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A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2006
Christened "the best wine writer in America" by Salon, Jay McInerney is truly the master of the grape, sans pomposity. In the years since his previous collection, BACCHUS AND ME, he has traveled to more countries for his trade, sniffed more woody aromas and uncorked more bottles than most sommeliers in the world. His monthly House & Garden column is read by thousands of oenophiles worldwide. He is also the award-winning author of seven novels, including most recently the critically acclaimed THE GOOD LIFE. In his latest concoction, A HEDONIST IN THE CELLAR, McInerney combines his extensive and perpetually growing knowledge of wine with a penchant for telling a good cocktail hour story to create a collection that is thoroughly pleasurable to read and digest.

As all essay anthologies should, HEDONIST begins with an informative introduction, written in McInerney's comfortable, laid-back style --- much like an evening's first glass of wine. He writes of his formative years at his job as a wine clerk at a rinky-dink "boozeteria" in Syracuse, New York, called the Westcott Cordial Shop. It was there that he heard about the acceptance of his first novel by Random House, while studying under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Graduate Writing Program at Syracuse University. It was also there that he laid the groundwork for what later would be a career as a wine connoisseur, by reading the shop's books on wine and occasionally lifting a bottle or two to taste.

Ten years or so later, he was offered the wine column gig, despite his minimal training. "I'd never taken a class, or attended a wine tasting, or spit into a bucket..." Yet he managed to pull it off, purely for the love of learning about it and the enjoyment factor. "It's an inexhaustible subject, a nexus of subjects ... Ideally, the appreciation of wine is balanced between consumption on the one hand and contemplation and analysis on the other." These humble beginnings, combined with a desire to share his burgeoning knowledge with others, make these essays quite refreshing to read --- without the haughty hangover.

From Chile to New Zealand, German Riesling to Absinthe, McInerney --- a "pilgrim of the palate [and] devout hedonist in search of the next ecstatic revelation" --- has developed a rich appreciation of and refined palate for all varieties of wine. His essays reflect a passion that is both respectable and contagious. Even amateur wine tasters will be entertained by his natural ability to draw them in with stories of celebrity beverage preferences, intrepid oenophile adventures for the "perfect" bottle, and sommelier snafus. Conversely, snooty sippers might easily tire of his overly casual tone, but these wine buffs will likely be too busy writing their own tasting tomes rather than reading about others' observations.

Best kept on the shelf as a flip-through reference rather than a straight-through read, HEDONIST is also ideal for chuckle-worthy truisms such as: "Let's be honest: there's only one activity more satisfying than drinking good wine with good food; and if you're drinking good wine in the right company, the one pleasure, more often than not, will lead to the other."

--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2006
It should first be noted that Jay McInerney was a writer long before he became a writer about wine. That's an important distinction, because it's easy to forget, when reading McInerney's witticisms and anecdotes, that he's also got a pretty good street cred as a wine authority.

"A Hedonist in the Cellar" is probably one of the more aptly named books ever to be published, because it's about a guy who truly loves what he gets paid to do. Unlike other books written about the perimeters of luxe lifestyles, McInerney's offering doesn't come across as a smug piece in which the author revels in highlighting what normal people will never get to enjoy.

In "Hedonist," McInerney gets beyond the froufrou language that causes most of the civilized world to arch a brow at wine lovers (and collectors and writers) and dismiss them as pompous snobs.

This latest book, a compilation of funny, frightfully easy-to-read essays about wine around the world, makes readers feel as though they've dropped in for a chat or were allowed to eavesdrop just outside the dining room door as a fabulous buffet of stories unfolds. McInerney -- and this is where the ordinary part ends -- takes readers to the hearts of the finest wine cellars and vineyards in the world. It's not an academic exercise, but rather like hitching a ride in the back of an old Mini (before they became fashionable) and rattling around for a year or so. In the case of the essays of the book, there are five years of writing.

He shares how the wine world works, what to look for in certain wines and, most important, how to find a wine you like and, by God, be confident in that choice.

People new to drinking wine might not be interested in "Hedonist" as a beginner's introduction to one of the world's oldest beverages. Some of the labels are fairly obscure, and a person trying to decide if they're a "red" or a "white" might not be so enamored of the intricacies of a particular Chilean vintage. They'd be better served by a book that's a little less chatty and a little more straightforward.
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25 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2007
"Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all."-Samuel Johnson

I want to get one thing straight before I begin: I wouldn't know Jay McInerny from Hugh McElhenny, so I don't want anyone to think that this review is colored by my previous experience with McInerny as a novelist or anything else. I understand this book is a compilation of short articles he wrote for the magazine House & Garden over a five-year span in the early part of this decade, although there are no dates on individual entries. That's too bad, because in 2007 there's virtually nothing new in the entire book, and if it turned out he wrote them all, let's say, in the period between 2000-2001, at least we'd know he was blazing some new ground at the time and it just took the rest of us a while to catch up. Instead I would describe the net effect as a romp through very well trodden territory with a half-baked, way-too-clever-for-his-own-good guide.

