“How Could He Possibly Have a Nose Left?”

Wine-tasting with Jay McInerney.

Jay McInerney.
Jay McInerney.

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images.

“After I got fired from The New Yorker and my wife dumped me, I retreated to Syracuse to study with Raymond Carver,” Jay McInerney says, inevitably, holding forth at home in Manhattan on a Thursday afternoon. It’s a few weeks before the publication of his third collection of wine writing, The Juice: Vinous Veritas, and he’s retelling a story that appears in the introduction to his first, Bacchus & Me. His clear eyes are as blue as his shirt. The rainclouds outside his penthouse apartment on lower Fifth Avenue are gray. He is swishing and spitting a Châteaneuf-du-Pape purpler than August berries.

As a master’s student, McInerney worked for minimum wage at Syracuse’s Westcott Cordial Shop, where half the business was in low-end fortified wine, Night Train and its ilk. There, when not emptying the register at gunpoint, he began a sentimental self-education by picking up $2 bottles of Yugoslavian red. In 1985, when he saw some money from Bright Lights, Big City—his first novel, about the girl problems and mother issues of a drug-addled magazine fact checker—he invested in nine or 10 cases of a second-growth Bordeaux. And he can still envisage the label on the 1978 Smith Haut Lafitte—a bottle not highly in demand at the Westcott—he bought when Paramount optioned the rights to Bright Lights. “I have a much better memory for wine than for names and dates or anything else.”

Now he is 57, and his wine life involves winning James Beard awards, writing a column in the Wall Street Journal, collecting 4,000 bottles at his house on Long Island, and calling the urge to collect a sickness. He is America’s leading literary oenographer, a non-snob whose prose benefits from an insouciant skepticism about the conventional wisdom of the Robert Parkers of the world—and a generous expense account. He has a special privileged disdain for the moneymen who jump into the game by playing with $400 bottles: “If you helicopter to the base of Everest, you miss a lot of the climb.” And it says something about his taste that while he is sober-minded on the matter of drinking itself, he is intemperate, sometimes delightfully so, about the other elements of his hobby—about the pursuit, the possession, the scent of the soil, the myth of the grape, the search for lost time.

There is room for 200 bottles in what is, by the standards of the Manhattan plutocracy, a modest apartment. “My wife”—his fourth wife, the publishing heiress Anne Hearst—“was slightly appalled when she realized that some of our non-extensive kitchen was taken up by my wine cooler.” Spitting the red into a tarnished silver wine bucket, McInerney conveys a slight but sharp dissatisfaction that he is not delivering the wine unto his gullet, as the gods of the harvest intended. But he’s got a lot to do today—“I mean, normally, I don’t do much of anything”—including a wine dinner promising an onslaught of Barolos, which are a special passion. “They say it tastes like tar and roses,” he says, mocking and applauding them at once. The anticipation offsets his agitation as he noses, savors, spits again.

He has started us off with a chardonnay from Santa Barbara (“California Chardonnays are fat and voluptuous in a way that I find kind of tiresome. This one is really restrained”) and another from Chile (“This one sort of has breasts, you know”). The carnal metaphor, the conceit that risks goofiness in its quest for immediacy—these are McInerney staples.  In The Juice, touring vineyards and exploring varietals, he drops science and history in an orderly, unfussy fashion. Then come these bits where, describing the body of the stuff itself, he sorts through a media cupboard of lush crushes, luxury goods, and populist media images. Visiting Santa Barbara to explore its chardonnays, he sets up a profile by describing what the peculiarities of the local climate have wrought—a wine that’s “ripe and fleshy” but with “a bracing acidic slap”: “It was a little like meeting Jessica Simpson, only to have her start speaking perfect French in Carla Bruni’s voice.”

When he first began a wine column for House & Garden in the 1990s—“that great era when Condé Nast just had so much fucking money”—he saw that wine writing tended toward (if English) the horticulturally floral or else (if American) the forbiddingly technical, and he played at building a pop vocabulary to communicate his adventures. He gets most of his action from metaphors and similes, as when constructing a vintage sex-symbol syllogism: Chablis is to Kate Moss as chardonnay is to Pamela Anderson. That one makes perfect sense to me; it is somewhat harder to parse the new book’s comparison of a 2008 Clos de la Coulée de Serrant Savennières to Milla Jovovich—specifically, to the “youthful, powerful beauty” of Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil. The Juice is the work of a professional occasionally carried away by amateur enthusiasm. There’s a looseness to it—a playful bouquet with gonzo undertones and frisky excesses—born of the fact that the author regards this work as R&R: “If I have a really rough night and I’m hung over, I’m not gonna be working on my novel the next day. This is maybe the thing I can write.”

The Juice: Vinous Veritas
by Jay McInerney

We move on to a Chilean syrah that’s smacking with a “squashed berry” aspect. But the syrah is a bit young and thus perhaps a little rubbery (“a slight Goodyear-tire element”). Going on in this way is not necessarily the author’s usual technique: “I don’t like to endlessly parse the nose of a wine.” He takes a moment to burnish his legend as an iconic ‘80s libertine, a hall-of-fame player in Spy’s Celebrity Pro-Am Iron Man Nightlife Decathlon: “That was the big joke when I first got the column: How could he possibly have a nose left?

This is all to say that McInerney plays his role as a bon vivant to the hilt. One piece in The Juice, adapted from his first WSJ column in 2010, folds misty memories of fizzy pink plonk into a tribute to a $360 bottle of Dom Pérignon. The piece, despite its virtues, swaggers a bit much at points. Consider the following line, which, whatever its aptness, makes for an exuberantly buffoonish conditional: “If Dom Pérignon is the Porsche 911 Carrera of the wine world, then Dom Pérignon Rosé is the 911 Turbo.”

It is fair to say that McInerney is unapologetic about enjoying his luxuries. But it is not fair to say that he is unrepentant. He attempts to repent by giving alms and doing good works, but that poses its own hazards. For instance, while he is excited to support the non-profit City Harvest, he was not willing to put his mouth where his money was at a recent party in support of it. “The wine was so bad that I basically stayed sober,” he says. “I bring my own wine to the Alzheimer’s dinner every year. It’s sort of a shame that philanthropy should be at odds with connoisseurship and hedonism.”

Don’t drink the wine at charity benefits. At the end of December, in his WSJ column, McInerney published a list of 10 New Year’s resolutions, and this selective abstemiousness held a spot at No. 3. He hasn’t done terribly well at keeping to the others. Drink more  riesling? Nope, he has not drunk more  riesling. “That was dutiful. Frankly, it’s a fashion thing: A lot of sommeliers like  riesling.” Drink less, but better? He just winces at that one. Get this nasty Burgundy habit under control? Reviewing his eagerness to break that rule, McInerney out-Jays himself: “Burgundy is a wine for tilters at windmills … Burgundy is a diva. It’ll take you home, and then it’ll break your fingers in the door. It’s not a sensible enthusiasm, but I’m not a particularly sensible person. I’ve been married four times. I’m a romantic.”

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