With the skills of a literary novelist, Jay McInerney writes about a California vineyard owner (Morgan Clendenen) and a Rhone Valley estate owner (Yves Cuilleron) who made an international wine blending grapes from their two countries, a wine called Deux Cs that caused a major squabble among sommeliers of the world’s great restaurants. The sommeliers competed for the privilege of selling and serving the wine. The soms (the author’s abbreviation) spoke reverently to one another, if they spoke at all, of the wine they called “sick juice,” meaning “great wine” in som-speak.
A book about wine might have turned out to be dry or perhaps sweet and cloying (to keep things in wine-speak), even in the hands of a writer like Mr. McInerney. But a book about the people who grow, make, distribute, sell, and drink wine turns out to be informative, humorous, and entertaining. I’m not sure what’s more romantic, the stories of people from out-of-the-way places and the wine they make, or the story of the novelist from New York who, somehow, gets himself into a position where he is privileged to travel the world and interview and observe the wine people and make “great story” as he exposes both their fortes and their foibles. I feel very earnest when I tell you this book is great reading, especially if you approach it as you might approach a glass of wine, one generous sip at a time.
“The Juice” describes what is admittedly a more expensive wine journey than many people will ever make. The only wine journey some people make might be limited to biking down to the local wine shop to sort through bargain bottles randomly stored in used oak barrels. One is not likely to find any of the wines mentioned in Mr. McInerney’s book in the $10-and-under sale bin. However, the book makes one thing clear: Because of improved viniculture, sick juice is being made all over the world, which includes the environs of eastern Long Island.
If the father of wine in the United States, Thomas Jefferson, could know the current situation, he’d be gratified, because he once predicted the United States would rival the great wine-producing counties of Europe. It took only 250 years for his words to ring true. Although Jefferson had developed an interest in wine as a student at William and Mary, his oenophilia developed beginning in 1784 when he became a commissioner to France and then “inherited the title of American minister to the king of France from the ailing [Ben] Franklin.” Ostensibly, his travels were for the purpose of promoting trade between countries, but his journey could have appeared as an extended tour of the great wine regions of Europe, a junket similar to the kind current politicians might be held accountable for when exposed.
Each chapter in “The Juice” was once an article in a magazine or newspaper. They were written for popular but sophisticated consumption. “German Made Simple” (the author means wine not language), “Finally Fashionable: Rosé From Provence to Long Island,” and “Kiwi Reds From Craggy Range.” Other chapters introduce readers to unusual characters on the wine education road: “The Retro Dudes of Napa,” “My Kind of Cellar: Ted Conklin and the American Hotel,” “The Rock Stars of Pinot Noir,” and “Swashbuckling Dandy: Talbott.” These are samples, and are not intended to note the best of the best of the author’s writing.
Having once been a farmer myself, the most interesting but oddball of the topics included in “The Juice” is biodynamic farming advocated by Rudolf Steiner, whose philosophy also undergirds the Waldorf School in Manhattan as well as other educational institutions the world over. As applied to winemaking, Steiner believed in more than organic farming. He advised planting and harvesting according to solar and lunar cycles, and burying a cow’s horn packed with manure in the vineyards each fall to be dug up and sprinkled on the vineyard come spring. Mr. McInerney gives Steiner and his followers, including some of the great vineyards of the world, such fair treatment that he reaches beyond mere information and floats into the realm of inspiration.
While reading this book, I tried sharing its pleasures with some friends. A few listened but I was also greeted with raised eyebrows and rolling eyes. “Jay McInerney knows something about wine?” Someone else blurted, “He’s so pretentious.” These responses and others set me back, made me take stock.
I’ve been interested in wine since 1979 when my wife and I purchased the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton and I fell into my own adventure of wine education that began with my first glasses of Reunite and Blue Nun. Mr. McInerney notes that his journey began with Mateus and Cold Duck. The only time I remember meeting Mr. McInerney along that journey came at a Long Island author’s event at the Morgan Library in Manhattan where wine (plonk) was served. Despite that he seemed more than personable around me and everyone there. Why did I receive negative reactions to my wish to share his book, a book that should appeal to a variety of people?
Jay McInerney describes himself as “a downtown fuckup brat-pack novelist” and a hedonist. His early novels have much to do with excess, including sex and drugs. Is this all it takes to get some people to be suspicious of you?
I came across a wine blog. “Our own, somewhat English opinion as expressed in our own www.sedimentblog.co.uk is that if drinking expensive wine requires hobnobbing with some of the appalling people one meets in this book, then we’ll stick with the plonk — McInerney can stick with the plonkers.”
Now wait a minute. So what if there are pretentious oenophiles, and what if there are pretentious writers? These British blogger blokes have made a mistake to conclude that Jay McInerney is either if their opinion is based on this book. “The Juice” is a competent, well-researched piece of literature about people who are fair game for any good writer. As far as I can tell, Mr. McInerney and his subjects, no matter how oddball, are all enjoying themselves. Why do people seem to have a problem with that?
Alexis Lichine, the great wine producer and educator, may no longer be a household name as he was when I began my wine education, but one might still do well to follow his advice. Mr. McInerney reminds us Lichine was once asked, “What’s the best way to learn about wine?” He answered, “Buy a corkscrew and use it.” I would add, “And read Jay McInerney’s essays on wine.” Treat them figuratively, as if you were drinking a glass of great wine. Twirl it, hold it up to the light, draw air through a mouthful with pursed lips, allow the juice to flow over the back of your tongue, then take small bites of food, whether your plate contains haute cuisine or scrambled eggs. Notice how the wine gives each bite a fresh flavor. And above all, as they now say in restaurant-speak, “enjoy.”
Gary Reiswig is the author of “The Thousand Mile Stare: One Family’s Journey Through the Struggle and Science of Alzheimer’s” and “Water Boy,” a novel. He lives in Springs.
Jay McInerney lives in Bridgehampton and Manhattan. “The Juice” came out in paperback on April 9.