Monday, April 13, 2015

Blind Book Review: Lettie Teague's "Wine in Words"

The worst possible way to experience wine is in words. It’s the equivalent of sucking a new book. Whereas sucking old books is Teague’s back catalog. There’s a possibility this is the point of Lettie Teague’s new book, to experience wine in the worst way. I wouldn’t know. As a wine book reviewer with integrity, I am going to review Teague’s book without having read a single page. This is how it’s done on “The Today Show,” so it’s good enough for me. Actually reading the book while knowing who wrote it guarantees a subjective and useless opinion. Ignorance promises objectivity. Yes, I could pretend that I’d read Wine in Words, but I haven’t, though honestly, I’m pretty sure I have. Many times. Written by many wine writers. It’s a book that sets out to debunk preconceived notions about wine, written in Teague’s usual arch style. Once could say Teague is the Arch Debunker of wine. And the rest of us are Meathead.

Lettie Teague is the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal, which seems odd until you think about it. Forbes has a wine writer, and Better Homes and Gardens has a wine writer—I think the only lifestyle magazine that doesn’t have an actual wine writer is Food and Wine. There’s one thing you can be certain of, wine writers for lifestyle and financial magazines will always spend a lot of time simplifying wine in what they think is an irreverent fashion. It’s this weird tic they have, talking about wine as though it’s the latest fad, like owning a Tesla or a State Senator. Wine not as part of a lifestyle, but wine as lifestyle. They hand their wealthy, and wannabe wealthy, readers little snippets of wine wisdom they can drop provocatively at their next wine-related event, like so many insider trading tips. It’s cool to know about wine, and if you’re wealthy, it’s even cooler to know that the most expensive wines aren’t necessarily the best, that wine is a stupid investment, and that you should just drink what you like. In other words, wine is like charity—only use it to make yourself look better, and the rest of the time wonder why anyone bothers with it.

The subtitle of the book is “Notes for Better Drinking.” Does every damn wine book need a superfluous subtitle these days? They all have them. It’s insulting. These are the same books that talk about what an educated and interesting crowd wine attracts, then they tack on a subtitle that assumes you’re too stupid to figure out what the book is about without it. Wine in Words. Hmm, what could that be about? I know what wine is. It’s that stuff made from grapes that I have to drink to appear sophisticated even though it tastes yucky and bitey. And words are what we use to talk. So I’m guessing Wine in Words is using words to talk about the stuff grapes make. Oh, shit! Wrong! It says right here, “Notes for Better Drinking.” It’s about drinking, and notes. So just like Dad used to leave Mom, “I have to work late tonight. Don’t wait up.” when he was going out drinking with his buddies all night. Now those were Notes for Better Drinking.

Maybe wine blogs should have subtitles. “HoseMaster of Wine™: A Cry for Help” I like the sound of that. “1WineDude: Free Samples and Junkets” Oh, wait, I think he has a subtitle. “Serious Wine Talk for the Not So Serious Wine Drinker” I have one word for him. Seriously? How about “Vinography: A Meaningless Word for Meaningless Wine Drinkers” Maybe “Terroirist: Compiles of Crap” Never mind, back to the book I haven’t read.

I didn’t read the book, but I did read on the publisher’s website that the book is made up of “delectably brief essays,” which says a lot about Teague’s work; that the briefer it is, the more delectable. It’s like pain. A few seconds of teeth on an erogenous zone can be hot, but actual chewing is damned painful. Wine in Words delivers the least amount of pain it’s possible for Teague to deliver. She only barely bites the tip. Brief and clever little essays one is supposed to take in “small, contemplative sips,” much as Socrates enjoyed his hemlock Slurpee. And, the press release goes on, “Lettie Teague breaks down the stumbling blocks that often intimidate us and clears up the myths that cloud our understanding.” Well, certainly “Notes on Better Drinking” should cover stumbling, but are there any wine myths left that haven’t been cleared up more often than Kerry Washington’s skin tone on fashion magazines? Who actually believes these myths? The morons who read The Wall Street Journal? Frankly, I’d run out and buy a book that created a bunch of new wine myths. Oh, wait, I knew I should have bought Isabelle Legeron MW’s Natural Wine.

That said, I do enjoy Teague’s writing style, and I am eagerly anticipating not reading Wine in Words a second time—and a third! Hell, it may become my all-time wine book I’ve never read the most often! That’s how much I like it. Teague is at her best in these brief essays. Here are some of the essay titles, a little taste of the fun in store for you once you decide to go out, purchase the book, and place it unread on your bookshelf.

