Book Club: A Hedonist in the Cellar

May 12, 2009 at 10:55 am (Current Events, Our Favorite Things, What we are thinking, What we're drinking) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Due to a less than stellar response to this month’s book club meeting, we have decided to postpone it for the time being…in lieu of an actual meeting, I wanted to start a little web discussion about the book. Please respond freely!

First, if you haven’t had a chance to pick it up: do. A Hedonist in the Cellar by Jay McInerney. McInerney is most famous as a novelist, for books like Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls. He also just released a set of short stories called How It Ended, for which there is a very fun video interview with him on What is not talked about as often is McInerney’s wine writing (Mr. New York Times interviewer didn’t even ask him about wine! The barbarity!), which is some of the sharpest, funniest, most enjoyable out there.

A Hedonist in the Cellar is a collection of monthly wine columns that McInerney writes for House & Garden. McInerney obviously approaches wine from an outsider’s point of view, making a point to poke fun at the snobby wine lingo and always bringing in literature and pop culture references. I really loved McInerney’s tone and stance: he makes wine fun and slightly frivolous without dumbing it down.

McInerney’s background as a fiction writer definitely shows. This man can tell a good story. Whether sharing anecdotes about the renowned Rhone producer Michel Chapoutier or his own blind tasting boons, McInerney frames wine in its context. Through these episodal yarns, McInerney tells us exactly what wine is and isn’t about: it’s not just about the vintage conditions for a wine, which flowers you can smell in it, or how many points Robert Parker gave it. Those things are not concerns of his. What makes a wine is its story: the people who created it, the trends and history of its enjoyment, and the individual experiences of its consumption. These are the things that McInerney focuses on, and the things that make A Hedonist in the Cellar such a delight to read.

Take for example, one of my favorite chapters, where McInerney recalls a blind tasting he nailed of a 1982 Haut-Brion. McInerney manages to make his extensive knowledge of Bordeaux producers and vintages seem casual, unpretentious, and totally approachable through the story he tells, which involves a Asian princess, the English diarist Samuel Pepys, and even a reference to The Matrix Reloaded. He calls Haut-Brion “the first growth of poets and lovers”, a group to which McInerney undoubtedly belongs. The wine, to McInerney, is about the strong personalities that created it, which he finds manifested in the very “perticular” (a spelling attributed to Pepys) smell, taste, and development of the wine.

To him, the story makes the wine. And through this book, and his stories, McInerney is able to share wines with us that we may never get to taste. So, while I invite you to respond with specifics questions/comments about the book, I would also love to get a forum of great wine stories started here. It can be as easy and simple as drinking a great carafe of anonymous wine while the sun sets over the Ligurian coast (yep, I did that!), or perhaps a First Growth blind-tasting extravaganza of your own (alas, do not have such a story myself).

Happy reading (and drinking),



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