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Henry Jeffreys on the literature of wine

A Lot of Bottle

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It is received opinion among publishers that wine books don’t sell. Don’t even try to suggest a book with the word wine in the title to a publisher – he will recoil as if from a corked claret (not something that would happen nowadays as most publishing lunches are dry). The Faber wine list is no more and the once mighty Mitchell Beazley list is a shadow of its former self.

As a wine-lover and a reader I find this sad but understandable. It’s impossible to put the hedonistic pleasure of a good burgundy into words. ‘But what about food writing?’ I hear you ask. It’s true, people in Britain spend more time reading about food than they do actually cooking. Wine, by contrast, is not photogenic. It comes in only three colours, and vineyards can be some of the dullest looking places on earth, you can’t easily make it at home, and it is very, very complicated. You really do need to know your stuff to write about it clearly. Sadly, some writers interpret the need for knowledge as a need to impart all that knowledge to the unfortunate reader.

To simplify drastically, wine writers can be divided into two schools – the anecdotal and the technical. Reading the anecdotalist is like being trapped with a learned relative who is a little the worse for wear. Things are never explained, merely alluded to. Characters are introduced in a way that assumes you already know them. Wines are anthropomorphized, or whatever the plant equivalent is, leading to lines such as: ‘For a Prince of the Royal Blood of Burgundy, Musigny has a curiously feminine character.’

That’s from Desmond Morris’s Guide to the Pleasures of Wine. This kind of wine writing is the preserve of the enthusiastic amateur. One imagines such books coming together over those extinct publishing lunches. They are not very good guides to wine, but they are far more enjoyable, I find, than the technical kind. These ignore wine’s sensual side in favour of scientific-sou

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It is received opinion among publishers that wine books don’t sell. Don’t even try to suggest a book with the word wine in the title to a publisher – he will recoil as if from a corked claret (not something that would happen nowadays as most publishing lunches are dry). The Faber wine list is no more and the once mighty Mitchell Beazley list is a shadow of its former self.

As a wine-lover and a reader I find this sad but understandable. It’s impossible to put the hedonistic pleasure of a good burgundy into words. ‘But what about food writing?’ I hear you ask. It’s true, people in Britain spend more time reading about food than they do actually cooking. Wine, by contrast, is not photogenic. It comes in only three colours, and vineyards can be some of the dullest looking places on earth, you can’t easily make it at home, and it is very, very complicated. You really do need to know your stuff to write about it clearly. Sadly, some writers interpret the need for knowledge as a need to impart all that knowledge to the unfortunate reader. To simplify drastically, wine writers can be divided into two schools – the anecdotal and the technical. Reading the anecdotalist is like being trapped with a learned relative who is a little the worse for wear. Things are never explained, merely alluded to. Characters are introduced in a way that assumes you already know them. Wines are anthropomorphized, or whatever the plant equivalent is, leading to lines such as: ‘For a Prince of the Royal Blood of Burgundy, Musigny has a curiously feminine character.’ That’s from Desmond Morris’s Guide to the Pleasures of Wine. This kind of wine writing is the preserve of the enthusiastic amateur. One imagines such books coming together over those extinct publishing lunches. They are not very good guides to wine, but they are far more enjoyable, I find, than the technical kind. These ignore wine’s sensual side in favour of scientific-sounding terms. One gets the impression that the authors do not enjoy wine all that much. So between the Scylla of whimsy and the Charybdis of technicaloverload where should the wine-loving reader look? Well, I would say that a good wine book needs purpose. It shouldn’t be just a guide but must have some sort of polemical thrust. None comes more thrusting than Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France. This was originally published in 1988 and has not been out of print since. The author is an American importer of mainly French wines to Berkeley, California. The book is a journey through the classic wine regions of France, also taking in Provence and the Languedoc, areas not noted at the time for good wine. What propels it is the author’s rage as he sees the old ways that made the wine he loves slowly overtaken by modern methods. They make life easier but the wine worse. His rage extends to his fellow countrymen who, he feels, miss the whole point of wine with their blind tasting and awarding of scores:

The method is misguided, the results spurious and misleading. . . Such tasting conditions have nothing to do with the conditions under which the wines will presumably be drunk, which is at table with food. When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it; she puts it on her own.

