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Drinking Out Loud

If You Do Anything in 2018 …

Here are some suggestions
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer recommends a wine book like no other.

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 2, 2018

Never mind resolutions. How about temptations? Allow me to offer a few possibilities.

If you read one wine book in 2018, read this one. Most of us have slogged through all sorts of wine books; I've perpetrated a few myself (eight, to be precise).

Too many wine books—most even—plow ground that has already been well-furrowed. As a wine professional acquaintance said to me recently, "If I receive another 'How to be a great wine expert in 20 minutes' book, I’ll probably have to slit my wrist."

All of which brings me to a new wine book that is like no other in my experience: The Wine Lover's Daughter: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), by Anne Fadiman.

What makes this book so unusual—and remarkable—is that Anne Fadiman herself is no wine lover. Oh, she doesn't dislike wine. Rather, she sensorily just doesn't get it, thanks to being a so-called "supertaster," which involves a heightened, often unpleasant, even painful sensitivity. "It's not that I disliked the taste of wine, exactly. It's that there was too much taste," she says.

Such hypersensitivity is hardly rare, especially among women. One study found that among American Caucasians, 35 percent of women are supertasters, while only 15 percent of men have such extreme taste sensitivities.

Ms. Fadiman discusses her sensory challenges intelligently and at length. But she does so only as a coda in the book, as it's only a corollary to the central theme of the book, which is her life story as an apparently devoted daughter to her once-famous father, the literary critic and popular public intellectual Clifton Fadiman, who also adored wine. Unlike Anne, Clifton Fadiman suffered no such sensory problems. He was a wine lover supreme with just the right sort of sensitivity, both physiologically and intellectually.

Mr. Fadiman's name has long since faded from popular recognition, but in his heyday of the 1940s and '50s, it was ubiquitous and much admired. At 28, he was editor-in-chief of book publisher Simon & Schuster; at 29 he was the book critic of the New Yorker; at 34 he was the emcee of the wildly popular radio quiz show Information Please, which at its peak was listened to by 15 million Americans every Tuesday between 8:30 and 9 p.m. (Each week, some 60,000 listeners would submit questions to stump the panel.)

This is a book drenched in wine, even though the writer herself is, on the subject of tasting and enjoying wine, well, faking it. "As other women fake orgasms, I have faked hundreds of satisfied responses to hundreds of glasses of wine; not a difficult feat, since I could toss around the terms I learned at the Fadiman dinner table (Pétillant! Phylloxera! Nebuchadnezzar!)—and then painstakingly direct the Bordeaux or Burgundy straight down the center of my tongue, a route that limited my palate's exposure to what it perceived as discomfiting intensity."

Throughout the book are references, often both lengthy and learned, to a variety of great and fabled wines, nearly all of them French, that Anne Fadiman was exposed to and pretended to enjoy.

Clifton Fadiman, born in 1904, arrived to wine only after Prohibition ended in 1933. A man of his era, he was enthralled with French wines, which really meant Bordeaux and Burgundy, punctuated with an occasional Champagne. Apart from some German Rieslings and Port—which Mr. Fadiman also enjoyed—these were, after all, the universe of great wines in the time. "Nine-tenths of the wines in the cellar book were French," his daughter reports.

What's more, even the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundies, well into the 1960s, cost a pittance. And Mr. Fadiman was rich. By the early 1940s, we are told, he was making $1,500 a week as the emcee of Information Please. That would be about $22,500 a week today. To put that in perspective, a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild in the 1950s cost—brace yourself—about $5.

Consequently, the roll call of wines mentioned or recounted by this privileged (if sensorily unfortunate) wine lover's daughter comprises nothing but the best. There's an entire chapter devoted to her father's cellar book and the joy it gave him to document the installation of new arrivals therein, their cost and (surprisingly brief, for a word guy) notes on each wine's qualities.

