The world of wine writing can seem a confusing tangle of
high-flown descriptors and bizarre metaphors, owing in no small part to a
collective case of grand mal tunnel
vision afflicting field’s biggest practitioners. One viable alternative to the
only sometimes penetrable work of those for whom wine is all is,
unsurprisingly, the work of one for whom wine is not all, or at least not quite
all. Novelist Jay McInerney, best known for the transcription of yuppie
nightmares that was Bright Lights, Big
City, fits the bill just about as well as anyone.
At least the editors of House & Garden think so; McInerney has penned the publication’s wine column for years. A Hedonist in the Cellar is the second collection of these pieces, a patchwork of tastings, comparisons, conversations with luminaries of the industry and visits to famed vineyards the world over. Though many wine journalists make a show of presenting themselves as straight-shooting outsiders, McInerney actually pulls off writing like one, taking the occasional shot at those who have imbibed the Kool-Aid of pretension. “One prominent critic,” he notes, “detects ‘stones, gravel and underlying minerals’ in a 2000 Nigl Riesling.” His coda: “Gravel is stone, dude.”
Nevertheless, hand him the right bottle and McInerney invokes the implausible with the best of them. “I’m often baffled myself,” he admits, “when I read wine notes full of huckleberries and hawthorn blossoms. But give me a glass of Amarone and I’m the man! Step back, Bob Parker!” This is not to say that he keeps cheek perpetually free of tongue. He claims that a certain Bandol rosé “can smell like old sweaty saddle leather, dry-aged beef, and even wet fur,” helpfully adding that “I mean that as a compliment.” McInerney’s excitement gets the better of his quiet dignity every so often, a condition that allows him to use the word “turbocharged” no fewer than four times. In other instances, the straight, middle-aged author comes across as something between a teenage girl and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Ted Allen. One reaction to a fine meal and a rare champagne: “Risotto, white truffle, Salon. Oh. My. God.”
Though all of this is informative and amusing, at no point does McInerney the wine critic emerge with as distinctive a voice as McInerney the novelist. Though there are nods to his primary career and the dubious reputation with which it has saddled him – “Ah, yes, the eighties,” he reflects. “Who can remember them?” – little else bleeds through. The short form he’s working with may be to blame: each subject receives no more than four pages, a good chunk of which is devoted to listing the relevant recommendations, which doesn’t make for smooth reading.
A Hedonist in the Cellar’s collection is refreshingly pretension-free, at least by the low standards of wine journalism, though it’s too often stylistically undistinguished. One gets the impression that, freed of the constraints of the column, McInerney could produce something especially tasty for good-humored oenophiles with long attention spans. In the introduction, he acknowledges that wine is “an inexhaustible subject, a nexus of subjects, which leads us, if we choose to follow, into the realms of geology, botany, meteorology, history, aesthetics, and literature.” He understands that wonderful fact; next time, let’s hope he has the space to explore it.