A Hedonist in the Cellar, Great Read

A Hedonist in the Cellar Adventures in Wine

Jay McInerney

Borzoi Books Alfred Knopf

New York 2006 243 p.

A few months ago I read somewhere that while recipe books and books about food abound, books about wine are scarce. Whoever said that also said that good wine books are a rare species. It is sad to agree but I have to. It is obvious that a lot of people know a lot about wine and that among that lot a few are terrifyingly knowledgeable of the subject. However, very few are both versed in the affairs of wine and are -at the same time- good, strong writers. To our fortune, Ian McInerney is one of them and his “A Hedonist in the Cellar” is a delight to read.

Like those who are really good at what they do, McInerney renounces to all bragging rights. He doesn’t have that annoyingly pretentious “I-know-it-all” tone that many who think themselves wine connoisseurs do. His style is light and deep flavored,  like a Pinot Noir. His understanding of wine is concentrated and dark, like an Amarone. Or perhaps a Sagrantino, an obscure wine on which he illustrates us well with his vivid account “The Mysterius Beauty of Sagrantino di Montefalco.”

McInerney’s narrative is fun and interesting and he has had the wisdom to write short pieces for each subject, coming up with titles that make one feel like jumping into the reading. Enmeshed in the narrative, cultural and historical references add a layer of erudition, showing a writer who has read deep and wide. McInerney also has a knack for capturing people’s looks and personalities and his descriptions make the characters he meets come alive from the paper. After reading this book, you will not think of wine personalities the way you did before. Michel Chapoutier, for instance, one of the most successful winemakers from the Rhone, shows his intense humour, borderline with crassness but stopping shy of it. “The brain is a pleasure killer” he says, in the introduction. Later he is quoted saying “drinking filtered wine is like having sex with a condom” and then “you don’t need to be a gynecologist to have sex, in reference to the widely spread, obsessive need to “analyze” wine and find all kinds of aromas and flavors in it, instead of just enjoying it fully.

Like in Mr. Chapoutier’s case, McInerney brings out the quirky side of wine makers, negociants, writers and critics, a side often not even imagined. And he does it with freshness and humor. There is little room for hard black & white criticism in McInerney’s writing, something that should be essential in any good writer, especially when the subject at hand is wine.

The book starts with “Foreplay”, a metaphor for the fact that one starts a party drinking whites. A collection of eight pieces that take us from the slopes of tiny Condrieu (McInerney’s confessed favorite white) to the intricacies of German enological hieroglyphics, read labels. This first set, dedicated to whites, is like that kind of wine, bright and fresh. It sheds light on some wines that should deserve more attention: white Bordeaux, Soave, Tocai Friulano.

The second set “All Wine Wishes It Could Be Red” is loaded with knowledge and entertainment. I enjoyed “The Roasted Slope of the Rhone” (where he renders a colorful depiction of Marcel Guigal) and “An Extreme, Emotional Wine: Amarone” particularly. His articles in this section cover the world of wine at large: Malbec, Chilean reds, Cahors and the Cult Cabs of Santa Barbara, among others.

It would be tempting to go into the details of each selection but that would be rather time consuming and really, the scope and depth of each short piece is of such richness that it is better to let the reader jump from characters like Rioja’s eccentric Remírez de Ganuza to Jacques Lardiere (“The Mad Scientist of Jadot”) and the likes of Jancis Robinson, among others. His “How to Impress your Sommelier” selection is delightfully insightful, providing an insider’s look at Rioja, Austrian Riesling and Sagrantino di Montefalco.

For a seafood lover like myself, I loved the “Fish Stories from Le Bernardin” as well as the “Provencal Pink” article. These two and others are part of chapter six, “Matches Made in Heaven”. “Bin Ends”, the title for chapter eight, brings the uber interesting “Strictly Kosher” (it made me smile quite often too) and his “Baby Jesus in Velvet Pants” touched a personal note, as I spent a good hour chatting with Burgundy’s own Luc Bouchard from Bouchard Pere et Fils at a downtown Vancouver restaurant last November.

The last chapter, “Bubbles and Spirits” is equally rich and inspiring, somehow transferring to the reading the joyful mood that one gets after one or two sips of sparkling wine. The pieces on Armagnac, Champagne, Chartreuse and Absinthe (“The Wild Green Fairy”) set the tone for his epilogue (“What I Drank on my Forty-Eighth Birthday”), a candid account which made me a bit jealous. Who, after all, gets to write a letter to Jancis Robinson telling her about one’s birthday knowing that she will read it? And who gets to open a Magnum of 1990 Dom Perignon for the occasion? Not to mention the 99 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Hauserer Riesling or the Martinelli Jackass Hill ’96 monster Zinfandel. These closing lines  reminded me that I should start planning my own 48th with the best wines I can get my hands on. One can only dream…

From the physical point of view, this book also scores high. The cover is definitely low key but deeply wine themed (although I would’ve done without the unnecessary Robert Parker’s three-line comment on the front). Good choice of color scheme here (so many people seem to be color blind these days). The table of contents, to the point and simple. I loved the choice of paper both in appearance and texture. Nice at touch: strong yet somehow sophisticated. Or at least the kind you’d expect when the subject at hand  is wine. Lovely font too and quite smart to have a note about it on the last page. The bibliography list –on the previous page- also comes handy.

There aren’t very many things lacking in this read. One of them is an index. The information packed here is dense and loaded with names of appellations, winemakers and the like. It surely would help to have an index when using this book for reference, as I am sure many will do. Summing up, I can see McInerney’s “Hedonist” becoming a classic. Good for him. Highly recommended and now I am to return this copy to the Burnaby Public Library (beautiful building with a view to the North Vancouver’s mountains) and buy my own.


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2 Responses to “A Hedonist in the Cellar, Great Read”

  1. Un Hedonista en la Cava. Aventuras en el Mundo del Vino. Book Review | WINE TALKS Says:

    […] Un Hedonista en la Cava […]

  2. Un Hedonista en la Cava. Aventuras en el Mundo del Vino. Book Review | WINE TALKS Says:

    […] Un Hedonista en la Cava […]

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