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. Read the rest of this entry »