Monday, October 21, 2013

Jay McInerney Splooges "On Wine"

By Jay McInerney

It was Robert Mondavi who first told me about Dick Splooge the last time we dined together at French Laundry in Yountville, the quaint town named for Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Thomas Keller manned the kitchen at his eponymous restaurant himself that night, apparently not trusting his Native American (Sioux) chef to prepare a meal for such an influential and important figure in American wine. Or for Mr. Mondavi either. Mr. Mondavi was accompanied by his wife, the famed Belgian surrealist Magritte. Magritte is a handsome woman, old and wealthy, which I find irresistible, who insisted during dinner that she needed to paint a portrait of me, “If only,” she said, “to illustrate that it is not only your prose that is flat.”

Geographically, the Napa Valley is a mere thirty miles long, and roughly fourteen feet wide. And yet it contains some of the most valuable soil in the wine world. There is the justly famous Rutherford Bench, as well as the lesser-known Oakville Bus Stop. Historically, it was the famous Captain Gustave Niebaum-Coppola (no relation to Sofia, who once asked me to star in a film version of my novel, The Great Gatsby) who discovered the brilliance of wines from the Rutherford Bench, and to this day his legacy is honored when we speak about the greatness of Rutherford Cabernet’s Finnish.

When Robert Mondavi began his eponymous winery in the heart of Oakville, after an ugly family dispute involving his brother and a camel drove him to leave Charles Krug Winery, where he’d crafted some of the planet’s finest Champagnes—the 1965 Krug remains one of the greatest bottles of sparkling wine that has ever gone up my nose—there weren’t any “cult” wineries yet in the Napa Valley. The potential for wringing money out of the valuable soils of the Napa Valley was virtually unexplored. Foolishly, the winemakers in Napa Valley at the time sold Cabernet Sauvignon for a modest profit, while their French counterparts in Bordeaux were wisely soaking the gullible Brits into paying a lot of money for underripe and overhyped Frog juice. Not even Petrus or Ausone, where I recently spent several nights at the request of the French government (the details of which I am legally sworn never to divulge, except to say I shared a bunk bed with Julian Assange, who snores and has abhorrent nocturnal emissions, called Wikileaks), but, shamefully, Second Growths! I don’t believe I’ve ever consumed a Second Growth, at least not wittingly, but I’ve been told that it’s the equivalent of sleeping with an actress with an “Also Starring” billing—one can only imagine sinking to the level of a Nicolas Cage.

Thomas Keller had just personally served us our third course at French Laundry, a light and ineffable bite whimsically called “DNA en croute,” when the subject of cult Napa Valley wines came up. I had mentioned Bill Harlan, whose wise countenance and ruggedly handsome booty seemed a reflection of my own future, and Robert began to reminisce about his founding of the eponymous Opus One, considered one of the first cult Napa Valley wines, though far too common for my taste. The conversation soon bored me, and I turned it back to a more interesting subject—my own experiences with the legendary cult Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley.

Fortuitously, I had just come from a complete vertical tasting of Harlan Estate, which included some of the greatest wines I’ve ever tasted. I confess that I consider Harlan Estate the greatest winery in California, in no small part because the label looks like money. There was a time when wine writers failed to see the paramount connection of money to great wine. Wines were approached critically from the primitive and resolutely ignorant perspective of quality, and their accurate reflection of “terroir” (a vague and mostly discredited French word that loosely translated means, “dirt poor”). It’s only recently, when a new generation of wine writers has emerged, the most important of whom first published unreadable, autobiographical, eponymous novels, that the undeniable link between the greatness of wine and the wealth of the winery owner has come to be accepted. Now it seems to be all that I write about. Wine knowledge and a sense of wine history have become vestigial when it comes to wine writing, qualifications that are long outdated and completely overvalued, as my WSJ editors will attest. You want greatness in wine? Follow me, and follow the money.

Mr. Mondavi had been talking animatedly for several minutes, tolerable only because it was fascinating speculation about my formidable palate, when he paused and asked me if I’d ever met Dick Splooge. Splooge Estate, the winery now synonymous with both Natural and Cult wines, was still just an inkling in Dick’s prostate at the time, and I confessed I had not heard of Mr. Splooge (though, in a strange coincidence, that had been Raymond Carver’s nickname for me).

“Dick Splooge,” Robert Mondavi told me, as we sampled Mr. Keller’s next course, a delicious ham and melon dish eponymously named “Ass Hat,” “is a visionary the likes of which Napa Valley hasn’t seen since Georges de la Tour.”--an obscure reference to the visionary behind the Tour de France. “I think you should meet him.”

I wouldn’t normally take advice from a washed-up Napa Valley icon, not even James Laube, but something that day told me I should. Maybe it was the Mr. Splooge nickname coincidence, or maybe it was Magritte slipping me the tongue as we kissed good night, I’m not sure. Yet there was something I needed to know first, something critical to whether or not I’d even consider meeting Dick Splooge at his under-construction Splooge Estate.

“How did he make his money?”

