While the most anticipated event of last week’s Wine Writers Symposium was Robert Parker’s keynote address, the most entertaining was Ted Loos’ conversation with Jay McInerney.
McInerney began his talk by telling attendees about how he learned about wine. While earning his master’s at Syracuse, McInerney landed a job at a decent wine shop in a dodgy neighborhood, as the owner hoped the neighborhood “might gentrify someday.”
At this point in the Loos/McInerney conversation, I decided to start recording. Only the first few seconds are missing. Check out the transcript below!
Jay McInerney: …In the hopes that the neighborhood might gentrify someday. Number one, he had a section of good wines, which kind of gathered dust. And he also had a big selection of wine books. So when I wasn’t working on my book, I would read through the books he had there. And also, it was a tradition among the clerks, since we were so badly paid, to take home a bottle every night.
So I started at the bottom. At that time there was a Yugoslavia, and we had Yugoslavian Cabernet and a Yugoslavian Chardonnay. So I kind of started there and worked my way up.
The height of my ambition as a thief was that I worked my way up to a Freixenet, the Spanish cava. And that was for special occasions, including the day that I got a phone call at the wine store saying that my first novel had been accepted for publication. It was pretty exciting. I might have taken two bottles of Freixenet home that night!
So in a way, these two careers were intertwined. Bright Lights, Big City was published in 1984 and it turned out to be a much bigger success than I could have imagined. I was sort of planning to have a career as an English professor, and eventually it seemed that I might actually have a career as a novelist. And when I got my Master’s degree, I left Syracuse and moved to New York.
So I was happily pursuing my career as a novelist — I think I wrote probably five or six novels between 1984 and 1995. And in the meantime, I had become a bit of an oenophile. The release of Bright Lights, Big City — or the big sales of it — happened to coincide with the release of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. So I was very fortunate to lay down some of those, which I still have, and I am very grateful for Robert Parker, for telling me and everybody else that this was a very special vintage. He was right, and almost everybody else said that it wasn’t. God those wines are still good!
So that was my first love, Bordeaux. And I don’t think I really drank anything that excited me from California for quite a long time. Anyway, in 1995, a friend of mine took over the editorship of House and Garden Magazine, which you may remember, a venerable Conde Nast title. And she wanted to really kind of bring it into the contemporary era. So in addition to food, she felt that the sort of people that were interested in fabrics and American Beauty roses might also be interested in Cabernet Sauvignon. And she wanted a wine column. As a connoisseur herself, she felt that most of the wine writing at that time was pretty boring. Or, it was technical.
I always thought there were certainly two schools of writing then.
There was the English school of writing, which had a lot to do with the flowers, you know? Everything smelled like flowers. And knowing nothing about flowers myself, that wasn’t very helpful. And then this was sort of technical school, about new oak regimens, malolactic fermentation. I can honestly say that in 1995, I had no idea what malolactic fermentation was, and it didn’t really help me to enjoy what I was drinking.
So basically, you had Parker there, really helping to guide you through. And he was actually writing tasting notes. And there wasn’t a lot of really interesting and fun wine writing, which is ultimately what persuaded me to take this on.
Initially I said look, I don’t know enough about wine to write. I’m just a fan. And my friend said, well why don’t you just write about it from a novelist’s point of view? You know, be honest about what you don’t know, but why don’t you just tell the stories about the people that make it?
And the other thing I thought eventually was that, so much wine writing — particularly tasting notes, of course — is an attempt to literally describe the flavors of wine. And I have to admit that I don’t think this is my strong suit. But I think as a novelist, something that I do bring to wine is basically a new set of metaphors, and similes and analogies.
So when I started this thing, which I thought I might try for six months, I was basically working with what limited tools I had. And I started comparing wines to, you know, actresses, pop songs, poems, automobiles.
Ted Loos: Do you need a partial list of actresses? Jessica Simpson, Audrey Hepburn, Christie Brinkley, Grace Kelly, Angelina Jolie. And Angelina Jolie you were comparing a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Jay McInerney: Really? I must have been drunk!
In my defense, there were some male figures there as well. I know at one point I compared a Turley Petite Sirah to Arnold Schwarzenegger. And also to a Chevy Suburban.
Ted Loos: Because it’s the Craft of Writing Day, I’d be curious to know how you toggle back and forth. I imagine, for novels, you’re sitting on the deck, you know, happily writing. But for your Wall Street Journal column, how do you deal with deadlines and go back and forth?
Jay McInerney: Well, sometimes it’s hard. I’ve actually been working on a novel for the last two years. And just this past year I asked the Journal to dial me back to once a month, just so I could finish the novel.
