Book Review: “A Hedonist in the Cellar” by Jay McInerney

I once had an English professor at UCLA who claimed that the purpose of being an English major was to learn how to write essays about books that you’ve never read. This comment was as cynical as it was correct: I winged way too many midterms on a plot summary and a prayer. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Frankly, I was far more interested in devoting my time to the student newspaper, writing stories for a sports section that always garnered top national awards (I was surrounded by super-talented folks, and will only take a minimal share in this credit). I suppose my priorities could have been more academically-oriented, but seeing my byline in print just felt inherently more rewarding than reading the classics. Plus, I never really wanted to memorize Shakespeare, and I still don’t.

Over the last couple years, I’ve done a fair amount of book reviews on this site (and for what it’s worth, I have read every last one of these books). But in homage to the good old days of college life, I’m going to offer my review of “The Hedonist in the Cellar” without actually having read the book. Of course, I would never have included this detail on a college midterm, but I have no issue with divulging that info here. To that end, I should point out that I have read about one-third of the book. When I say that I didn’t read a lot of my textbooks at UCLA, I really meant that I just didn’t finish them. For the most part, I would read enough of the book to develop a sense of the writer’s style, but then my midterms would always arrive sooner than I would’ve liked, and I’d have to resort to CliffsNotes the night before the test.

And so that’s kind of where I am with “The Hedonist in the Cellar,” which I was breezing through fairly quickly until I decided to prepare for my CSW exam last year. As I resolved to begin studying more seriously, I decided to put the book on hold, and it’s been collecting dust on my nightstand ever since. Of course, since Jay McInerney’s book is actually a collection of essays, the text itself doesn’t demand to be read in any particular order, or within any sort of time-frame (what I like to call a good “bathroom reader”). Frankly, I’m fast-tracking this book review because I really wanted to comment on McInerney’s recent appointment as the new Wall Street Journal wine critic. Given the portion of “Hedonist” that I have read, I find this development very interesting and appealing.

To me, the WSJ has always been a unique wine resource, having built much of its reputation under the husband-and-wife duo of Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher (sidenote: “Open That Bottle Night” is on February 27th this year). The happy couple had penned their column in the Journal since 1998, which takes me back to a time in which I knew very little about wine. I feel that the “can’t-miss” economics of the dot-com boom prompted much of Generation X to begin reading the WSJ, at least occasionally, as “IPO” soon became the acronym on everyone’s lips. Subsequently, I think Gaiter and Brecher exposed many newly affluent Americans to the idea of wine as an approachable luxury, even if their advice may have been grounded in value. For me, the tandem certainly offered a unique voice, and Jay McInerney should as offer something similar.

The essays that I have read in 2006’s “Hedonist” have usually reminded me that McInerney is very much a writer first and a wine critic second. Perhaps his upcoming column in the Journal might take a different tack, but I sure hope not. It’s refreshing to read someone who eschews the 100-point system (I assume) and who approaches his craft with a little more gonzo creativity. McInerny has a great way of putting wine into a vivid context, which is something you almost never see in publications like Wine Spectator. Many of the leading wine magazines — with their alleged blind tasting panels and their ubiquitous point scores — remain somewhat clinical (if not influential) in their approach. Rarely do they pen wine reviews with any sense of character or panache. On the other hand, McInerny wields a style that often reflects elements of P.J O’Rourke and Ernest Hemingway.

Many folks may criticize McInerny for not having enough credentials as wine critic. But I say, so what? With the wide range of wines that “Hedonist” covers, McInerny has certainly invested many years into the subject, and who’s to really say that his opinions and observations are not every bit as valid as Robert Parker’s or Jim Laube’s? With any luck, I see McInerny as someone who has the potential to offer some new perspectives on wine and who will hopefully deliver a little much-needed levity along the way.

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