Who can argue with that? It is in many ways a sad book since, time and again, Mr Lynch turns up at the house of a gnarled old peasant whose wine he has bought for many years only to discover that the son has taken over, thrown out all the old barrels, replaced them with stainless steel, and now filters the wine heavily to ensure a stable, consistent product. This removes any danger of the wine spoiling but means that it never hits the highs of before. With heavy heart Lynch tastes, sighs and strikes the producer off his list. What makes Lynch such good company in a book is probably what makes him, I imagine, hard work in real life. He is convinced that he is right and he is not afraid to tell people what they are doing wrong – mainly, filtering their wines. That an American wine importer with no wine-making experience should be ordering the French around does not strike him as odd. There is a memorable scene in which the owners of the most prestigious estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Telegraphe, who normally filter their wines, produce two bottles of the same vintage, one filtered and one not, and they taste them side by side. Everyone prefers the non-filtered. Lynch has been proved right again. Lynch loathes any techniques which would rob a wine of its delicacy. These include excessive addition of sugar to boost alcohol levels – endemic in France, especially in Beaujolais – and over-use of new oak – a technique which makes wine taste of vanilla to the detriment of everything else. Lynch gets particularly angry when pondering the heavy hand of Marcel Guigal on the perfumed wines of Côte-Rôtie: ‘I cannot begin to describe how profoundly the critics’ embrace of such freak wine depresses me.’ It is difficult to overstate quite how heretical this view is. Guigal is generally considered to be an untouchable god of modern wine-making. It’s the vinous equivalent of slandering Nelson Mandela. From reading Adventures on the Wine Route, one quickly realizes how much Lynch knows about wine. He could have filled the book with technical detail, but instead he has made it accessible to the general reader. As he himself puts it: ‘Wine is, above all, pleasure. Those who would make it ponderous make it dull.’ Amen to that. While Lynch’s book surveys a depressing 1980s landscape of French producers cashing in on their birthright and homogenizing their wines for the international market, Patrick Matthews’s The Wild Bunch: Great Wine from Small Producers (1997) is about the fight back. In it he surveys small producers, not just in France but around the world, who are willing to take risks to make distinctive wines. It would be hard to think of characters less alike than Matthews and Lynch. Matthews is diffident, mischievous and not nearly as knowledgeable or sure of himself. One feels he is learning as he goes along and bringing the reader with him. That’s not to say that he is a beginner, but where his knowledge is lacking he doesn’t gloss over his ignorance with waffle or superfluous  technical details, he makes it an asset. Endearingly, he even gets drunk at a wine tasting and argues with a supermarket buyer. Matthews was not part of the wine establishment. I’m pretty sure that he was never invited out to Bordeaux to taste the new vintage. In The Wild Bunch he was aiming to challenge received opinion, but unlike some other self-styled ‘outsiders’ he never comes across as chippy. Take the vexed matter of scoring wines for example – something that Lynch abhors. Instead of decrying it Matthews comes up with his own idiosyncratic scoring system based on two criteria: oddness and niceness. He scores them out of five instead of the more usual 20 or 100: ‘The quirk this creates is that a wine I like a lot can still get low scores: for example a neutralish white Bourgogne Aligoté which is neither very strange nor a real crowd-pleaser (1/5 oddness, 1/5 niceness).’ Notice that his system tells you how the wine will taste rather than judging one wine better than another. When The Wild Bunch was written, the hot topic among British wine writers was the ‘Wine Revolution’. This consisted of young, usually Australian wine-makers overturning centuries of European lethargy and producing fruity wines which were named after grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, rather than after places in Europe. This was the era of supermarket wine guides with names like Superplonk. It was also the time when the wine critics Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden competed with one another to come up with ever more outlandish descriptions of wines on their television programmes. ‘Mmmm . . . deck chairs on the Titanic,’ is one I remember clearly. Matthews was not impressed. He was ahead of his time in championing the local, the diverse and the obscure. Today terms such as ‘organics’, ‘biodynamics’ and ‘natural’ wines are the new orthodoxy, with even industrial wine producers paying lip-service to them. But when Matthews was writing The Wild Bunch he was championing something genuinely new. He is ever alert to how the best intentions can ossify into dogma: ‘There are echoes of cults, evangelism, even show trials,’ he writes after interviewing a producer who has ‘gone organic’. Early on in the book, Matthews explicitly rejects the whimsical style of wine writing, noting that ‘These encounters [with wine makers] tend to be reported in a maddeningly sketchy way: “Herr/ Señor/Monsieur so-and-so has some fascinating opinions which make a visit to his cellars an education in every sense!”’ Like a good travel writer, he is able to capture the personalities of the people he meets with a few deft phrases. Here he is on Olivier Merlin, a Young Turk from Burgundy, and his wife: ‘The couple personified the romance of wine. They were young 1980s people (something you could tell from Olivier’s coloured-framed specs à la early Jancis Robinson) and they’d seized the moment.’ And I know few writers who can capture a place so elegantly: ‘The sherry bodegas have something of the air of Oxbridge colleges with their courtyards and immaculate displays of flowering plants (not to mention the all pervasive smell of sherry).’ Matthews manages to be witty without ever being facetious. He is often very funny but you never doubt how seriously he takes his subject. His book is based mainly on interviews with notable people from within the wine business, but its frame of reference is much wider. To back up his points, Matthews calls into service the likes of Flaubert, Pliny, Bob Dylan, and a novel by Dorothy L. Sayers – ‘the only detective story I know that turns on the sleuth’s unerring palate’. Both these wine books are now woefully out of date. The prices given make melancholy reading. Matthews quotes £10 a bottle for the cult Languedoc wine Mas de Daumas Gassac; the latest vintage costs over £30. Many of the producers no longer exist but have been superseded by hungry young upstarts. This should not put you off either book. Both are as relevant today as when they were written. Even if you have only a glancing interest in wine, these two authors can be read for their wit, vivacity and striking way with words. Whereas Lynch is a pillar of the wine world and his book a bestseller, Matthews is a more shadowy figure. He published another book called Real Wine in 2000 with Mitchell Beazley and later a book called Cannabis Culture. He then seems to have disappeared. Perhaps the precarious life of a wine writer did not appeal. Certainly one cannot imagine him having a weekly newspaper column recommending supermarket wines or appearing on Saturday morning cookery programmes. The last I heard he was running a falafel stall in Hoxton Square. I hope he is happy wherever he is and still enjoying good wine.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 32 © Henry Jeffreys 2011


About the contributor

For most of the week Henry Jeffreys is a freelance publicist working in publishing, but on Fridays he attends wine tastings and attempts to write a book claiming that the British Empire’s greatest legacy is its alcoholic drinks. The book is going very slowly. He also blogs at worldofbooze.wordpress.com.

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