Jay McInerney is a novelist who has written generation-defining books such as Bright Lights, Big City and How it Ended. But this novelist has also been labeled the best wine writer in America -- for him it's a natural combo. You can read his writing in The Wall Street Journal and in his latest book, The Juice: Vinous Veritas.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did you get into drinking wine?
Jay McInerney: I think that literature actually inspired my interest in wine. Probably it started with Hemingway, who wrote so much about people drinking wine, particularly in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Everybody was constantly drinking wine. Shortly after that I read Brideshead Revisited, where there's quite a bit of serious wine drinking. That was pretty much the start of my interest in wine.
I also think it was a point in wine's favor that my parents didn't drink it. Of course anything that my parents didn't do was potentially cool and sophisticated.
But I suppose my obsession with wine began when I was writing my first novel. In order to make ends meet, I was working as a clerk in a wine store. I would take the occasional bottle home at night -- well honestly, every night. The owner had a wonderful library of wine books, even though most of our business was fortified grape juice, things like MD 20/20 and Wild Irish Rose. That was the beginning of training my palate.
LRK: There's one white wine in my mind we ignore: Chablis. Why do people not drink Chablis?
JMI: One reason is because many of us grew up drinking something very inferior to the real Chablis. That's to say that many wine regions around the world created something called Chablis in order to capitalize on the popularity of the French Chablis, the wine made in this particular area northwest of Burgundy. There's an awful lot of ersatz Chablis. Basically it could be almost anything, but it was seldom good. So an awful lot of people have never actually encountered the real thing.
Curiously enough, it's made from the most popular grape in the world, which is the chardonnay grape, although it tastes like anything but the typical California chardonnay. It's much leaner and it often has, many of us think, a mineral element.
It seems to some people that you can taste this underlying limestone soil, which is made up of millions of years of oyster shells compressed together. It's a rock formation called the Kimmeridgian which stretches from the white cliffs of Dover, England, to Chablis, France. This is still a controversial idea, but one that the French take absolutely for granted -- that the characteristics of a wine are largely a function of the underlying minerals and soil. It seems at the very least appropriate that it goes so well with oysters and any kind of light seafood.
LRK: What would be a great value with Chablis? What would be the low-end price that I could still drink really nice Chablis?
JMI: The good thing about global warming, a phenomenon that no winegrower in the world will deny, is that there are many more ripe vintages in Chablis. It used to be that there were only three good vintages in a decade. Now for better or for worse, the last four have been very good -- 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 -- although they have different styles.
In any of these years, you can get a good wine that's just labeled Chablis, which is the generic or village wine. I would not recommend going down to the lowest level, which is the Petit Chablis. I would say you could safely get a really good bottle of Chablis for $25.
LRK: That's not super cheap, but also you're talking really, really, really good.
JMI: But keep in mind these are artisanal wines -- they're hand-picked and handcrafted virtually -- and this is not necessarily something that you're going to drink every single day. I think it's well worth spending $25 on a good bottle.
LRK: Pinot grigio is a wine that is being drunk constantly now, but there was a time when nobody ever went near it. It's almost replacing chardonnay as being so popular.
JMI: It is, and I think it has become a generic term almost for white wine. It wasn't until I believe it was 1979 that a guy named Tony Terlato was visiting Italy. He was a wine importer, and he tasted a wine he really liked. He went and sought this one at the source, which happens to be a place called Alto Adige in the north of Italy.
He discovered a winery called Santa Margherita. He liked the wine so much that he got the exclusive rights to import it to the states. He grew the brand because it became very popular. It is now the largest-selling, imported white wine in the United States. They import 600,000 cases or something along those lines. It remains very popular, although it has lost some of its cache with wine cognoscenti, but probably because of overproduction and over-popularity I guess.
LRK: It can be really delicious.
JMI: When we're talking about price, you can get a good bottle of pinot grigio for $15-$20.
LRK: Can you name some names for us?
JMI: One of my current favorites is made in California called Palmina. From Italy I like Alois Lageder and Tunina. I live out at Long Island, N.Y., in the summer, and there are some good ones starting to pop up there -- Channing Daughters makes a wonderful pinot grigio. Of all places, in Slovenia they make what I think is the greatest pinot grigio of all: a producer called Movia. If you taste this wine, you will be truly inspired by the potential for pinot grigio.
But in general, it's a wine that shouldn't be taken too seriously. It's a perfect summer coif.
LRK: I like the idea of Slovenia and I love the idea of Long Island, two sources that you don't immediately think of.
JMI: I scout the world so that you can drink better.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. And, when you donate, you'll become a member of The Splendid Table Co-op. It's a community of like-minded individuals who love good food, good conversation and kitchen companionship. Splendid Table Co-op members will get exclusive content each month and have special opportunities for connecting with The Splendid Table team.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table and you'll be welcomed into The Splendid Table Co-op.