Wine and the Novel

Say this for Jay McInerney: he has the good sense to know how fortunate he is. Never mind the career as a novelist -- which started, famously, with Bright Lights, Big City back in 1984. I'm thinking of his career as a wine writer -- the chance to play passionate amateur at House & Garden's expense. "I'm very lucky that way," he says. "They sell a lot of curtain ads, a lot of wallpaper ads, to pay for my habit." Of course, they get something in return -- a monthly column, five years' worth of which have recently been released between two hard covers as A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine. (A previous book, Bacchus and Me, gathered his earlier efforts.)

Well, maybe I shouldn't dismiss that whole career-as-a-novelist thing. McInerney, in the introduction to Hedonist, notes that he started finding pleasure in wine, at the rate of one bottle per evening, while in the graduate writing program at Syracuse University. He worked at the Westcott Cordial Shop, read the proprietor's wine books, and began joining his fellow clerks in learning the inventory. "I started with, as I recall, a two-dollar bottle of Yugoslavian Cab and worked all the way up to Freixenet, a Spanish sparkler that sold for $5.95 at the time." Looking back, he judges it "a pretty good way to develop a palate. I see so many people -- particularly in New York -- who are basically investment bankers and who suddenly find themselves with lots of money in a culture where wine is one of the trophies of the good life. They start off drinking these $150 Cabernets in steakhouses; it's like being helicoptered in to Mount Everest at 27,000 feet and then making the last 1500 feet yourself." If he hadn't been a poor grad student struggling over a debut novel, who knows if he would have properly developed his obsession?

Further, his initial interest in wine "started with literature, really -- as with so many other things." He absorbed the astonishing wine intake in Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises and rejoiced over the cellar-raiding in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. "I got this idea that wine was a bit of a sophisticated beverage. And it was something my parents didn't drink, which made it all the more attractive. They were drinking cocktails -- stingers and martinis."

Which is not to say he didn't spend a few years with a martini glass himself. "I used to drink a lot of martinis, and I thought I was a very sophisticated guy. But you know, it doesn't really take you anywhere -- except to bed. Wine can take you places." As he writes in Hedonist, the love of wine "leads us to other subjects and leads us back to the world. It lifts us up and delivers us from the mundane circumstances of daily life, inspires contemplation, and, ultimately, returns us to that very world, refreshed, with enriched understanding and appreciation."

If that doesn't sound terribly hedonistic, give the man a moment to explain. "Oenophilia was a way of channeling the hedonistic impulse," he writes, "of refining and intellectualizing it to some extent...Ideally, the appreciation of wine is balanced between consumption on one hand and analysis on the other." In conversation, he defines a hedonist as "someone who is assiduous in the pursuit of pleasure. I guess I would follow that by saying that I think there are higher and lower forms of pleasure and that the love of the grape is a much more rewarding form of hedonism than a crack addiction." Still, he says, "I think there's this kind of Puritan streak in wine writing. I think so much of the wine world is terrified that people will think that we're just getting paid to get drunk. You can read hundreds and hundreds of pages of any of these publications, and if you had come down from another planet, you would never guess in a million years that wine was an intoxicant, and that's one of the reasons we like it. It gives us a buzz. We shouldn't pretend that that's not the case, which is one of the reasons I called the book what I called it."

He refers to the book as "a continuation of my explorations into different areas of pleasure and connoisseurship," and he thinks it an exploration that his generation considers worthwhile. "I think as my generation has gotten older and weaned ourselves off the pharmaceuticals, that wine has, strangely, become fairly hip. It would have been hard to say that ten years ago."

Getting back to the intersection of novelist and wine writer: "By the time my first novel was published and started selling some copies, it was a great moment in the wine world. The 1982 Bordeaux vintage" -- the superstar year that made Robert Parker's reputation -- "was just being released. It was a good moment in terms of vintages, in terms of the California industry, and in terms of Parker, who helped me demystify a lot of the French wine world."

And it was a fellow novelist, the Englishman Julian Barnes, who opened his cellar and provided McInerney what was probably his closest approximation of Charles Ryder's joy at drinking his way through the Flyte family collection in Brideshead. "The first night that I was at his house, he served me a '62 and '67 Jaboulet 'Le Phaedre' Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which were kind of legendary wines, though I didn't know it at the time. I didn't realize how lucky I was, and then, when I tasted the wines, I thought, 'Wow, this is amazing stuff.'" After that, "I can't begin to count for you how many -- we'd need several hours to go over subsequent wine dinners." Finally, it was at Barnes's table that McInerney met English wine luminary Jancis Robinson.

So when his friend Dominique Browning took over as editor in chief at House & Garden, she didn't have to look too hard for the passionate amateur she wanted to cover the wine beat -- one who could manage the tricky balance between knowledge and populism. "She just thought that wine appreciation had become a part of the good life in a way that it wasn't when House & Garden magazine was first founded. Americans, in the last 23 years, have been developing more and more of an interest in wine, and they clearly needed help." McInerney was happy to serve as their stand-in, traversing the globe, talking to sommeliers, winemakers, importers, reporting on interesting developments and ancient traditions -- and drinking. "I live in New York City. I go out to eat almost every night of my life." (And while the tone of his writing is generally positive, he does take a moment at book's end to needle the restaurant practice of putting "a 200 or 300 percent markup on wines that probably wouldn't be mature anyway.")

A Hedonist in the Cellar is the fruit of his labors. "I may get weary of it and retire in a year or two. But on the other hand, I'm still having so much fun. I thought I'd get sick of it, but I haven't yet. My life is clearly not going to be long enough to drink all the good wines I want to -- but I have to keep trying."

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