On the other hand, I have to say I kind of look forward to writing about wine. Fiction is my day job. And writing about wine still just seems incredibly fun to me. So I almost look forward to the moment when I realize I have to drop the day job and focus on the wine writing.
It’s a great, great luxury to have that to turn to. Because frankly, there’s a lot of days when I stare at my computer screen, and I find myself having incredible difficulty conjuring imaginary characters. Whereas, one of the things that I love about wine writing is that there is thousands of fascinating characters in the wine world. I mean, there aren’t a whole lot of dorks and boring anal-retentive people in the wine world, you know? Most of them have a really good story.
Sometimes, you know in Europe, it’s often the story of a son or a daughter who resisted the family tradition. Went off to Paris, or went up to Australia, and then finally went back to the family domaine in Burgundy. And so often in Napa and Sonoma, it’s the story of somebody who had a really interesting life, and in the case of Napa, somebody who made millions of dollars first, since you can’t buy into Napa for much less than about $20 million now, as far as I can tell. But in the case of Sonoma, some guy who has just got his credit card, and he’s buying grapes, and making wine in a rented shed, basically.
It’s like that old old teaser about New York, Naked City. “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and this is one of them.”
I feel like in the wine world, there’s not much fewer than that. And I have yet to tell all of them. I really like to write about the people that make wine. And I have to say, when I listen to the feedback, there are millions and millions of readers out there who aren’t as interested in wine as we are. And they never are going to really care about residual sugar levels or pH, or anything like that. Yet they’re interested in stories, and they’re interested in characters, and they’re interested in having a way of relating to a wine that doesn’t necessarily have to do with chemistry, or some sort of imagined horticultural aromas in the glass.
In my case, I was just sort of writing the only way that I could. Because I did not have formal training in wine, and I was just struggling to find a way to convey what I loved about wine. But I do think it’s important to remember everybody likes a story, everybody likes eccentric characters. And I think that the kind of wine writing that I like doesn’t forget that.
Ted Loos: A lot of your stories are sort of “coming of age” stories in some way. And I think that’s been noted about you, Bright Lights, Big City being the first, and most famous example. Is there a connection to wine developing over time, and that sort of “coming of age” feeling? I sort of feel like that might be a dovetail with your novelistic way.
Jay McInerney: I think that I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that my journey in wine appreciation almost completely coincides with this amazing chapter of American wine appreciation. You know, credit where it’s due, Robert Parker started writing his newsletter in 1978. And that really gave a lot of us a kind of key to what was an incredibly arcane, mysterious, and daunting world.
With English wine writing, first of all there was the cultural divide. They were pretty much focused on Bordeaux and Port, and they were talking about it in ways that did not invite outsiders into the conversation. Secondly, as Parker pointed out, there was a big connection between the English wine trade and the wine writing community that was a little suspect.
And I really think that, it seems like an arbitrary benchmark, but that 1982 Bordeaux vintage was really a landmark.
Subsequently, when I took the job at House and Garden Magazine, there was a wonderful food editor there named Lora Zarubin. She was very skeptical about my credentials. She felt that any, anybody who could become famous writing about destroying his sinuses probably wasn’t a very good judge of wine! And it’s terrible, the day I met her, we were going to have lunch at the Four Seasons, and I unfortunately had been out all night the night before and so was not, shall we say…
Ted Loos: We know what that’s like, we’ve all been there!
Jay McInerney: I was not, I was not showing very well. So, eventually we became very good friends. But the first thing that she challenged me with was when she said, “What do you know about California?” And I said, “Nothing.” So she said, “You have to go to California.”
So the other interesting phase of my wine education was that I came out here, in the very beginning of 1996, end of 1995. And the first person I met was Helen Turley, and I tasted, in the Napa Wine Company, I tasted Marcassin, Bryant Family, Colgin. I tasted the first vintages of those wines before they’d been released.
That was a really exciting new phase in California winemaking. Whatever you may think of those Colgin wines. Oh, and Turley also. Helen was still making her brother’s Zinfandel. And then I rolled up a hill and met a guy named Bill Harlan, and I tasted his wines, and I think he was just releasing his first vintage then.
And I stumbled on this amazing story of the, I guess, the third phase of California winemaking history. And it was, it was a very exciting time, and I ended up coming here a lot, and getting really involved with the development of these small wineries that started planting on the hills instead of the Valley floor, and started making a softer, more accessible style of wine.
That was another really interesting phase that my wine-writing career coincided with. And I feel like my palate and my knowledge has kind of changed and grown and developed in much the same way that the American wine-drinking public has.
And I think this is like the greatest time in the world to be an American wine drinker. We can argue about whether Harlan is better than Corison, but they’re both there to drink; it’s pretty cool.
