T.C. (Thomas Coraghessan) Boyle has published 23 books of fiction, including The Tortilla Curtain and the PEN/Faulkner Award winner World’s End. His novel The Road to Wellville became a 1994 film starring Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Broderick, Bridget Fonda and John Cusack. Boyle’s works have been translated into more than two dozen foreign languages, and his short stories have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire and The Atlantic. And he’s a wine lover. The Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California lives in Santa Barbara, where he enjoys the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of the Central Coast. Wine Spectator caught him just as he was heading out on a promotional tour in support of his newest novel, San Miguel, which hit bookstore shelves on Sept. 18.
Wine Spectator: Your most recent two novels are about the Channel Islands off the southern California coast. People are making wine there now, but weren’t there vineyards on those islands historically?
T.C. Boyle: From the 1890s through Prohibition, a Frenchman, Justinian Caire, possessed Santa Cruz Island—which is three times bigger than Manhattan, by the way—and planted vineyards. The winery building still stands, and the main house is still there. From what I’ve read, the wines were fairly widely circulated, and did well in San Francisco. I could see the island through my window right now if a tree weren’t in the way ...
WS: There’s a scene in When the Killing’s Done (2011) in which a character named Dave LaJoy ruins a date by declaring that the most precious wines in a small Italian restaurant are “rotgut” and “vinegar.” Please tell us you haven’t really seen someone act like this.
TCB: True story. I was in the middle of writing this book, trying to portray Dave as a fairly obnoxious character. At around that time, a good friend of mine, who is a divorce lawyer, met another lawyer through a dating service. And they had such a date. I just had to steal her story to help identify what kind of a guy Dave is. We’re sure the wine in question is fine, the point being that enophiles can be a little snobbish or snooty when they try to show their bona fides in this way.
WS: Environmental issues are central to many of your works. Do you consider whether a vineyard has been farmed organically when you purchase a wine?
TCB: No. But that said, a vineyard is a monoculture. And a monoculture is bad for the environment. I am amazed at the proliferation of vineyards here [in Southern California]. Driving up Highway 101, what used to be ranch land is now infinite fields of grapes. So of course I am aware of that. Ranch land is just open country, while a vineyard is something different altogether, and is alien to creatures who once lived in that land. That is something to consider as the wine industry expands.
WS: In “Rapture of the Deep,” your fictionalized account of a culinary mutiny on Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso led by the galley chef, the climax of the story comes when a vat of wine, “cru bourgeois, five hundred gallons at least,” spills all over the deck of the ship.
TCB: This story was performed at the Getty Center last spring. Isaiah Sheffer [founding director of Symphony Space] himself read it, to great effect. There were actual gasps from the audience when he read that line: gasps over all that waste, all that wine. The Calypso really did have a 500-gallon tank of cru bourgeois onboard. When I was a kid, I would watch those Cousteau films and think, “That would be an ideal life, exploring the deep all day and then having lobster dinners with wine.”
WS: We’ve seen so many references to wine in your work over the years, and such evocative descriptions of food matches, especially white wines paired with seafood. You clearly know your own palate.
TCB: Yes, I do that. But I’m far from being an oenophile or an expert. I’m just a happy amateur.
WS: Did you really only drink white wines until two years ago? Why?
TCB: This is true. Almost exclusively I drank Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier. I just didn’t know much about reds and hadn’t had good experiences with them. What is so interesting is that wine is like sushi to the degree that once you’ve had the best, you really have no tolerance for that which is not so good.
WS: But now you’re a fan of the Pinot Noirs of your region.
TCB: In Paris or in San Francisco, I will be sitting with a group of people having dinner, and I’ll wait for a lull in the conversation and say, “Wow, I didn’t really think you people drank wine; I thought that was only a Santa Barbara thing.” [Laughs] I really like Foley wines. And I love Byron and Cambria, both their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I went to the Anderson Valley recently and discovered Navarro Pinot Noir. I have friends in the mountains who love chewy old Zinfandels from Paso Robles. I’m beginning to enjoy those, too.