"Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all."-Samuel Johnson
I want to get one thing straight before I begin: I wouldn't know Jay McInerny from Hugh McElhenny, so I don't want anyone to think that this review is colored by my previous experience with McInerny as a novelist or anything else. I understand this book is a compilation of short articles he wrote for the magazine House & Garden over a five-year span in the early part of this decade, although there are no dates on individual entries. That's too bad, because in 2007 there's virtually nothing new in the entire book, and if it turned out he wrote them all, let's say, in the period between 2000-2001, at least we'd know he was blazing some new ground at the time and it just took the rest of us a while to catch up. Instead I would describe the net effect as a romp through very well trodden territory with a half-baked, way-too-clever-for-his-own-good guide.
In the introduction, McInerny informs us that he came by his gig at House and Garden by accident, when a friend and editor suggested he combine his growing passion for the grape with his writing. Hence the Johnson quote above- should we be impressed that a novelist knows anything about wine, or perhaps go with the flow and quote Maximus from Gladiator, dripping blood in the center of the arena and shouting, "are you not entertained?"
My standard-bearer in this genre is Gerald Asher, who for 30 years has written brilliantly incisive articles about wine in Gourmet (The Pleasures of Wine). I know Gerald Asher, at least his wine writing, and Jay McInerny, Sir, is no Gerald Asher.
I'm going to begin my serious critique with the most nitpicky of comments. I hate typos and errata in books about wine. Maybe no one can tell when typos occur in a novel. But they are well nigh inexcusable in any work where people are theoretically relying on the author for accuracy and a minimal level of expertise. I refuse to accept the claim that a wine writer of any caliber understands his subject if he can't spell a place name right or spend the time to proofread, even if he once identified a bottle of '82 Haut Brion blind. Here are just two examples (curiously, both blunders I noticed relate to Italy, which, like Rome, seems to be where many unskilled wine gladiators go to die.) (1) Gamberro or Gambero? The famous Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso is spelled both ways within two pages. (2) Somewhere he refers to the town of Spoleto but it's written Spoleta, which is doubly unfortunate because it actually has nothing to do with wine-it's an Umbrian town famous for its annual classical music festival, also mirrored in Charleston, SC. My point is, what else in here is a trap for people who think he's trustworthy? Were these names misspelled in the magazine and someone just hit the copy and paste key? On a related note, why is a chapter entitled "The Maserati of Champagne" not placed in a section of the book called "Bubbles and Spirits?" The whole effort comes across as casual, superficial and sloppy, like maybe he was still drunk while he was writing and never went back for a fact check-hell, it's not a novel, after all.
But the two main reasons I found myself increasingly wincing as he pranced along were more significant. First, I suppose it goes with the territory, but I have to say I found his frequent use of metaphors, especially literary ones, both pretentious and unreliable. There are multiple references to wines as sports cars, including Maserati (see above), Ferrari and Mercedes-never linked to the country of the wine's origin- but unfortunately no steady, dependable Civics that can give you a lot of mileage for everyday consumption. Different first-growth Bordeaux are stylistically Turgenevs, Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys-at least he can spell them right-though I have no idea what he's talking about. A poor South African winemaker is described as "the gruff Charles Barkley-sized black sheep of the family," which is such an unintentionally inappropriate and hilarious analogy I had to include it even if it doesn't refer to a wine. I can't wait for his book on basketball.
Which brings me to the final complaint. Perhaps the book's most annoying feature is the seemingly random perspective the individual essays take relative to the reader's presumed knowledge of wine. I'm sure many will have already decided I'm an unrepentant geek of some kind because I don't appreciate the wit and accessibility on display here, or that I'm focusing on the bad instead of the good, but I would think that McInerny owes it to his readers to talk to them at a consistent level instead of a voice that's literally and figuratively all over the map. From one paragraph or essay to another he either speaks to the audience in an instructive and engaging tone like he was the grand prize in a "win an evening with Jay McInerny" winetasting sweepstakes for H&G subscribers, or he prattles on with the most abstruse, incomprehensible name-dropping drivel about wines that only a billionaire can afford.
Just to show this is a balanced review, I will credit the author for trying to sprinkle most essays with a few recommended examples of whatever he's talking about. When exploring the wide world of wine, we all need someone we can Lichine on, and if you want to, you can Lichine on he. Although I hate to see it in print, I must also give him credit for outing the fabulous though increasingly expensive wines of Montefalco's Paolo Bea.
I'm about done here. My recommendation would be for you to try to read a few of the short chapters before you buy this book to see if it hits the mark for you. But if I were writing in the clever McInerny style, I'd be compelled to return to my opening and say something like, while Hugh McElhinney made it into the football Hall of Fame, this book is going into my wine writing hall of shame