The first entry in her father's cellar book, Anne Fadiman tells us, details the purchase of a case of 12 bottles of the 1929 vintage of Clos des Lambrays, a great red Burgundy, purchased in 1935 for $28 a case, or $2.33 a bottle.

Today, Clos des Lambrays costs about $270 a bottle, or $3,240 a case. And that $28 case in 1935 bucks? It would today be equivalent to about $500. Great wine really was much cheaper then.

I can honestly say that of the hundreds of books about wine that I've read, few if any have rivaled The Wine Lover's Daughter for charm, compassion and, above all, for capturing just what fine wine can mean as a gratification and signal of achievement in a life—in this case, her father's rather than her own.

Fine wine for the father was a deep, considered pleasure; a testament to his sense of success which, we learn, was privately crippled by insecurity and self-doubt. Wine, to him, symbolized a much-idealized Anglo-gentile world, palpable proof of having slipped the self-perceived noose of an impoverished and ghettoized Brooklyn Jewish life in an era when antisemitism was both virulent and unapologetic. (While in graduate school at Columbia University, Mr. Fadiman dreamed of teaching literature there. "The head of the department informed him, 'We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Trilling.' My father never got over that moment.")

If you plan to read one book about wine in 2018, The Wine Lover's Daughter: A Memoir is the one I commend to you. It's all about wine and yet so much more, much of it intimate and moving.

If you drink one wine in 2018, drink this one. And which one is that, you ask? Well, of course it can't possibly be just one wine. But it can be one category of wine: a wine—or a wine region—that's unfamiliar to you. It's as simple—and as challenging—as that.

"By his mid-eighties," Anne Fadiman tells us about her father (who died in 1999 at age 95), "his wine cellar, which had previously been an exclusive French club with an occasional German or Italian admitted on sufferance (but only if he was very well-behaved), had become a multicultural potluck. Greece! Chile! Australia! Corsica! Yugoslavia! Everyone's welcome! Come on in! Take off your coats!"

If Mr. Fadiman, who by then was blind, could expand his narrowly Frenchified (if understandably so) palate, well then, by golly, we too can diversify.

My own efforts in this cause have led me to ever deeper explorations of Spanish wines, both red and white; of wines from the Canary Islands; of Canadian wines from Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia (you won't believe the quality of the sparkling wine from there); of yet more discoveries from Australia and New Zealand; some of the extraordinary wines from an ever more high-achieving South Africa; and, as has been much-chronicled in the space, the wines of Portugal.

Where to next, winewise? Closer to home, I'm looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with Santa Barbara County wines. I once knew that region’s wines reasonably well. But my attention regrettably lapsed, and I intend to redress that, as I believe Santa Barbara County continues to be a bit overlooked, eclipsed by the cynosure likes of Napa and Sonoma to its north.

I welcome hearing about your own resolutions. And I'll keep you posted, of course, about the pursuit of my own.

Bill Lee
Parkland, Florida —  January 3, 2018 5:09pm ET
I have to admit sometimes I am like Anne. There are some wines I don't get. I am relatively new to wine. I have partaken for years but never garnered sufficient hunger to learn more until later in life. I have found my particular attractions to wine are history and terroir. There are wines that you can taste the history, the winemaker and most certainly terrior. I am next to explore Oregon, the Pinot Noirs that I have tasted gives me a sense of what has drawn me to wine, in this case terrior.
Joseph M Davey
Indianapolis, IN —  January 5, 2018 6:03pm ET
Great piece. I myself have set the goal of renewing my acquaintance with Paso Robles wines. Looking forward to more great articles.
Kyle Highful
Austin, Texas —  January 10, 2018 10:26am ET
We may all have to drink less familiar wines soon: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/01/as-climate-changes-so-does-wine.
John R Slater
Canton Ohio —  January 16, 2018 12:53pm ET
Re the Jan 10 comment, thank god we have input from the conservative icon, Harvard, to give us the truth about climate change.

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