Great Wine Literature…Or Not

Book Somehow the conversation strayed into "wine and literature."

A crew of us wine geeks were gathered for the purposes of enjoying our geekishness when one of our gathering was provoked to ask:

"Can someone tell me why there is not really good literature that has wine as its focus or at least as its setting?"

This led us to think if the premise was correct and we decided it was. But the answer to the question couldn't be that it was a boring subject matter since we all agreed, further, that good writers can make any subject interesting.

It was then that one of us declare the following:

"I can tell by reading the first sentence of any book whether or not I want to read the rest of it. The problem is that there aren't any books about wine with really good first sentences."

This makes no sense on the face of it, most of us realized, but it also inevitably led us to taking the challenge:

Write a compelling first sentence for a book about wine or set in the world of wine.

And so, despite the faulty premise, we set out to do just that. For your consideration, here are the agreed upon 10 best sentences that we could create, in no particular order. I'm not sure any of the assembled group will be writing novels, let alone about wine, any time soon:

1. The last thing they expected to find was a severed foot in the barrel of Merlot.

2. The wine critic knew in his heart he was wrong.

3. The 2000 Chateau Latour did its job, Michael thought, as he surveyed her clothes strewn about his living room

4. I knew there was no God when realized the last thing I'd see in this world was a tipped over, empty bottle of $2 chardonnay.

5. "Take the Syrah, but leave the body."

6. Surveying the remains of her life, it never occurred to Carole that the answer to her prayers were contained in the bottle of Chardonnay she clung to her chest.

7. At the time, no one questioned Luther's decision to order the Riesling instead of the Sauvignon Blanc—he'd always been eccentric.

8. Napa Valley turned Ted's head, but it couldn't turn him into a solid citizens.

9. Lecter enjoyed the time he spent in the wine cellar with his prisoners.

10. It's hard to hide a body in the vineyards after harvest.

Would you keep reading any of these books?

24 Responses

  1. Benito - July 5, 2011

    I have on my shelf a review copy of The Bordeaux Betrayal by Ellen Crosby, author of The Viognier Vendetta and The Riesling Retribution. They’re all murder mysteries set in Virginia wine country, but I haven’t gotten around to that initial book yet.
    I was influenced by the presence of wine (not just as a prop) in some other mystery novels, such as Rumpole of the Old Bailey going down to Pommeroy’s Wine Bar for a glass of cheap claret or the serious appreciation of Saint-Émilion by Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse.
    Like with TV and movies, perhaps it’s best for wine to be shown not just as something in the background, but not quite the entire focus either. A note or comment on what it is, a clear enough shot of the label, and the fact that it’s a normal part of life. Friday Night Lights did this great with the Texas high school football coach and his wife often enjoying a glass of wine with dinner. Nothing expensive, not a special occasion, but hey, even here in flyover normal folks drink wine. It’s OK.

  2. Tom Johnson - July 5, 2011

    Great literature is always about human experience rather than a particular milieu. I was recently in a discussion of great baseball movies, and the ones we agreed on (Bull Durham, Pride of the Yankees) were not really about baseball at all. They were instead evocative of universal experience, using baseball both as backdrop and metaphor.(Bull Durham is “Death of Salesman” is “The Shootist” is “Now Playing At Canterbury” is…) They were “baseball movies” only on their surface.
    There’s a reason why there’s not great wine literature. A familiar setting decreases the need for exposition. When something is amiss or a character behaves eccentrically, we know it without having to be told. Exposition is the enemy of narrative. The culture and rhythms of wine are not as familiar to Americans as sports, courtrooms, war, epic journeys, or other common settings. Thus it becomes necessary for the author to both create and explain the significance of the setting. A better — or certainly easier — creative choice is setting a story in a world that brings meaning along with it.
    Perhaps someone smarter than I am can chime-in about whether there is great wine lit in cultures more entwined with wine — France or Italy, for example. There, people might understand the subtleties of a wine narrative without having those subtleties explained. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.

  3. Tom Wark - July 5, 2011

    You may be right about the issue of setting familiarity. But as I see it, many of the issues associated with wine that might need exposition in literature really aren’t that complex.
    Farmers have regularly played key roles in literature. Fermentation isn’t so complex it can’t be explained. The layout of a wine cellar doesn’t need so much explanation to be clear.
    The quest for greatness, however, and the need to sell and the issue of good and bad are also regular topics of concern in literature.
    Now, all that said, I’m not sure any of our First Sentences would get a novelist where they need to go…with the exception of this one, which I like very much:
    “At the time, no one questioned Luther’s decision to order the Riesling instead of the Sauvignon Blanc—he’d always been eccentric.”

  4. Thomas Pellechia - July 5, 2011

    The definition of literature isn’t necessarily that it has to be fiction.

  5. Tom Wark - July 5, 2011

    True. But with non fiction you rarely get first sentences that infer a character’s preference for Syrah over dead bodies.

  6. NapaWineGuy - July 6, 2011

    Cheers, to
    #3. The 2000 Chateau Latour did its job, Michael thought, as he surveyed her clothes strewn about his living room
    You had me @2000 Chateau Latour ; )

  7. Jim Caudill - July 6, 2011

    “She was finally dead, and there was nothing I could do about it but screw the cap off The Prisoner and wait for the cops to arrive.” I’d read them all, well done.

