I thought I had reviewed Jay McInerney’s first wine book A Hedonist in the Cellar a few years back but having checked the site I have to admit that this is yet more evidence of my deteriorating memory. I enjoyed it but have read and reviewed a lot of wine books since 2007 so it is unsurprising my episodic memory is a bit unreliable. We all confabulate from time to time as this helps maintain the illusion of the self. (Note, I have just finished a piece on personality and wine and probably spent too long revisiting personality theories not to mention the Copenhagen hypothesis…)
So back to Jay. My search for my review of ’Hedonist‘ was triggered by his new book The Juice. This is his second collection of wine ‘essays’ previously published in various (often prestigious) newspapers and magazines. Having made his name with the zeitgeist capturing Bright Lights Big City in the 80s he not only survived the coke fuelled excesses of the decade but has since carved out an enviable niche as a wine writer (sublimation par excellence). His love of wine is evident and his talent as a writer even more obvious. He manages to combine the geekiness of a trainspotter with the hedonistic enthusiasm of a hollywood A lister craving a repeat of their first freebasing hit. If they ever make a film about him they should sign Robert Downey Jr as lead.
Both books are full of great articles but suffer from the same limitations. As a collection of stand alone pieces there is little narrative thread connecting each. However, his writing style is so individual and strong that the whole becomes coherent. Many pieces reflect his journey through the world of wine and reveal his tastes. He is a good guide with impressive connections and a nose for ‘the next big thing’. The focus is often New World, particularly California, but he also wears his ‘Bad to the Beaune’ T shirt with pride and seems to have been, more recently, seduced (sejuiced if you’re from New York) by Bordeaux.
Jay takes on Biodynamics but ties himself up in a few philosophical knots by veering from empricicism to mysticism then back again. Lots of BD wines are good but this is not empirical evidence for the efficacy of BD approaches. I guess he is probably along the right lines when he writes about the way thoughtful producers tend their vines and how this can add value. However, at best BD is still a hypothesis, an interesting one, and the contribution of each ritual is yet to be understood. When he cites Steiner’s belief in Lemurians and states ‘many oenophiles might well respond “wtf!”‘ he is not wrong. One day the net of science mught be fine enough to capture the mechanisms by which the dung filled cow horn and other BD techniques work. My guess is that BD is essentially a collection of memes, some of which are more effective than others but they have been sewn together, like Frankenstein’s monster, to become a system that obscures the contribution of each element. Until we unpick BD systematically it will remain a contentious enigma.
An ethical storm erupted recently following self plagiarism accusations against Jonathan Lehrer. McIrnerney’s collections could be seen in similar terms but I think they are welcome for bringing together a disparate body of work (and if he makes a few extra bucks without having to reinvent the wheel then good luck to him). I tend to subscribe to the ‘Sinatra defence’ (singing My Way over and over again in a popular style you developed is fair enough). Artists, writers and academics build a body of work, have ways of thinking and expressing themselves and revisit themes. Words, ideas and phrases are going to reoccur like refrains. Recycling huge chunks of text for payment by more than one magazine is obviously not a good idea though. In academia ‘salami slicing’ (publishing multiple papers based on one set of data) is frowned upon. We also surprise students when we tell them about the dangers of plagiarism and the strict regulations in place. Many do not realise that lending someone an essay in good faith can get them into trouble if that person then uses it inappropriately. We use a piece of software called Turnitin to inform academic decisions on plagiarism. It basically runs a check on the content and gives a report that details percentages of repeated phrases.
It now turns out that Lehrer has admitted inventing Bob Dylan lyrics (article here). I guess following the self plagiarism accusations his output came under much closer scrutiny. He was pretty good at ‘Gladwelling’ but resented, by some, for ‘using their ideas’ and research to make a nice living. I guess the press, critics and reviewers are often seen as parasitic despite the nature of the beast probably being more symbiotic than exploitative. It is a fine line to walk though and some cross over into the dark side. Jay manages to remain in the light though.
McInerney, J (2006) A Hedonist in the Cellar Bloomsbury
McInerney, J (2012) The Juice, Vinous Veritas Bloomsbury