In the introduction, McInerny informs us that he came by his gig at House and Garden by accident, when a friend and editor suggested he combine his growing passion for the grape with his writing. Hence the Johnson quote above- should we be impressed that a novelist knows anything about wine, or perhaps go with the flow and quote Maximus from Gladiator, dripping blood in the center of the arena and shouting, "are you not entertained?"

My standard-bearer in this genre is Gerald Asher, who for 30 years has written brilliantly incisive articles about wine in Gourmet (The Pleasures of Wine). I know Gerald Asher, at least his wine writing, and Jay McInerny, Sir, is no Gerald Asher.

I'm going to begin my serious critique with the most nitpicky of comments. I hate typos and errata in books about wine. Maybe no one can tell when typos occur in a novel. But they are well nigh inexcusable in any work where people are theoretically relying on the author for accuracy and a minimal level of expertise. I refuse to accept the claim that a wine writer of any caliber understands his subject if he can't spell a place name right or spend the time to proofread, even if he once identified a bottle of '82 Haut Brion blind. Here are just two examples (curiously, both blunders I noticed relate to Italy, which, like Rome, seems to be where many unskilled wine gladiators go to die.) (1) Gamberro or Gambero? The famous Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso is spelled both ways within two pages. (2) Somewhere he refers to the town of Spoleto but it's written Spoleta, which is doubly unfortunate because it actually has nothing to do with wine-it's an Umbrian town famous for its annual classical music festival, also mirrored in Charleston, SC. My point is, what else in here is a trap for people who think he's trustworthy? Were these names misspelled in the magazine and someone just hit the copy and paste key? On a related note, why is a chapter entitled "The Maserati of Champagne" not placed in a section of the book called "Bubbles and Spirits?" The whole effort comes across as casual, superficial and sloppy, like maybe he was still drunk while he was writing and never went back for a fact check-hell, it's not a novel, after all.

But the two main reasons I found myself increasingly wincing as he pranced along were more significant. First, I suppose it goes with the territory, but I have to say I found his frequent use of metaphors, especially literary ones, both pretentious and unreliable. There are multiple references to wines as sports cars, including Maserati (see above), Ferrari and Mercedes-never linked to the country of the wine's origin- but unfortunately no steady, dependable Civics that can give you a lot of mileage for everyday consumption. Different first-growth Bordeaux are stylistically Turgenevs, Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys-at least he can spell them right-though I have no idea what he's talking about. A poor South African winemaker is described as "the gruff Charles Barkley-sized black sheep of the family," which is such an unintentionally inappropriate and hilarious analogy I had to include it even if it doesn't refer to a wine. I can't wait for his book on basketball.

Which brings me to the final complaint. Perhaps the book's most annoying feature is the seemingly random perspective the individual essays take relative to the reader's presumed knowledge of wine. I'm sure many will have already decided I'm an unrepentant geek of some kind because I don't appreciate the wit and accessibility on display here, or that I'm focusing on the bad instead of the good, but I would think that McInerny owes it to his readers to talk to them at a consistent level instead of a voice that's literally and figuratively all over the map. From one paragraph or essay to another he either speaks to the audience in an instructive and engaging tone like he was the grand prize in a "win an evening with Jay McInerny" winetasting sweepstakes for H&G subscribers, or he prattles on with the most abstruse, incomprehensible name-dropping drivel about wines that only a billionaire can afford.

Just to show this is a balanced review, I will credit the author for trying to sprinkle most essays with a few recommended examples of whatever he's talking about. When exploring the wide world of wine, we all need someone we can Lichine on, and if you want to, you can Lichine on he. Although I hate to see it in print, I must also give him credit for outing the fabulous though increasingly expensive wines of Montefalco's Paolo Bea.

I'm about done here. My recommendation would be for you to try to read a few of the short chapters before you buy this book to see if it hits the mark for you. But if I were writing in the clever McInerny style, I'd be compelled to return to my opening and say something like, while Hugh McElhinney made it into the football Hall of Fame, this book is going into my wine writing hall of shame
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2007
Wine columnist Jay McInerney has been billed the 'best wine writer in America' and his previous collection BACCHUS AND ME earned him much praise: so it's right to expect much from his sequel A HEDONIST IN THE CELLAR - and his memoir doesn't disappoint. Here are over five years' worth of essays and explorations in the wine world - and we do mean 'world' - following passions, people, and wines around the globe. It's a fine, literary choice any general-interest public library strong in food and wine lending will want.

