Jay McInerney, author of novels such as Bright Lights, Big City, is also a wine writer, with a current gig at Town and Country Magazine. In an Eater interview, part of which Eater’s editors helpfully paraphrased, McInerney gets to the heart of something I’ve thought about quite a bit.
Being relatable is key to making a wine column interesting, according to McInerney. Wine writing often falls into two traps: describing the technical — focusing on malolactic fermentation and the like — or describing the horticultural. “It was all about wine smelling like certain flowers, and I knew nothing about horticulture,” McInerney says of the wine writing that inspired him to do better. “I thought it was more instructive to compare wine to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or a Ferrari than to a certain kind of rose or gardenia.”
McInerney’s experience as a novelist also helps in this respect: “One of the best ways to describe the aesthetic experience of wine is with metaphors and similes,” he adds.
I think this is exactly right. Since the 1980’s when the UC Davis oenology department went all in on finding allegedly objective descriptions for wine via Anne Noble’s aroma wheel, wine writing has been preoccupied with accuracy. Wines are to be described using only descriptors that can be plausibly traced back to chemical compounds in the wine that cause us to smell blackberry, vanilla or earth. That’s all well and good—wine does exhibit aromas best described as resembling other edible or aromatic plants.
But we don’t drink wine to smell blackberries just as we don’t view paintings to experience a shade of blue. A wine leaves an overall aesthetic impression, it evokes feelings, moves us, stimulates the imagination, invokes memories, even makes us think. And different wines have different ways of doing so. If wine writing is to reach a higher level it must capture a broader aesthetic experience.
For me, and apparently for McInerney, music helps capture this broader aesthetic experience that wine makes possible.
The problem is that we, not just wine writers but our audience, get set in our ways and resist change. But more importantly, we are afraid that if metaphor, musical or otherwise, becomes a prominent means of communication we will stumble into a sea of subjectivity losing our grip on the goal of accuracy that the technicians have persuaded us to strive for.
We pay lip service to the idea of wine as bottled poetry but can’t escape the idea of wine as bottled chemistry.
Chemistry is important but if it throttles experience what has been gained?