Jay McInerney : A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine, Vintage Books,2006, pp. 243, ISBN 978-1-4000-9637-4, paperback $11.20

Reviewed by Richard E. Quandt

Jay McInerney, wine columnist for House & Garden, chronicles in 53 short essays (some of which have been written about his travels for House & Garden, underscoring the benefits to wine drinkers of having such an eloquent writer on staff) his experiences as an enthusiastic oenophile while traveling through some of the most important wine regions of the world. They are short and to the point and he covers wines, wine regions, grapes, food, personalities and their oddities, and most importantly, the enjoyment that we can get from drinking wine. It is a book that you want to savor rather than devour in one sitting; since the essays are so short (4-5 pages on average), they make perfect reading in situations where you have only scraps of time available, like being stopped in traffic or riding on the subway or sitting in the doctor's waiting room (on the other hand, that may not be a good example of "scraps of time").

I suspect that my sympathies are powerfully appealed to by the fact that I agree so much with McInerney's views. The very first chapter announces that Condrieu is his favorite white, which to his mind "evokes Gaugin's Tahitian paintings." It is indeed a pity that there is so little of it and it had become quite expensive, but I think it is well worth the money. He also likes "elegant, racy, lean" Chardonnays, rather than "fat, loud and suburned " ones, and again I must agree; for that reason I have started to like American Chardonnays less and less over the past few years and in any case I like them unoaked better than oaked. He also endorses the whites of Graves (and once again I find myself agreeing) and gives good food-pairing advice about Pinot Gris. He devotes a chapter to German wines and points out the problem the average person might have with German wine labels; but I do wish that he spent an extra paragraph of two explaining in more detail about Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.

His appreciation of Côte Rôtie is right on. Unlike many wine writers, he spends some valuable pages discussing South African wines, and again we agree completely. He loves the Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, which was just about the first South African Pinot Noir I discovered for myself at the Au Jardin restaurant (now called the Myoga, under new management) in the Vineyard Hotel (isn¹t that an auspicious name?) in Cape Town. The Au Jardin was arguably the best restaurant in Cape Town and I have not yet had the pleasure of trying its successor. He notes that the South African Pinotage "can smell like nail polish remover au poivre" but that it tends to improve with age; once again I agree on both counts. He singles out Meerlust as a distinguished pioneer in wine making; its Rubicon is arguably the best Cabernet Sauvignon of South Africa, although Meerlust also makes a highly competitive Pinot Noir.(Vergelegen might be thought to pose a challenge to Rubicon.) He rightly likes Stellenbosch a lot, but I have also had very decent wines from Franschhoek and other regions.

We share our like of Bandol and all things Provençal, and various domaines, such as Domaine Tempier, Domaine Pradeaux and, particularly for whites perhaps, Domaine Ott. I remember sitting with my friend Orley in the Chantecler, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Nice (since sadly demoted to only one star), and drinking the oldest Tempier Bandol in the house, which helped wash down a thoroughly memorable meal which included for dessert, in true Provençal fashion, caramelized tomatoes and olive ice cream. Skipping around the various topics quite madly, I note that McInerney loves Riojas, and in particular Muga, and writes a paean to German Rieslings and to Cheval Blanc. Many will not be acquainted with a wine he spends some time discussing, namely Sagrantino di Montefalco, which is characterized as a mysterious wine the origins of which are cloudy at best. He describes it as "fatter, richer, and more tannic than Sangiovese," and quotes one theory about its origins to the effect that it was brought back by the Crusaders from the Middle East. Some people have thought that it is the same as Itriola, mentioned by Pliny the Elder (see Nesto, Bill, "Thirty years ago, Umbria¹s Sagrantino grape was almost extinct, " http://www.beveragebusiness.com/bbcontent/art-arch/99nesto12.html); a contention that is disputed in "Montefalco Sagrantino," DiWINETASTE, Issue 39, March 2006.

He presents interesting vignettes of important personalities in the wine business, be they growers or critics such as Jadot, Broadbent, Chapoutier, Auberon Waugh, Kermit Lynch and others, and also elaborates on the assets or liabilities of famous eating establishment: the fabulous wine cellar of La Tour d´Argent, the ineffable qualities of Le Bernardin and its magnificent chef, Eric Ripert, the stodginess of La Grenouille, and much, much more. Overall, I think that this book can be enjoyed by wine neophyte and expert alike, whether it provides you with much information that you did not know before or whether it just confirms your prejudices or perhaps challenges them.

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