A simple question, but the only question that matters in the world of Napa Valley, thirty miles long and roughly forty feet wide. The question most asked in every tasting room in the county. The question that most certainly determines the value of the resulting wines. And the question that certainly determines whether or not I’ll visit a winery, whether I’ll write about it, whether, first and foremost, I can be entertained there in the fashion to which I am accustomed.

“Where did Dick Splooge make his money?” Mr. Mondavi replied. “Just where you’d expect a Splooge to make it.



Marcia Macomber said...

It's one rimshot after another today at the old HoseMaster watering hole! My, that Dick Splooge sure gets around. Sounds like that was some meal at the French Laundry...

Bob Henry said...


Jay writes:

“Napa Valley is a mere thirty miles long, and roughly fourteen feet wide”

-- and later --

“Napa Valley, thirty miles long and roughly forty feet wide”

Did the Napa Valley expand in width to accommodate Jay’s expanding sense of self-importance?

~~ Bob

Unknown said...

Unreadable novels.. just remember the law is the exoskeleton which contains the squishy offal of our animal nature and viscid passions..

Dan Fishman said...


(Jay McInerney, that is)

Unknown said...

WSJ: Mr.McInerney, this eponymously named blog seems suspiciously like an article written by you. It certainly doesn't reflect well on the WSJ. What do you have to say about that?

JMac: I didn't do it, but I wish I could do it again!

Thomas said...

You shined bright lights on the small city that is JM's ego.

The Krug and La Tour lines were great.

Unknown said...

This is hilarious.

Especially since I just read a book called "PX Me" by the "former maitre d' to the stars" that exposes Jay McInerney as a pretentious, sycophantic, paid shill for chef Jean-Georges. (And a cheating horndog, to boot.) (Chapter 5)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I've had thoughts of lampooning McInerney on and off for quite a while. I think it's pretty clear that he writes for a very specific WSJ audience, one that wears its affluence like a strap-on, so that part is easy. He's also a name-dropper, and completely unreliable when it comes to wine. I just had to work to capture his tone, which is, in essence, condescending in a storytelling kind of way. The kind of guy who follows your fascinating story that has everyone laughing with a story of his own, that tries very hard to top yours, as a way to get the conversation back around to himself.

Anyhow, in a recent piece in WSJ about "cult wines" he wrote this completely stupid sentence:

"Before Harlan, most of the valley's vines were planted on the relatively flat valley floor."

Everything about that sentence is wrong, and right, at the same time. It's still true that most of the vines are planted on the "valley floor." And it was, in fact, true, before Harlan. It implies, however, that Bill Harlan was some kind of pioneer of mountain vineyards in Napa Valley, an implication that could not be more ignorant. As journalism, it's shit.

So that sentence, in an article filled with McInerney's pretend wine expertise, finally forced me to sit down and write this piece. McInerney phones each piece in--he may be, and I'd wager he is, the worst "professional" wine writer who ever lived.

I'm thinking about Jay Mac pieces on an occasional basis. He's the Ted Baxter of wine writers, and fun to mimic. Any thoughts?

Marcia Macomber said...

As frequently happens, the comments are as entertaining as the piece itself. (Everyone likes to turn the screw just a bit tighter...if possible!)

Jay Mac as the "Ted Baxter of wine writers" couldn't be more accurate. You get the feeling in all his pieces that he turns his wrist over and talks into the back of his wrist phone/mic to write his pieces (at the longest meals ever recorded on the planet).

Charlie Olken said...

Loved the Krug line. It has been long hanging out there yet no one has picked it.

And the punch line, which you did an admirable of setting up (thrice if my memory is right) was just laugh out loud and brilliant.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks. I always intend my pieces to be funny, but much of the time I'm trying to make a larger point. In Jay Mac's case, it's the harm I think he does to wine writing. He has one of the most influential pulpits in the country, reaches even more readers than folks like Jon Bonne, and maybe even Asimov, but he's insufferable, and represents the wine snob image that most folks abhor.

I have one-millionth of his readership, but I thought it was high time I make it clear, in my little HoseMaster voice, that the guy is a fraud, a pretender, and a lousy writer to boot. The jokes in the piece only serve to make my disgust palatable.

Charlie Olken said...

HMW says, "The jokes in the piece only serve to make my disgust palatable."

They also make it even more palpable.

Anonymous said...

I like my disgust palatable. This is one of your very best;I'm stunned to hear that this is not art for art's sake( whoever he is ) and that your intent is Swiftean rather than Wilde.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

It's more peat for peat's sake.

Fabio said...

Wow this post was awesome, .. in that I didn't get a single line of it! But I could tell that it just had to be funny as the text was flowing in one eye and out the other. I had this silly fixed grin on my face and I just knew that if I'd had any coffee to drink, and if I'd understood what the post was about, I'd be spluttering it over the keyboard and screen, which made me grin even more! ha ha! Anyway, after thinking very briefly that I ought to read wider so I'd know who all these obnoxious, despicable and mockable wine characters were, I thought, naw, it's much more fun this way and I'd save so much time by not having to actually read all their stuff ... :) Well, thanks for that, now I really must get back to this really serious book about post-modern winemaking, which I understand just as much as your post :)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Like Natural Wine, I try never to be clear.