Ted Loos: Particularly early on, did your fame for something other than journalism writing help or hinder you? Because sometimes, we think about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, sometimes the observer can change the thing observed. Was it, did it open a lot of doors, being known for something else, or?
Jay McInerney: Well it was interesting, particularly in Europe. In France, my books are — and I hesitate to say this, because Jerry Lewis is popular in France — but my fiction is very, very well-known in France and Italy.
I actually had a really easy time, kind of knocking on the door at Mouton or DRC and saying, “Can I come in?” So that was helpful. But I always felt like as a wine writer I was just a novice, and I was just there to learn. And that was a good feeling. I wasn’t an important writer, I was just a guy from House and Garden trying to get a good story and learn more about wine.
Ted Loos: One thing I’ve noticed is that you, as far as I know, have not done a novel set in wine country or with a big wine component. Why not?
Jay McInerney: I’ve kind of tried to keep those two aspects of my life separate. I sort of feel like everybody’s waiting for me to do that. I had the same feeling about Bright Lights, Big City. It was written in the second person – you know, “you are not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this, but here you are” – and that was a very unusual narrative stance, and because of the success of the novel, I don’t feel like I can use it again because I feel like people would accuse me of imitating myself.
And I don’t know, somehow I think people are just waiting to say, “Oh yeah, now he’s writing a novel about wine, and it’s kind of lazy of him,” or something, I don’t know. But, but wine does creep into my fiction, from time to time. The novel that I’ve just completed is the third in a series about this married couple that I sort of followed. I’ve followed them through the 1980s and 1990s, and now the 2000s in New York City. Sort of their life. If I had married my college sweetheart and become an editor instead of a novelist, this is maybe the life I would have lived. The last one followed them in the weeks after 9/11.
And the husband is a bit of a wine geek. And his wife always rolls her eyes. They entertain a lot, and he always has to give a little speech about the wine before the dinner. And, so, I do write about wine, but I’m basically making fun of my own tendency to give a speech before dinner. And my own wife rolls her eyes at me. And probably my guests do, as well!
Ted Loos: You’ve written a little about A.J. Liebling, somebody I admire. The great New Yorker writer who was made, perhaps most famous for writing about boxing, but he actually took on food and wine. Is that somebody you admire, and who else are your touchstones?
Jay McInerney: Actually, I’m really glad you brought that up. Because you know, for me, coming at wine writing sort of out of left field, I was interested in were there any role models, were there people who were not specialists, but who really wrote in an exciting way about wine?
And two that I discovered were A.J. Liebling — and I would highly recommend his book Between Meals, It’s a, it’s basically a memoir about Paris. It’s sort of like Hemingway’s Movable Feast, except it’s all about food and wine, with a little bit of boxing thrown in — and although he writes more about food than wine, he writes a lot about wine. And he just says some brilliant, brilliant, brilliant things, particularly about the wines of the Rhone and Burgundy. Those are the ones he loved the most.
And the other writer — this is hard to find, but in the age of Amazon, you can find it — is Auberon Waugh. He was a journalist and a novelist, and one of those English men of letters. And he wrote an extraordinary column for The Spectator for about three or four years on wine.
We were talking about civility of dialogue yesterday, but I mean, he’s not intemperate. If he doesn’t like the wine, then he has to genuinely hate it, and sort of, you know, drive a stake through its heart. And when he loves a wine, it’s just, you know, it’s rapturous. He a brilliant writer.
These are two people to really look at in terms of people who write so vividly about wine.
But I can’t recommend Liebling’s Between Meals more enough. Unlike the first time I wrote about it, I think you can find it by going to Amazon. It was out of print and I think this article I wrote might have helped put it back into print.
Ted Loos: Do you see yourself on a continuum with that kind of writing, and that it’s not your only thing? I mean, it’s interesting to me because I also write about art and architecture, and I’m interested in the how. You know I studied liberal arts, and, that was a serious kind of statement about how wine is, one of the many things we can focus on, but sometimes they’re intertwined, sometimes learning about one can actually help you learn about the other.
Jay McInerney: Well yeah. I think it’s important to remember that wine is should be part of the well-lived life. And even if we’re all kind of fanatics, you know I think our goal as wine writers should be to make wine part of the life of a cultured person. And that people who are interested in film and literature and art should also take a knowledge of wine to be part of a liberal arts portfolio. I think it is.
Ted Loos: What trends do you see in other wine writing that you think are good or bad?
