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In defence of the fine wine critic

Author Jim Harrison. Photo/Getty Images

Jay McInerney shows that fine wine-writing can be almost as enjoyable as fine wine.

British philosopher Barry Smith defends wine critics. They can be valuable guides. The good ones can evoke “the qualities of overall composition that transform this [glassful] into a beautifully balanced and pleasurable object”. Wow.

I accept that, even though I used to think that an oenophile was someone who scattered his seed upon the ground. The fact that there’s pretentious, portentous prose about plonk doesn’t disqualify discerning enjoyment of it. After all, think of art criticism.

As well as being an outstanding anatomist of Manhattanites, Jay McInerney writes wine columns for several prestigious (read “recycling-unfriendly”) magazines. I really hate it when people do multiple things consummately. He decants nicely in Wine Reads, an anthology of 27 essays and extracts. They’re sizeable: 5000-plus words in several cases. I’ll pick a few jars.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Auberon Waugh – well, you’d have to include him – recalls a red that “tasted of vinegar, blue ink and curry powder”. I warmed to the guy.

Jim Harrison, whose characters usually slug back whisky, extols the corkscrew. “The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all of the governments … on Earth.” Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen is dragged through a cellar whose owner persists in straining comparisons with Beethoven and Bach.

Roald Dahl, who reportedly had the unattractive habit of serving cheap wine in top-label bottles, then laughing at guests when they praised it, here sneers at his dinner host, loathes the wet-lipped gourmet guest, mocks the rituals of preparing and pouring – and manages an unfairly satisfying revelation.

Some major successes. Julia Flynn Siler, whom I’d never heard of, sorry, offers a great narrative of punch-ups at Krug. Professional wino Kermit Lynch, whose name I had to mention, tells us how his heart “belongs to the great reds of the northern Rhône”, and somehow does it modestly.

And McInerney himself gets in among his New York filthy rich, as an alpha male with omega manners sells off $5 million worth of his bottles. Buyers follow it down with hot dogs and pizza.

Just about everyone writes well, though the apparently respected Rex Pickett begins, “The sun poured bright parallelograms of mote-swirling dust …”, and gets worse. My favourite taste term from the whole lot has to be “ethereal”.

I learnt a fair bit. Beware wine porn. Use a sabre to open your $10,000 Bollinger. Honour St Vincent, patron saint of wine dressers. And shut up after the fifth glass.

WINE READS: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing, edited by Jay McInerney (Grove Press UK, $39.99)

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.