“Fifty Lamp Shades of Drinking Games”
“Sommelier is Just a Pretty Word for Assistant Manager”
“I Have Three James Beard Awards—Three More Than James Beard”
“Wine and Futures: We Really Don’t Have Either One”
“Men Are From Cab, Women are Only Worth 78% of the Bottle”
“In Defense of Another Wine Journal”

I know, I know, provocative and irreverent!

There are already blurbs about Teague’s book. One from Peter Hellman (whoever the Hellman that is) reads, “If Nora Ephron had been a wine journalist, her work would read like that of Lettie Teague.” So think of Lettie’s book as “When Hairy Met Sur Lie.” Come on, Hellman, Nora’s dead, she can’t defend herself! And Nelson DeMille, best-selling author at airports, says, “Wine in Words should be on every bookshelf in America.” Just, I might add, for God’s sake, don’t ever remove it.

Tom Koch with Jonathan Winters
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for those of us who love and study comedy. Stan Freberg died just a few days after Tom Koch. Freberg was a widely admired and very famous satirist in his time. His comedy records sold millions of copies, and were inspiration to an entire generation of comedians, from Alan Sherman to Penn Gillette, Firesign Theater to Weird Al, and many in between. I can’t say I was a Stan Freberg fan, I wasn’t particularly, but I do admire his influence and genius. I also admire the fact that when he replaced Jack Benny on CBS radio, Freberg refused to have cigarettes advertised on his show. Which got him fired. It took courage to do that, courage few in show business have ever had, but, truly, comedians have more courage than everyone else in Hollywood combined.

Tom Koch (pronounced “cook”) was not widely known, though he was every bit one of the great comedy writers in the history of radio. Koch wrote a large portion of Bob and Ray’s skits, as well as being a contributor to Mad Magazine. I learned to write jokes from reading Mad Magazine. I also learned to steal jokes reading Mad Magazine, but that’s another story. If you have never heard of Bob and Ray, well, you need to listen to their classic routines. Perhaps the time for their gentle, witty bits has passed, but, to my ear, Koch’s routines, as performed by Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, are timeless. Bob Elliot noted after Koch’s passing that though they had performed hundreds of Koch’s routines, submitted to them by mail every week, he had only met Koch three or four times. He and Ray simply waited every week for the envelope with Koch’s return address on it to arrive, then performed nearly every word he’d written. I cannot tell you how astonishing that is. In tribute to Koch, I quote him in my HoseMaster headline. Koch has it exactly right.

I have this imaginary image in my mind of Tom Koch sitting in front of a typewriter writing material. And it’s much like what I do for HoseMaster of Wine™, though, of course, Koch was a genius, and I’m just a hack. The insecurity, the fear of the blank page or screen, the strange and mysterious impulse to sit alone in a room and try to imagine writing something that will make strangers laugh, the fear that you’ve run out of funny every time you sit down—it’s as lonely a job as I can imagine. And yet how rewarding it must have been for him to hear Bob and Ray, two men with perfect comic timing, deliver his lines and get constant laughter. I watched some old Bob and Ray appearances on Carson after Koch died, and, well, I laughed. A lot. That’s all we tired old satirists want when we die. Laughter. Somewhere in comedy writer heaven, we hope we get to hear it. Comedy writer hell is what we've left behind when we croaked.

A generation of people who inspired me to write comedy is leaving us. Next will be people like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Bob Elliot, Woody Allen, Buck Henry, Bob Schiller, Norman Lear and Neil Simon. When they go, friends, laugh. And laugh a little bit today in honor of Freberg and Koch. They'll hear you. I’d consider it a favor.


Carl LaFong said...

Haven't thought about Bob and Ray in years. They were a class and classic act.
Bob Newhart is another that should make the list. Less known for writing but sublime in his talent.

Pam Strayer said...

"Delectably brief essays" is how Amazon blurb starts to describe it. That should be a tip off right there. "Delectably brief?"

Unknown said...

My first San Diego wine fest, had a chat with MS Joe Spellman and made the mistake of mentioning an article by Lettie Teague, how she faked out a bunch of wine geeks with a nice red from Washington State and sticking a Rothschild label on it.. you think I pissed on his foot, Lettie Teague he sneered, I can't stand that woman, doing stupid stuff like that is just like her..

Thomas said...


Ron Washam, HMW said...

One of the spec scripts I wrote as a young, aspiring comedy writer was for the original "Bob Newhart" show. I always remembered that you had to allow extra time in the pacing for him to stammer 90% of the punchlines.

Books these days seem to be focused on people with Attention Deficit Disorder, folks who start to drift after two paragraphs. And now they sell to those folks as well, which

Wait, what was I saying?

I've met Lettie exactly once, and briefly, but she has sent me many kind notes about HoseMaster, so I find her to be a woman of impeccable intelligence and charm. In my experience, MS's hate everyone with more influence than they have.

