Decanter book reviews
Lightweight to heavyweight Grape Expectations Caro Feely Summerdale, £8.99
The Grape Escape Steve Hovington Matador, £10
Unquenchable Natalie MacLean Perigee, $24
The Juice Jay McInerney Bloomsbury, £14.99
What to do with a book that takes as its title a pun that is not so much lame as mutilé, as the French call their war-wounded? Reading Caro Feely’s Grape Expectations, I had to constantly beat down any charitable urges. Put it this way: if your well-meaning cousins, the annoying, earnest ones who ditched their highly paid City jobs to buy a vineyard in Saussignac and now bombard you with links to their sub-Peter Mayle witterings about French bureaucracy and garlicky farmers who say things like ‘Quelle vue. What a view’ tried to charge you £8.99 for the privilege, well, you’d run, wouldn’t you?
I did, and into the sweaty arms of Steve Hovington, of ’80s band B-Movie (no, nor me) who in The Grape Escape sets out to make wine, for no real reason. Hovington is a step up from Feely in that his account – he persuades Nicolas Bergasse at Château Viranel in St-Chinian to let him loose on the basket press – is actually funny, interspersing reminiscences of rock ’n’ roll excess with his current middle-aged hopelessness. Not just a load of old schist then, as he says.
Talking of Peter Mayle, patron saint of expats, he’s name-checked by Natalie MacLean in the same sentence as Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as one of her influences. I approached Unquenchable – a Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines with caution, but MacLean is actually excellent company. Brought up in poverty, the last in a ‘long line of alcoholics’, and a former competitive highland dancer, she rollicks around the world’s vineyards flirting with Australia’s Wolf Blass, gaping at the slopes of the Mosel, chuckling with growers in Provence, reminding us every few pages of how much she likes a drink. There are useful gobbets of history, handy advice for the uninitiated and endless plugs for her website. She ends up perched on a stool in a New York hotel knocking back cocktails and quoting Irish poet Brendan Behan.
But – heavyweight namedrops and all – I don’t think anyone will cause Jay McInerney to lose sleep. The Bright Lights, Big City novelist-turned-wine-hack approaches wine with unpatronising informality in his collection of writings, The Juice. He asks good, obvious questions - ‘is it possible to taste minerals in fermented grape juice?’ (apropos Chablis) – and answers them unfussily. He skewers biodynamics by choosing some of its founder Rudolf Steiner’s more out-there pronouncements, and quotes Keats without appearing too affected. He wears his urbanity easily – he describes sliding down a Cornas hillside in Gucci loafers, and casually drops in his friendship with US novelist Bret Easton Ellis. The impression is of an omnivorous intelligence and a keen wit. I can almost him shaking cocktails for MacLean…