The world of wine writing can be a confusing tangle of high-flown descriptors and bizarre metaphors, owing in no small part to a collective case of tunnel vision on the part of the field’s biggest names. One viable alternative to the work of those writers for whom wine is all, is unsurprisingly the work of those for whom wine is not all – or at least not quite all. Novelist Jay McInerney, best known for the transcription of yuppie nightmares that is 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 manages to pull 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.” McIrnerney’s coda: “Gravel is stone, dude.”
Nevertheless, hand McIrnerney the right bottle and he’s invoking 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 free of tongue. He claims that a certain Bandol rose “can smell like old sweaty saddle leather, dry-aged beef, and even wet fur,” 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 Ted Allen, from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” 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 reputation with which it has saddled him (“Ah, yes, the ’80s,” he reflects. “Who can remember them?”), little else bleeds through. The format he’s working within may be to blame; each subject receives no more than four pages, and a good chunk of that is devoted to listing the relevant recommendations, which doesn’t exactly make for smooth reading.
A Hedonist in the Cellar’s collection is often refreshingly unpretentious, at least by the low standards of wine journalism, though it is 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.