Diane C. Donovan

California Bookwatch
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on June 13, 2014
The book is broken down into eight chapters, devoted to his favorite wines, winemakers, sommelier stories, pairings, ending with what we should end with after a night of wine tasting: “Bubbles and Spirits”.

But, instead of writing the same old drivel about Napa Valley being the crown achievement of California winemaking – duh – he takes us to places not as familiar.

For example, in the last chapter McInerney doesn’t spend much more on Champagne than he does on Armagnac, Chartreuse and Absinthe.

Other examples are his columns on Tocai Friulano, Soave, Amarone, Bandol, Sagrantino di Montefalco, Cheval-Blanc and Kosher wines. As a true wine 101er, not all of these are familiar to me, or, I expect, most of my readers. It’s easy reading and the learning… just makes you want to taste something new.

I dog-eared several pages (Yes, that term actually means something. I turned the tip of a page down as I didn’t have enough book markers and I owned the book) that I liked in particular. Here are some drops of McInerney wisdom:

Writer Auberon Waugh segued from his own work and also wrote a wine column for Tatler. His columns are collected in a book called Waugh on Wine and is known, as McInerney put it, to produce “the liveliest and most pungent wine writing of the century.” He got into trouble using the word “anal” and commonly said wines were “filthy” or “disgusting”.

Another pal McInerney quotes is Kermit Lynch, a wine store owner in California that doesn’t carry California wines. Lynch, per McInerney, said “Why is it that most men don’t like fat women but they think they like fat wines?”

His column on monks making Chartreuse was a real history lesson for this vinophile. If you don’t know where Chartreuse came from, or even what it is, read McInerney’s take on it.

McInerney’s column, “The Mountain Men” The Smith Brothers of Smith-Madrone, takes him on a journey after he discovers a surprise 97 Riesling, made by the brothers, inspired him learn just how an American Riesling from Napa valley “could taste this complex.”

McInerney thinks out of the box, I only wish I could climb in there with him.
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on November 14, 2007
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Reviewed by Joyce Sparrow

Onophiles and grocery store wine shoppers will do well breaking out an atlas to follow the world-wide wine adventures of fiction writer and House and Garden wine columnist Jay McInerney as he travels from California to France and many European stops to learn more about the enjoyment of wine. Readers will want a note pad and pencil at their sides to jot down McInerney's many wine suggestions.

These 52 essays show the knowledge McInerney has gained since his early years in Syracuse, New York where, as a graduate student in writing, he spent many hours as a clerk at the local cordial shop, which he refers to as a boozeteria, two miles from Syracuse University. In between frequent customers and a few armed robberies, McInerney spent many of his shifts reading the shop owner's viticulture books. Later in his career as a novelist, he was given a chance to write the House and Garden wine column, which led to his opportunity to learn the details behind how some of the best wines and wineries came to be. His column continues today.

Foremost, McInerney is a storyteller who entertains readers with tales about his wine discoveries. Many of the essays take the confusion out of wine pairing. "Odd Couples" explains how Champagne goes well with most Japanese food. In "What to Drink with Chocolate" McInerney finds the best wine to pair with chocolate. "Fish Stories from Le Bernadin" proves eight out of ten sea creatures prefer white wine to red. McInerney captures the culture of the vineyards and relays the history of wines from the Catholic monks to present day viticulturists.

Much to his credit, McInerney downplays his growing expertise to reach the common wine drinker. He offers advice on how to impress the restaurant sommelier and even offers guidance on the correct pronunciation of the word: some-el-yay.

Overall, this collection provides a fun education for the average person who enjoys an occasional glass of really good wine.

Armchair Interviews says: Recommended for the novice and expert wine drinker alike.
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on June 26, 2011
Although not as deeply informative as his other wine work "Bacchus & Me: this also has its own pleasures. Part of the pleasure of McInerney's wine writing is that he is still a fiction writer at heart and spins a fine yarn. He also has incredible access, the kind of access one gets as a friend not as a journalist. It's not an in-depth, scholarly look at the world of wine but hedonist is the right word, this book is filled with pleasure, both for the writer, who as gotten to taste some of the world's great wines, and for the reader who is along for the ride.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2007
Though not as entertaining as" Bacchus and Me: Adventures in the Wine Cellar" , I still enjoyed the book. Lot of short pieces on various wine and alcohol related subjects....and who doesn't love that!? Probably not for you if your not geeky about wine but if you are so inclined a vicarious pleasure.
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on July 10, 2008
This is a fabulous book for wine lovers, from beginners to connoisseurs. The series of vignettes are funny and very informative. We're pretty far along with wine, but we learned a lot of great stuff while being entertained. It's a book you want to give all your wine-loving friends for Christmas.
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on August 29, 2014
McInerney is a bon vivant, and his excursions to the world of wine always have as much to do with people as with drinks. Each story is independent and illuminating for anyone who loves the world of wine.
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