however, have upset quite a few other people along the way -- mostly those on the extreme Right or, as in the case of this one, the extreme left.

What follows is my full-length review. The edited version appeared in Barron's on April 2, 2007.

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill, (Nation Books, New York, March 2006, hardcover, $26.95, 452 pages ISBN:1-56025-979-5) aspires to be the definitive investigation into the growth of one of the largest private military firms in the world and an exhaustive catalog of its sins, especially as a tool for Bush Administration policy.

But as a cobbled-together amalgam of the author's previously published articles, rehashed pieces by other "progressive" journalists all embedded in a slurry of unattributed sources and one-sided quotation of politicos with an axe to grind, the book fails miserably as anything other than a playbook for the 2008 presidential campaigns.

Instead of a steady march of organized facts from multiple credible sources which makes for solid investigative reporting, Blackwater offers layers of innuendo cast in obviously biased language which offer glimpses of Blackwater: in Iraq, New Orleans, Azerbaijan and elsewhere. No smoking guns here or even warm barrels, just 452 pages of poorly documented, mind-numbing minutiae wandering about in search of significance and lacking in overall coherence.

Early on, the author attempts to indict Blackwater for incompetence, or worse, by reconstructing the final days of the four Blackwater employees who were ambushed, burned and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. The indictment fails. Even worsh, Scahill's cartoonish descriptions of the men makes them into bumbling bafoons rather than offering the reader a moving, "Blackhawk Down" sense of tragedy and men betrayed.

Scahill's trite, political-hot-button phraseology pervades the book. To Scahill, Blackwater's founder, Erik Prince is, "a radical right-wing Christian mega-millionaire who has served as a major bankroller of President Bush's campaigns but of the broader Christian-right agenda." Some facts would have been helpful: religious affiliation, personal net worth, dollar amount of contributions. Perhaps Mr. Prince is all of these, perhaps not. But having the facts would allow a reader to reach their own decision, and having done that, could either agree or disagree.

Scahill's lack of attribution and the inherent weakness of his facts also destroy the book's credibility. He first writes that, Blackwater has more than $500 million in government contracts....:as one U.S. Congressmember observed, in strictly military terms, Blackwater could overthrow many of the world's governments."

This is a typical Scahill statement with no attribution. Which member of Congress? Observed to whom? When? All those pesky little details that a beginning journalism course requires for a C grade are notoriously absent in this book. With no attribute, one might conclude this was made up to fit the point.

Context is also lacking in that passage. Scores of other military firms like Sandline, Executive Outcomes and others have been overthrowing various world governments for the past 40 years according to Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, by P.W. Singer, (2003, Cornell University Press). Unlike Blackwater, Corporate Warriors is a very well-written, even-handed, fact-packed and extensively documented work.

Whether this level of military power in private hands is a good situation or not is handled with Scahill's tritely predictable judgement that it is all evil. He conveniently neglects to balance the record by pointing out that, according to a number of sources including Corporate Warriors, the Bosnia intervention could not have succeeded without private military contractors.

And Scahill's $500 million figure? He never tells us over what period of time those contracts were granted. And while it's certainly substantial compared with the average family outcome (even for Greenwich or Bergen County), it's a rounding error in the $80+ billion annual budget for the current war.

The sort of facts that would have made Scahill's book credible and worth reading are the very sort found abundantly in Corporate Warriors which tells us that even before the start of the current Iraq war, "from 1994 to 2002, The U.S. Defense Department entered into more than 3,000 contracts with U.S.-based firms estimated at a contract value of more than $300 billion. And unlike too much of Scahill's book, that last figure from Corporate Warriors has a footnote with a the source.

The lack of sourcing and context plague every part of every page of this book. To call out each of them would require more words that it took to fill the pages of Blackwater. There is simply no way to determine what should be believed or not. For that reason, this book is a waste of time and money for the seeker of truth. For them, Corporate Warriors and a number of other books offer far more credible and documented writing which is not plagued by biased prose and overtly politically intents.

Scahill's political tunnel-vision also makes it seem as if the rise of PMFs began in 1997 with Blackwater. Contractors have been doing business with the U.S. government for decades, but it really began big-time with the hollowing out of American armed forces that started under President Bush's father and accelerated during the Clinton administration. There is plenty of blame for that to spread around both parties, but in his own partisan way, Scahill cuts Bill Clinton a big piece of slack, failing to note his policies which helped expand the use of privatized military. Those wishing to have hard facts about this are referred to Corporate Warriors.

In the end, Scahill utterly fails to make his case that Blackwater is the world's most powerful mercenary army as his subtitle claims.