I have no idea, Koch was only rarely credited, but Ray Elliot has said that Koch wrote a huge percentage of their routines, so I'd bet he did write the slow talker bit--it certainly sounds like him, anyway.

I recently viewed the classic Wally Balou interview with the guy (Bob) who had the Four Leaf Clover farm. Still funny.

WineKnurd said...

Just so you know Ron, I drink wine seriously.


Unknown said...

You just debunked my favorite wine myth: the myth that wine myths need to be debunked.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Knurd Baby,
Yes, I understand. I drink, wine, seriously. And, I drink wine, seriously. I drink. Wine. Seriously. I drink.

Well, then, we're debunk bedmates. I claim bottom!

Unknown said...

Maybe she subscribes to the People Magazine policy outlined by Jeff Goldblum in The Big Chill.
"Where l work we have only one editorial rule: No writing longer than an average person can read during an average crap."

Ed C said...

So happy to see you are crediting MAD Magazine as the inspiration for your writing style. I know it to be true as I am still the guardian of your teenage/early 20s lifetime collection although I still don't know why you gave it to me. Was the CIA after you? No, not the spy guys, the other CIA.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

How long it takes to crap is not a standardized length of time. It should be. Now a "crapload" is a standardized measurement of work, and craptacular is a measurement of awards shows, but the time it takes to crap can be several chapters of "War and Peace" for some people.

Ed C.
No, it was SPY vs SPY that was after me.

Anonymous said...

I knew I could not dislike Lettie Teague after she quoted Anonymous 1 in a column on wine myths a couple of months back. Apparently, she speaks to Anon 1 about things, and he, as you know, is a full-time debunker. She even mentioned him by his Christian name--no, wait, that won't work. He's Jewish.

Anonymous said...

Opps, my granddaughter has taken control of my laptop. I have made sure to keep her away from Anon 1, and Lettie Teague for that matter, but I cannot keep her away from my laptop.


Amalie Robert Estate said...

Well maybe a topic, or two, for "Tome II"

Winemaking: The continuation of terrior by other means.

Knowing when a recreational beverage transforms into a procreational beverage.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Or Sydney, or whoever you are.

Lettie has quoted me a couple of times, too, though the WSJ doesn't ever include a link to HoseMaster of Wine™. Rupert is scared of me.

I warned Lettie that I was doing a Blind Book Review of her new book. I thought my work was delectably windy.

Amalie Robert Estate,
Hey, welcome! Always looking for new common taters. The old ones seem to have slipped into comas.

Yeah, recreational into procreational. I like that. From dipso to nympho, be a maniac for wine.

Amalie Robert Estate said...

I like to think of myself as more, like a speck not a common, but regardless happy to be a part of the renderings.

Bob Henry said...


I too was a fanboy of Mad Magazine in my misspent youth.

Was introduced to Stan Freberg and Bob and Ray and Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart and Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and Spike Jones and the Marx Brothers (and their writers S. J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman) through the "Dr. Demento Show" -- a four hour live broadcast each Sunday night on KMET-FM radio here in Tinseltown.

(Through an adolescent pen pal relationship, the good "Dr." Barry Hansen befriended me and graciously invited me to hang out during live broadcasts).

While Winters is your hero, mine was/still is Tom Lehrer -- likewise introduced through the Dr. Demento Show.


(By the way, that is not a head shot of Alfred E. Newman. It is a head shot of news broadcaster Ted Koppel.)

Bob Henry said...

"Vanna -- can I buy a vowel?"

Alfred E. NeUman

Charlie Olken said...

Tom Lehrer's problem was that he took himself too seriously. He could have had a great career as a comic in song, but he preferred to be a mathematics professor first at Harvard and then at UC Santa Cruz.

It is now five decades since I first acquired his album, and I can still sing many of those wonderful songs from memory.

If you don't know Lehrer, you will find much happiness when you search him out and at least read the brilliant lyrics he created.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I also love Tom Lehrer. His kind of brilliance, as a composer, and as the lyricist, and as a satirist, is rare. I think the business probably ate him alive. It's not a business for perfectionists, and it's very grueling and demanding. Lehrer wrote a few dozen classic songs, all of which must have taken a long time to write. I don't think he took himself too seriously, satirists don't do that. He had his day, he could see his future in show business, and he walked away. I get it.

I envy anyone who is going to "discover" Tom Lehrer, even 40 years after his heyday. His stuff holds up, for the most part. I still love "Vatican Rag" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," which I was singing just the other day in the car.

Bob Henry said...

Those who have yet to discover Tom Lehrer won't have to wait much long.

A link that even The Hoser will give me a "pass" on.

The earworm that he alluded to: