Thursday, July 14, 2011

Recommended Reading: A Hedonist in the Cellar

A few months back, I read Bacchus & Me, a collection of columns about wine that novelist Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) originally wrote for House & Garden magazine back in the 1990s. I wasn’t impressed. Collections of magazine columns can often be repetitive as this one was. (I expect an editor of collections to eliminate repetitions, inconsistencies, and other faults that are excusable when writing month to month, but irritating when collected within a single set of covers.)

McInerney just seemed to fall into the wine writing gig.  The magazine editor was a friend and, in his editor’s circle, McInerney was the guy who knew more than anyone else did about wine.  Colour me green.  Many of the essays came across as unsophisticated, yet snobby and self-indulgent. But perhaps I’m not the typical House & Garden reader. (House & Garden disappeared a few years back but Jay McInerney still writes about wine at the Wall Street Journal.)

But it takes more than one unsatisfactory effort to keep me from writings on my favourite subject. So I picked up McInerney’s second collection of essays, entitled A Hedonist in the Cellar.

It’s a much better standalone effort, showing a level of knowledge and appreciation that was missing from the first collection. It’s as if the first book was training camp and the second book was the playoffs. Maybe it’s because McInerney spends much more time writing about lesser-known wines and regions (“off the beaten track” if you will) that the columns have more appeal. You can actually learn something from this book!

He had me hooked from the first column, My Favourite White, where he praises Condrieu, a white wine made from Viognier grown in Northern Rhone. And he follows this up with an essay about Friulano, the food-friendly minerally white Varietal from Friuli in northeastern Italy, which we rarely see here in Ontario.  McInerney compares it to a blend of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

He introduces (or maybe re-introduces) us to a wide variety of regions and wines, giving some overlooked gems their rightful appreciation.  Anybody who loves Sagrantino di Montefalco knows his stuff.  And in the section, Lovers, Fighters, and Other Obsessives, we meet some of the eccentrics of wine. My favourite is Michel Chapoutier (from the Rhone Valley) who is responsible for the two best quotes in the book:
The perfect match for asparagus is my competitors’ wines.
[W]hen one of his guests [McInerney, it turns out] struggles to identify the components of a wine’s bouquet in the tasting room he urges him to relax and just enjoy the wine. “If you think about it too much you can kill it. The brain is a pleasure killer. You don’t need to be a gynaecologist to make love.”
He (or his House & Garden editor) toned down the self-indulgency and snobbism from the first volume, and the sophistication, as should be expected, has grown.

Skip Bacchus & Me, go directly to A Hedonist in the Cellar.

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