Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing

Edited by Jay McInerney

Atlantic, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

At the foot of a hill village, an hour’s drive from Rome, is a restaurant more like an aircraft hangar than the cosy trattorias for which the country is renowned. The tablecloths are red-checked and the menu is rustic, as befits the surrounding mountains, where hunters’ rifles crack from daybreak to dusk. This is the village near which the ruins of Horace’s house lie under autumn leaves in the nearby woods. Not far away is Hadrian’s overwhelmingly grand villa.

In this particular eatery, however, there is no hint of antiquity, no nostalgia for the good old ways. Instead of rows of artfully dusty wine bottles, the wine is stored in shiny aluminium tanks, eight or ten feet high. Waitresses fill carafes from the tap the way they would run a bath. You could imagine Walt Disney’s Pinocchio accidentally flooding the barn with chianti, so generously does it gush from its spout.

Call me fussy, but wine doesn’t taste the same when it comes out of a container the size of a portaloo. One of the many pleasures of being in Italy is the cheerful seriousness with which food and wine are usually treated. Occasionally this passion is elevated into devotion. If you cross the doors of the famous Antinori restaurant in Florence, for instance, where some of the best wines in the country are served, you will enjoy an experience more like taking Mass than eating dinner. Such reverence, however, is generally reserved for upmarket establishments, where diners are expected to know their Albarossa from their Vernaccia.

I am not one of those. Instead, I invariably opt for the vino della casa, usually young local wines that are undistinguished but delicious. My husband’s habit of watering down heavy wines has caused consternation, especially in Paris, where one bartender half-jokingly threatened to throw him out. He never needs to do this in Italy’s affordable restaurants.

Whenever Christmas approaches, I have always rather envied those wine buffs with a refined palate, who hunt down vintages and vineyards to grace the table as assiduously as squirrels scampering for nuts. After reading Jay McInerney’s anthology of literary wine writing, however, I think I’d rather quaff Blue Nun and Buckfast or go tee-total than join the ranks of the oenophiles paraded in these pages.

One person’s pretension is another’s hard-won expertise, so the accusation needs to be used with caution. Refinement of taste, the result of a lifetime’s dedication should not be dismissed simply because it makes the novice feel inadequate. In the case of this book, however, I feel no compunction in using it. I am only sorry there’s not a stronger word.

Perhaps it was a mistake to start with Auberon Waugh’s Perils of Being a Wine Writer, in which he recalls almost bringing the Tatler into disrepute. While Tina Brown was editor, he wrote a column describing a ghastly cheap wine his wealthy cousin had served him. “After playing with the idea of comparing it to a collapsed marquee fallen into a rotting silage pit, I eventually decided that it reminded me of a bunch of dead chrysanthemums on the grave of a stillborn West Indian baby”. He was duly dragged before the Press Council but, to his ongoing delight, acquitted of racism. It was an inexplicable verdict, unless the adjudicating panel had enjoyed a good lunch.

Relishing his victory, Waugh goes on to reinforce his tastelessness, suggesting that writing about wine should always be camped up, eschewing the usual bland floral and fruity references for more memorable comparisons: “Rotting wood, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of French railway stations or ladies’ underwear...”. You really wouldn’t want to go anywhere near his nose, given where it had been.

Waugh was sending up the wine snob as much as the proles he loved to sneer at, and while his tone is repellent, there is nothing unexpected in that. What is surprising, though, is how many other wine afficionados reach for unsavoury similes or images, unaware that they are being parodic as well as juvenile. None is better at this than the New York macho set of wine collectors, known as the Angry Men. In his essay, Billionaire Winos, which reeks of the locker-room, McInerney recounts attending an auction of vintage wines from the cellar of real estate billionaire, Rob Rosania. The tone of the occasion is pugnacious, competitive, gluttonous, as some of the world’s wealthiest gather to wave their wallets. “Shut the f**k up and drink”, commands the auctioneer in a manner to give Sothebys heart failure.

Equally low-rent is the banter. “Tighter than a 14-year-old virgin”, is the verdict on one tipple, and there’s more in that vein. What is truly unedifying, however, is not a level of grossness worthy of The Wolf of Wall Street, but the wanton waste of money. Recalling the evening before the auction, sipping from Rosania’s well stocked cellar, McInerney calculated that he had drunk “some £$25,000 to $30,000 worth... and I was one of 14 drinkers”.

As the auction proceeds, a $10,000 champagne is sabered, after several attempts, and after a few minutes “we’re all drinking Bollinger made from grapes that were hanging on their vines when the allies stormed Omaha beach”. Sabering is a tradition that according to one of the more interesting pieces here goes back to the Napoleonic wars. In those times it was slightly less decadent. You can better understand a triumphal cossack swiping a bottle with his sword, corkscrews being scarce on battlefields, than a Manhattanite swinging for the bottle as if it were the neck of Marie Antoinette.

In War and the Widow’s Triumph, Tilar J Mazzeo describes the fortunes of the Widow Cliquot, a struggling wine merchant, whose vault of champagne was in peril as Russian troops invaded. Yet, instead of turning thieves, they paid for it. Canny as well as charming, as war’s end drew near, and Napoleon’s defeat seemed sure, she saw an opportunity to trump her rivals. Running the blockade into Russia in a venture that risked her entire business, she was first on the scene when peace was declared, and the country was thirsty to celebrate. Thus began the habit of toasting success or happiness with bubbles.

Though crying out for an introduction and judicious editing, as are virtually all the pieces, this and several other sometimes chewy essays are of historical interest. Best among them is The Winefuhrers, by Donald and Petie Kladstrup, about the Nazi commander posted to Champagne, who requisitioned half a million bottles a week for the army and Luftwaffe during the war. On his arrival, when the Champenois learned he was in the same line, they were relieved: “We were so happy we got someone from the wine trade, not a beer man”, they said, unaware of what lay ahead. This is a fascinating sliver of resistance politics, of subterfuge, defiance and the dreadful price paid by some champagne houses.

Surprisingly for the author of the unforgettable novel Bright Lights, Big City McInerney’s selection from fiction is oddly flaccid. Opening with Roald Dahl’s well-known but sinisterly gripping tale, Taste, there’s an enjoyable if overwritten chapter from Rex Pickett’s novel Sideways, later made into an unforgettable film, but there is nothing else of distinction. What, you can’t help thinking, is McInerney doing squandering his talent on such a project?

There is, however, an excellent vignette by Canadian essayist Irina Dumitrescu of her engineer father’s hobby – then passion – of winemaking, whose unappetisting results somehow connected him to his Romanian roots. This is the best piece in the book, a portrait of a funny, eccentric yet ultimately sad pursuit of a lost self, written with honesty and panache. Of the experts, meanwhile, only M F K Fisher and Jancis Robinson avoid falling prey to hype and mystique. “Wine is a pleasure, not a dreadful duty,” writes Fisher, while Robinson ruefully recalls occasions when as a professional taster she did not always get it right: “blind tasting is a truly humbling experience”.

There is no doubting McInerney’s devotion to the subject, nor that he revels in its association with the well-connected and rich. The problem is, he has chosen narrowly, and not well, and in so doing, in a collection that utterly lacks class, has merely confirmed that wine is a snob’s paradise. Thus an anthology that should sparkle like Bolly is instead as thrilling as Alka Seltzer.