Jay McInerney: Well, I have to say, that when I started writing about wine, the only reason I had the, the option to do it was because that most wine writing, there wasn’t very much out there, and what was out there just as not interesting to me. There was this sort of travelogue wine writing, there was the technical wine writing. I mean, the Wine Advocate was doing these, these incredible, comprehensive tasting notes, but it wasn’t the kind of essay type writing that I thought I would like to try to do, like to try to read.
I just remembered someone else that Eric Asimov reminded me of — someone who was good back then was Gerald Asher. If you have a chance to get them, I believe he has three or four collections. An English wine writer who moved to San Francisco, oh, about 40 years ago. And he actually sort of discovered the previous winemaking generation, the one before the one I stumbled on. Mondavi and Winiarski and crew, that was about when he arrived here. And he’s a wonderful writer
Ted Loos: And he had an enormous amount of space in Gourmet every month. Is that era gone? Is it going to ever come again?
Jay McInerney: I’ve been fighting hard for space.
Ted Loos: Join the club!
Jay McInerney: Well, on the other hand, I feel like the move to the web may sort of free us up from those space constraints. Certainly in the print magazines and newspapers, we’re really having to. Book reviewing — the New York Times’ book review is shrinking – and, you know, cultural coverage pages are shrinking, and wine is part of that. It is scary, and I think all of us have to learn how to bring it over to the digital side if we want to do the kind of expansive, narrative writing that I’m talking about.
Ted Loos: I wanted to ask you about some of your — especially with Lora Zarubin — quest kind of stories, where you’d go somewhere and there was drama, but there was a clearly defined goal at the end. What were some of your best quests? Or your most memorable?
Jay McInerney: Well, there was one that ended in jail.
Ted Loos: Say more.
Jay McInerney: We went to see this affineur who lived in a small town, his name was Bernard Antony. And he lived in a very small town, about an hour south of Strasbourg, and we were in Strasbourg, and Lora said, “We’ve got to go see this guy.” An affineur is somebody who raises cheese. And he was doing it for Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon, and he had a house in this little village. And if you could find him, you know, it was sort of like a pop-up restaurant, and he would have these all-cheese dinners with wine. So like twenty-five courses of cheese and then wine.
So we eventually found him. We drove down there and found him, and we ate and drank a lot. And then we were driving back to Strasbourg and we got caught up in a roadblock. And she was driving, because she insisted that I was not capable of driving. And then of course she got thrown in the paddy wagon. And then they said, “Perhaps your husband can drive.” And I was not her husband, nor could I drive. So we spent most of the night in the police station. And once they realized that they had nabbed two Americans, they just sort of wanted to get rid of us. But they kept giving us breathalyzers, and we kept failing them. So, it was about five in the morning before we got out of there. I actually wasn’t allowed to tell that story for a long time.
But the most recent one that I’ve had a lot of fun with — I’m sure that most of you know the great, the great Champagne maker Anselme Selosse. Actually a bit controversial, but I think he’s the most influential, certainly, Champagne maker of our generation. And he’s also pretty reclusive.
And I was going to go to Champagne and I called up his distributor, and I said, “Doug, I’m going to Champagne, I want to see Selosse, how do I get an appointment?”
He said, “Damned if I know, he won’t even see me.”
So he said, “Here’s your best bet. He has a little teeny hotel in Avize, the town where he lives, the great grower Champagne town. And he said, “So you can go check into the hotel. There’s only ten rooms, and there’s a restaurant. Go to the restaurant at night and he’ll probably come out and pour some Champagne and talk to you.”
So I did. And in the meantime, I think I had Alain Ducasse call up and try to say, “Hey, you should see this guy.” So when I checked into the hotel, the, the woman at the desk said, “Oh yes, Monsieur Selosse will probably join you in the dining room.”
So I thought I was all set. And it had to be that night because his hotel is closed two days a week, so it was then or never. So I sat through a meal, well a pretty long meal, and I dragged out this bottle of ‘02 Selosse as long as I could, and he never showed up.
Then the next morning I had to check out, and I was disappointed, and I spotted him in the courtyard. You know, because of course I’d seen his picture. And I’d actually brought with me this book of my wine writing which was translated into French, a big fat book called Bacchus et Moi.
So I had the book, and I’d already signed it too, so I raced out into the courtyard and just shoved the book into his hand. And I said, “Anselme! Mr. Selosse, you’re in the book, and it’s such an honor to meet you. And so then — I mean he was trapped — so he had to take me on a tour of the winery, and he had to give me a bottle of Champagne in return for the book, which was great because it’s almost impossible to find.
So the column just became the story of trying to find Selosse. And then, of course, there was some of the history and the reasons that I think the Champagne is so good. But you know, it was a kind of a quest story, in that my, my attempt to find Selosse became the story itself. I enjoyed that one.