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Wine & Literature (December 9, 2010)

Of all members of the Fifth Estate, the most convivial group are the wine writers. Small wonder, you say? Perhaps. But we happy band of scribblers on the fringe of journalism (for there is nothing more subjective than wine writing) come by our calling honestly, since we all have a consuming passion for our subject.

Most wine writers have other jobs. Very few can support themselves by wine writing alone. And most of those I have met are, coincidentally, creative in other fields of writing. But then Dionysus was not only the god of wine but the god of drama as well.

I am not saying that only writers really enjoy wine, but those who do cannot resist sharing their interest and knowledge with their readers. While they may be circumspect about revealing details of their romantic lives, they seem very willing to declare themselves concerning their love of wine.

Colette wrote in Prisons et Paradis, "Between my eleventh and fifteenth year I drank Château Lafite, Chambertin and Corton which had escaped capture by the Prussians in 1870," served to her by a mother concerned that she was outgrowing her strength. She recalls having her first glass of wine at the age of three – a Muscat de Frontignan.

Ford Madox Ford began his wine drinking career somewhat later. He drank his first French wine when he was eight but he did not share Colette's taste for sweet wine. He was not enamoured of "the disgusting treacle they call Château Yquem."

Robert Louis Stevenson was less critical. "I am interested in all wines and have been all my life, from the raisin wine that a school fellow secreted in his playbox up to my latest discovery, those notable Valtellinas that once shone upon the board of Caesar..."

You can tell if someone really likes wine by the way he or she writes about it. Homer, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Byron and Beaudelaire must have been engaging drinking companions. Each singled out a single wine for praise. Keats, in "Ode to a Nightingale," offers the best description of champagne I have read: "...beaded bubbles winking at the brim." Thackeray shared the poet's affection for sparkling wine – and in copious quantities. "A man who offers champagne in driblets," he wrote, "is a fellow who would... screw on spurs to his boots to make believe he had a horse." Charles Lamb would have pounded the table in agreement had he not already been under it. In his biography of the great English essayist, E. V. Lucas records the sight of Lamb being carried like a sack of potatoes from the dining room, singing at the top of his voice, "Diddle diddle, dumpling, my son John."

There is also a kind of literary posturing, an inverted snobbery, which leads some writers to denigrate the source of their inspiration. In Disraeli's novel Sybil, Mr. Mountchesney says, "I rather like bad wine. One gets so bored with good wine." One of  Anthony Burgess's characters refers to wine-worship as "the most vulgar of idolatries." The British thriller writer Gavin Lyall had this advice on serving wine in a bed-sitter: "Always match the drinks to the colour of the carpet."

Marcel Proust was a frightful snob, especially in matters oenological. He has Swann send a case of Asti Spumante to Aunts Celine and Flora at the suggestion of "one of the smartest members of the Jockey Club, a particular friend of the Comte de Paris and the Prince of Wales." The assumption being that this sweet, fizzy wine would be just the ticket for elderly maiden aunts living in the country.

In 1953 Hilaire Belloc wrote a manuscript entitled Advice for the daughter of a family friend who was getting married. The book, with Belloc's own drawings of corkscrew, wine funnel and bottle rack, counselled the young bride on matters of wine and food. The slim volume was published in 1960 with a short introduction by another wine lover, Evelyn Waugh. "[Belloc's] interest in food and wine and domestic matters," wrote Waugh, "was strong and idiosyncratic to the verge of perversity."

One of Belloc's tips is how to remove a stubborn cork from a champagne bottle. "The rule is to take a sharp knife and cut off the excrescence leaving the top of the cork flush with the top of the bottle. Then pull it out as you would an ordinary cork." Do not try this at home unless you want to dislocate your shoulder.

Ernest Hemingway, whose prose was terse and clipped in his novels, became positively verbose and maudlin when he wrote about wine. "Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range of enjoyment and appreciation than possibly any other purely sensory thing that may be purchased... I would rather have a palate that would give me the pleasure of enjoying a Château Margaux or Haut Brion... even though excesses indulged in in the acquiring of it have brought a liver that will not allow me to drink Richebourg, Corton or Chambertin, than to have the corrugated internals of my boyhood when all red wines were bitter except port and drinking was a process of getting down enough of anything to make you feel reckless."

Evelyn Waugh, who chronicled his youthful wine excesses in Brideshead Revisited, preferred port in his later years but was painfully aware of its anatomical effects in those who are prone to gout. He warned that port was not a drink for "the very young, the vain and the very active."

I have always thought of Waugh as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift. The author of Gulliver's Travels drank wine mainly for medicinal reasons. A bottle of French wine a day was "the only thing that keeps me out of pain," he wrote. "I am thrifty in everything but wine."

Charles Dickens liked port; Max Beerbohm favoured Valpolicella as his house wine; Arnold Bennett preferred Burgundies; and Friedrich Engels's idea of a good time was Château Margaux 1848 – which shows a remarkably elevated palate for a man of the people. Voltaire had a fascist streak when it came to the enjoyment of his cellar. He served Louis Latour Côte de Beaune to his friends and kept that shipper's Volnay for himself.

This story has a contemporary echo in the behaviour of the late President Richard Nixon. In their book on Watergate, Washington Post investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein recorded that Nixon would entertain his southern senator cronies on his yacht, Sequoia, moored in New York harbour. He ordered his staff to serve his guests, who had down a sequence of mint juleps, "a rather good six-dollar bottle [while] his glass was to be filled from a bottle of Château Margaux 1966 wrapped in a towel."

So he wasn't all bad.




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