It’s uncanny. Like me, he began by drinking Mateus Rosé at the age of sixteen. Like me, he felt that “The fact that wine had no place on my parents’ suburban dining table seemed to confirm its consumption as a mark of sophistication.” Sadly, at that point, our wine writing careers diverged. Sadly, at any rate, for me.
Jay McInerney has come a bit further, since a passing reference in his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, where he drinks wine with “a bouquet with a hint of migrant-worker sweat.” His writing has allowed him to rise from drinking Mateus plonk to recommending a rosé Champagne at $700 a bottle.
Not that he’s necessarily paying that. He’s now a celebrity writer, adding to his celebrated novels with a celebrated wine column in House & Garden and the Wall Street Journal, of which The Juice (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is the third collection. He now gets invited to the vineyards, the chateaux, the restaurants and ultimately the big-ticket dinners, the “bacchanalian gatherings” as he calls them, where he gets to drink the greatest wines in the world. And where he meets some truly awful people.
Given the chance, any of us might grab an opportunity to hobnob with VIPs, and drink their absurdly expensive wines for free. But while I have a great deal of interest in wine, I have little interest in the people who run its businesses. There may or may not have been a Mr Johnnie Walker, but meeting him would not alter my opinion of his whisky. I would simply ask him why he strode around looking like a tosser.
McInerney gains access to the rarest and most expensive wines of the world via a succession of individuals, whose careers, clothes, dropped names and luxurious lifestyles dominate this book. And they culminate in a repellent set of super-rich, willy-waving collectors, in a chapter appropriately entitled, His Magnum Is Bigger Than Yours.
Now, we English have always been wary of the arriviste – or, in our popular contraction of the French term nouveau riche, the Noov – whose newly acquired wealth is displayed through the purchase of the most expensive items, without any commensurate knowledge or taste. (I fall into neither of these categories, as I am tragically aware of both my poverty and my ignorance.)
I’m reminded of the old tale of a Northern industrialist, visiting a top London restaurant to celebrate a commercial success. “What’s your most expensive wine?” he demanded of the waiter, without even opening the list.
Thinking of the legendary dessert wine, the waiter replied “That would be the Chateau d’Yquem, sir.”
“Right then, lad,” said the industrialist. “We’ll start with two bottles of that – and keep it coming!”
More recently, this was the kind of criticism levelled at Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, when he foolishly revealed his taste in wine to the Gazzetta della Sport. His list of expensive, trophy wines was immediately dismissed by the Daily Telegraph as “the list of a labels man, who’ll drink anything as long as it scores lots of points and costs a lot of money.”
“We’re talking,” they went on, “about someone with the taste of an insecure Russian oligarch.”
And this is the company into which, as the prices of the wine rise, McInerney inevitably moves; until finally a chap wearing a “windowpane sports jacket over an open white shirt showing plenty of chest hair” is sabering open a $10,000 bottle of 1945 Bollinger, before buying two bottles of rosé champagne at auction for $84,000.
We’re a long way from Mateus. This is “Big Boy”, a property magnate who, when asked by McInerney if his cellar might contain more than fifty thousand bottles, says “Hell, I have fifty thousand bottles of ’96 champagne!”
McInerney writes that “The night before the auction I personally consumed, by my best estimate, over $20,000 worth of his wine – including the 1945 Mouton and the 1947 Cheval Blanc – and I was one of fourteen drinkers.” Well, lucky Jay; but given that “Big Boy” provides the must disgusting sexual analogy for the tightness of a Champagne that I have ever heard, he does not sound the kind of chap I would myself invite to High Table.
Personally, I would have liked to know how those extraordinary wines actually tasted… and while McInerney provides a fascinating insight into a number of wine people and their lifestyle, he is not good on describing their wine. His analogies are rooted in the world in which he is moving. If one Burgundy is “a Ferrari” and another “a Mercedes” – one champagne “a Porsche 911 Carrera” and another “the 911 Turbo” – I’m afraid I’m none the wiser.
(He is also somewhat repetitive. Rioja, he writes, “can suggest practically the entire spice rack, not to mention the cigar box and the tack room.” Suggest indeed; just three paragraphs later, a rioja has “an amazing nose…the whole spice box, plus the stable and the library.” Perhaps, like his native New York, New York, he thought it was so good that it needed saying twice.)
The actual price of drinking these wines is not the amount for which they are auctioned, but the time you might have to spend with people who wear window-pane sports jackets, crocodile shoes, and sunglasses formerly owned by Elvis. Are those the “marks of sophistication” Jay associated with wine back in his suburban youth? Perhaps that’s why we diverged – because they certainly weren’t mine.
I guess I’ll stick with the plonk. McInerney can stick with the plonkers.