Selling Wine, Writing About Wine

If you cruise wine websites much, or look at wine books on Amazon, you’ve probably noticed one or more lists of must-read wine books. You’ve probably also noticed how very short these lists are. What’s in even shorter supply, within those lists, is books that are truly worth reading—for their literary value, I mean, not just for their informative value. For some reason, wine does not inspire great books of literary nonfiction at anything like the pace and regularity of food. Adventures on the Wine Route, by Kermit Lynch, is a perennial presence on these lists, and I’ve written before about how curious a document I find it to be—starting with but by no means limited to the fact that it includes no adventures and no wine route. It is, rather, a fairly random collection of highly opinionated reminiscences from Lynch’s years as a wine importer. But it’s a terrific read nonetheless, and it’s a terrific read because Lynch has an authentic literary gift: He can write truly accomplished sentences, and his physical descriptions of places and people are first rate. It’s also a terrific read because Lynch’s writing is much like the wines he loves: utterly idiosyncratic.

For this reason, I picked up another commonplace Lynch title on lists of wine books, Inspiring Thirst. At one level, this book is an act of almost breathtaking vanity: Page after page includes nothing more interesting than Lynch’s little bottle-by-bottle write-ups from years past. He’s a good writer, but I can’t imagine anybody capable of making bottle write-ups work as a literary form, or at least not anybody short of an early-20th-century modernist in the Gertrude Stein or James Joyce mode. At another level, this book is absolutely worth having, and here’s why: Peppered among the arcana lie odd essays and rants and raves that show a great wine-loving mind thinking aloud, over many decades. The very best of these concern a man I wish I had known: Richard Olney. There are several essays about Olney here, including one by the great novelist Jim Harrison, whom I consider the greatest living food writer (by a very long country mile), and one by Lulu Peyraud. But others are simple musings on the loneliness of dining alone, and first-rate evocations of small, curious villages.

In sum, a book absolutely worth owning and reading, but not to be approached without an understanding of what it is: far closer to the peculiar notes and scrapbooks of a brilliant oenophile than a coherent work, and perhaps more interesting for that reason.

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