‘This has become a special part of my life,’ says novelist Jay McInerney, referring to wine writing, his parallel career. McInerney’s keynote kicked off the 2016 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in an entertaining fashion. As you might expect of a novelist, he’s good with words.
Jay first got into wine when he had a job in a liquor store in Syracause. He’d gone there to study writing with Raymond Carver, and the proprietor of the store had a wine library which McInerney would dip into, as he would dip into the stock. He gradually worked his way up from the cheapest bottles of eastern European table wine to Spanish bubbly. After his first novel had been accepted, he began exploring vintage Bordeaux. ‘I developed a great passion for wine,’ he says. This coincided with the release of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, which was a sort of turning point for wine globally. ‘I was fortunate to come into wine at a time when Bordeaux was more affordable, and Parker was making it more accessible.’
It wasn’t long before McInerney began to write about wine. A friend of his, Dominique Browning, editor of House & Garden, asked him to pen a wine column. He told her he didn’t know enough about the subject. ‘At this time there was technical writing and British floral writing and little in between,’ says McInerney. ‘She insisted there was room for an amateur – a passionate fan.’ So she sent him around the world to get educated, something that wouldn’t happen today in this era of budget slashing. House & Garden shut down in 2007 and with it Jay’s wine career, or so he thought. But the Wall Street Journal came calling in 2010 and he decided to take it up again.
How does he write? ‘As a novelist I am attracted to story and character,’ he says. ‘I also like to convey the aesthetic experience by using literary tools. I think metaphors are more helpful than using literary descriptors.’ McInerney says he is also influenced by the new ‘gonzo’ journalism of the 1970s in which the author is part of the story. Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer influenced the writers of his generation. ‘I am writing about my own experience of wine,’ he says, ‘And I don’t pretend it is universal.’ Other influences? Part of his love for wine was inspired by Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. ‘Everyone is drinking wine all the time in that book.’
Another writer who inspired him was Evelyn Waugh, and he cites the remarkable section in Brideshead Revisited where Sebastian and Charles raid the cellar at Brideshead and enter into drunken discussions of the wines they’re drinking. ‘Waugh did a great parody of English wine writing.’ But McInerney thinks that perhaps Waugh’s greatest service to the world of wine was to sire Auberon Waugh, who wrote a wine column for Tatler, and whose writing was collected in Waugh on Wine. ‘He was a practitioner of the vituperative arts. Filthy and disgusting were his favourite descriptors.’ McInerney adds that, ‘one of the great flaws of contemporary wine writing is ignoring the idea that wine is an intoxicant.’
He cites Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the wine route as one of the best wine books ever written, and regards lynch as a pioneer in the appreciation of the regional tradition of French wine. Lynch reckoned that the last great Bordeaux vintage was 1981, and regrets that now the Bordelaise dress their wines up with lipstick and high heels. He misses the ‘sinister bite’ of old Bordeaux. ‘Thomas Jefferson was another influence in my wine writing,’ says McInerney. ‘He was the founding wine geek.’ Jefferson once said that no nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and he regarded it as the antidote to the bane of whisky.
Further insights emerged in a good question and answer session. McInerney thinks that this is a good time to be a wine writer. ‘Twenty years ago it was a much bleaker situation,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t nearly the range and variety of writing about wine as there is today. People are looking beyond scores to wines that excite them.’
He won’t write about wines or people without visiting their place. He recalled the situation where Angelo Gaja took a sledgehammer to the family television because he felt his kids were watching too much of it. This is the sort of colour he likes in his stories.
In terms of wine writing tools, he feels he learned a lot from the long-form journalism he did for the New Yorker. Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. ‘I learned how to interview people, and not to talk about myself,’ he says. ‘But telling embarrassing stories about myself can open doors.’
On drinking: ‘One of the hazards of our trade is we are in a position to drink wine night and day. We have to draw some boundaries. It is important to acknowledge that alcohol can be a hazard of the trade.’ For this reason he quits for a month each year, but regrets that during this abstinence ‘I never feel as good as I hoped I might.’
‘My tastes have changed a lot since I started writing about wine,’ he says. ‘I approach wine more as a journalist than a critic. If I find a wine is not to my tastes it might still be a good story. I try not to let my judgement of style come into my writing. I would rather fall in love with a wine than find fault in it.’
He finished with a word of caution. ‘We get into this world: we are wine geeks. We all occasionally find ourselves in a position where we speak to the converted. A good editor can really help with this. What is whole cluster fermentation? It’s important to remember your audience. Highly technical discussions can leave your reader feeling like an idiot.’