This is an edited version of a long essay on wine writing that appeared in Slightly Foxed literary magazine in December. I should also take this opportunity to announce that I have started a monthly wine column in The Lady magazine. Both magazines are well worth subscribing to and not only to read the higher-quality jokes that I’m saving for them as they’re paying me.
It is received opinion amongst publishers that wine book don’t sell. Don’t even try and suggest a book to a publisher with the word wine in the title, they will recoil as if from a corked claret (not something that would happen nowadays as most publishing lunches are dry.) As a wino and a reader I find this lack of success sad but understandable. Trying to put the hedonistic pleasure of a good burgundy into words is impossible. It is also very very complicated. You really do need to know your stuff to write about it clearly. Sadly some writers mistake the need for knowledge as a need to impart all of that knowledge to the poor reader. Learning should be the foundations not main structure.
A good wine book must have some sort of polemical thrust. None come more thrusting than Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route: a wine buyer’s tour of France. The author is an American importer of mainly French wines to Berkeley, California. The book is a journey around France through the classic wine regions as well as taking in Provence and the Languedoc, not noted at the time for good wine. What propels this book is the author’s rage as he sees the old ways that made the wine he loves slowly overtaken by modern techniques. They make life easier but the wine worse. His rage extends to his fellow countrymen who he feels miss the whole point of wine with their awarding of scores and blind tasting:
‘the method is misguided, the results spurious and misleading. . . . Such tasting conditions have nothing to do with the conditions under which the wines will presumably be drunk, which is at table with food. When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it; she puts it on her own.’
Who can argue with that?
It is in many ways a sad book as time and time again Mr. Lynch turns up at the house of a gnarled old peasant whose wine he has bought for many years only to discover that the son has taken over, thrown out all the old barrels, replaced them with stainless steel and now filters the wine heavily to ensure a stable consistent product. This removes any danger of the wine spoiling but means that it never hits the highs of before. With heavy heart Lynch tastes, sighs and strikes the producer of his list. Lynch is characteristically forthright on wine treated so brutally:
‘We would not castrate all men because some of them go haywire and commit rape. At least I wouldn’t’.
What makes Lynch such good company in a book is probably what makes him, I imagine, hard work in real life. He is convinced that he is right and he is not afraid to tell people what they are doing wrong – mainly filtering their wines. That an American wine importer with no wine-making experience should be ordering the French around does not strike him as odd. There is a memorable scene where the owners of the most prestigious estate in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Telegraphe, who normally filter their wines, produced two bottles of the same vintage, one filtered and one not and they taste them side-by-side. Everyone prefers the non-filtered. Lynch has been proved right again.
From reading Adventures on the Wine Route, one quickly realizes how much Lynch knows about wine. If he wanted to he could fill the book with technical detail but instead it is accessible to general reader. As Lynch himself puts it
‘Wine is, above all, pleasure. Those who would make it ponderous make it dull.’
Amen to that.
Lynch loathes any technique which would rob a wine of its delicacy. These include excessive addition of sugar to boost alcohol levels – endemic in France especially in Beaujolais – and over use of new oak – a technique which makes wine taste of vanilla to the detriment of everything else. Lynch gets particularly angry when pondering the heavy hand of Marcel Guigal on the perfumed wines of Cote-Rotie:
‘I cannot begin to describe how profoundly the critics embrace of such freak wine depresses me.’
It is difficult to overstate quite how heretical this view is. Guigal is generally considered to be an untouchable god of modern wine-making. It’s the vinous equivalent of slandering Nelson Mandela.
Adventures on the Wine Route was originally published in 1988 and has not been out of print since. Though it is now somewhat out of date as a buying guide, it is as relevant today as when it was written. Even if you have only glancing interest in wine, Lynch can be read for his wit, vivacity and striking way with words.