  8. Thomas Pellechia - July 6, 2011

    Generally, a character’s preference over dead bodies comes at the end of the debauch, which is when most bodies fall, and which would make it Sauternes or better still, Malmsey…
    How about: The evening was ended, as were the gourmands that Paul had invited to the fatal dinner, and he was alone with the old and rare Cossart and Blandy’s selections that his guests so willingly brought to the killing field, but it was only for a time, as he knew that no one could get away with what he had done–or could he be the one?

  9. Tom Wark - July 6, 2011

    Leave it to you to drag Malmsey into it.
    But I do like the verse.

  10. Tom Johnson - July 6, 2011

    Tom (too many Toms in this conversation) —
    I agree, and enter into evidence “Bottle Shock,” which was a movie, but still. It told a stock Hollywood story — misunderstood dream is vindicated, in the process bringing father and son closer together — using the wine business as setting and metaphor. It was, indeed, understandable.
    I think, however, that there remains something off-putting about “wine literature” in the same way that there is something off-putting about wine itself. I’m not sure how to define that, but its all tangled up with people’s belief that wine is too complicated for them to enjoy, and reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s line about modern art, that it is a conspiracy between artists and rich people to make poor people feel stupid. In a diverse and saturated media environment, even small barriers to entry drive people to other options.
    I’d like to know why Thomas hasn’t tried his hand at a wine novel. It seems to me he’s a deft enough writer, and now that I’ve brought it up I think he ought to include me in the book’s acknowledgments.

  11. John - July 6, 2011

    Move over Bulwer-Lytton. Gives new meaning to “purple prose” – oh, those were just too easy 😉

  12. John - July 6, 2011

    “He sat back and idly scratched the ears of the dog at his feet; UPS would be there shortly and the packages he had just so neatly labeled would be on their way, which left him a last moment of indecision; only he know what the bottles he was sending had cost him – wallet, yes, but body and especially soul – and he was thankful that he was the only one alive who knew what was really in them; no, no more time for second thoughts – they would be on their way and after they had reached the critics destined to taste them he was going to be famous – or infamous – and very, very wealthy.”

  13. Scott - July 6, 2011

    While David’s wife swiped her fingers up and down her smartphone – determining which Cabernet on the list had the highest Parker, David tried to stop himself stealing glances at Veronica’s eyes; it was a futile effort.

  14. Tom Wark - July 6, 2011

    Not bad Scott. I’ll read at least the first chapter.

  15. Tom Wark - July 6, 2011

    I might read further, if only to see if the winemaker becomes wealthy. But I’m hoping the sentences are shorter.

  16. Thomas Pellechia - July 6, 2011

    Tom obviously doesn’t understand the avant garde…Wark, that is. Everyone knows that the other Tom understands only a few things, but since he gave me such a fine compliment, I won’t name the lacks. The acknowledgment is all yours, Tom–I don’t claim to be above succumbing to influence the way that other writers do.

  17. John - July 6, 2011

    I took a page from Ron W’s book and deliberately channeled Saramago. TW – who says the guy is a winemaker? Or first and foremost a winemaker?

  18. harvey posert - July 6, 2011

    tom —
    i really enjoyed this one. look what has been done with food writing in both cookbook and novelistic
    styles. where are the writers continuing in gerald asher’s footsteps? and where are the editors (for all but a few)?.

  19. Tom Wark - July 6, 2011

    Glad you enjoyed.
    It just may be that Gerald was a one off, not be duplicated for some time. However, I’d put Matt Kramer in that same league.
    Big Question: Where are the fine novelists that place focus on fine wine?

  20. Morton - July 6, 2011

    “The sun poured bright parallelograms of mote-swirling light through the venetian blinds of my rundown, rent-controlled house in Santa Monica.” (Sideways: A Novel by Rex Pickett)
    Not great literature, but widely read.

  21. Marcia M - July 6, 2011

    Oh, dear… Someone said “Veronica” and now I’m waiting for the HoseMaster to pen an opening line! “It was a dark and stormy night when Veronica accidentally grabbed the bottle of Chateau d’Yquem from the cellar, intending to grab the inexpensive Costieres de Nimes blanc made by her old friend. Now it was soaked into the carpet and bits of glass were strewn everywhere around the body. What a waste!” (Well, I can’t possibly do it like Ron.)

  22. Lukas - July 7, 2011

    I though “a good year” by Peter Mayle was at least decent. Maybe not great but ok and entertaining. If you are looking for a non fiction, non encyclopedia style book “reading between the wines” by Therry Theise is a good read

  23. JohnLopresti - July 8, 2011

    It seemed like a different world, and there we were, Alice pressing the half bottle of moscato d’Asti into my armfold at the apartment door. But the dream had changed. I was more her age this time, and it was a welcome gift. In fact, she had seemed like a vision from her own story in the New York Times, lovely, a sagacious wine writer, spinning a mystical tale about a peculiarity of upper west side apartment fixtures into an ethnic meeting of kindred spirits.
    Time compressed and we entered the flat. I knew this time the story had an interesting ending; and all the characters in her first draft article began to recede as we walked into the capacious front room*.
    FYI, the link is to a fictionalized story by a wine writer of international acclaim. Somehow it has morphed in my telling.

Leave a Reply