This year was the hottest Memorial Day weekend anyone could remember, with a welcome 80 degree Sunday (at least in Ocean City, MD, where I spent it) made for casual day drinking. Luckily, I planned ahead with a delicious Albariño, the crisp, saline, minerally Spanish white that’s the symbol of summer to me. A wine like this is made to pair with a beach read—a juicy novel to get lost in as the sun drones along. Inevitably, “beach read” makes me think of Sweetbitter, a book I devoured in a single, sunny, summer day in 2016 not long after it debuted. Laying on my dock, I ravenously tore through the book almost without getting up, so in love with it I didn’t want to move.
Sweetbitter follows Tess, a pretty, blonde, Midwestern 22-year-old who transplants to New York and manages to score a job at one of the city’s best restaurants—a thinly veiled version of Danny Meyer’s famed Union Square Cafe. (One of my all-time favorite spots.) She falls hard into the decadent, hedonistic world of New York fine dining—the wine, the amazing foods, the late nights at the divey bar nearby where she and coworkers do coke in the bathroom and stay out until sunrise. I loved it for the accurate portrayal of that hard partying, high stakes culture, which I know well from half a life of working in service, and for the sensory writing—author Stephanie Danler (who got her MFA from the New School just before I did) has a great talent for invoking taste, smell, touch, sound, & feel, sometimes all at once.
The immediate instinct with a wine for this book would be a French red, perhaps Bordeaux or Burgundy, as the book’s characters conduct wine tastings and nerd out about wines like that. But the image that I loved most in this book is when Tess is fed her first oyster, so sexually, by love interest Jake in a walk-in freezer. It slips down her throat, so briny and sensual, and I’ve always thought of that scene as one that got sex appeal (and sex-and-food triggers) really right. But with oysters, you must have a crisp, refreshing white wine. My preferred is Albariño, and the grape is best from the Rías Baixas, in Galician, Spain, an area known for whites like this. This style from Bodegas Fulcro has the hallmarks of the style—fresh, tart, saline—but also contains a bone-dry pucker and sharp acidity and some herbaceous roundness that give it much more oomph than your typical Albariño; it almost reminded me of a French wine, perhaps Muscadet. It was just what I wanted to spend my hot Memorial Day weekend with, and I did, going through the bottle quickly while praying for a tan to appear.
I didn’t manage to have oysters this weekend but I did pick crabs—my seafood indulgence—and sipped this wine and thought about the pleasures of long weekends, time stretching out before you, lazy with possibility for a whole book in one sitting.
I held off pairing Circe with a wine for a long time; as one of the best books I’ve ever read, what wine could stand up? But when I opened this white Cab Franc (?!) that I'd been saving and said "HOLY SHIT" at the first sip, I knew.
Circe is a retelling of the life of the famous nymph-witch from the Odyssey who turned men, including Odysseus's, into pigs. Reduced through history to a misogynist figure, here Miller, a classical scholar, gives her agency, heart, and a story all her own. She imagines the circumstances that got the young immortal (Circe is a nymph, the daughter of Helios, the sun, and the ocean nymph Perse) exiled onto the tiny paradisal island of Aiaia, giving her powers, strength, vigor, a horrible family, a fantastic sex life, and far more credit than history ever has. Slowly, in isolation, she develops her powers as a sorceress but only uses them for self-defense when she has to, instead becoming a “good witch” figure that modern culture embraces wholeheartedly. With the ever-fascinating politics & affairs of Greek gods/goddesses woven in, there's a reason it‘s still on the New York Times best-seller list a year after its debut. I fell so deeply for this book & Circe; I couldn’t have dreamed up a more empathetic and thrilling heroine.
And what a match in this white Cabernet Franc! Made by badass vitner Leah Jørgensen, a Loire-style expert in the Willamette Valley since 2011, this wine is like nothing I've ever tasted. It’s actually the first commercially produced still white wine from Cabernet Franc grapes, the jucie of which is immediately bled off the skins to eliminate tannin and color. Bursting with sharp, tangy green peppercorn, it mimics the bite of red Cab Franc but with this tactile, herby quality I couldn't quite place at first; it almost overwhelms in flavor (but in a terrific way). When it opened up, it called to mind the feasts that Circe sets for her visiting sailors: An aroma of cured meats, rich & tangy, a taste of salted cheeses or anchovies & Meyer Lemon all covered in fresh-from-the-witch's-garden herbs. I imagined Circe brewed this up with her powers of herbology, something lighter than the god's typical mead, perfect for a verdant mountainous island surrounded by the sea. With high acid, medium-light body, & structure despite the flavor burst, it's one of the best wines I've ever tasted. And it doesn't hurt that the label features a goddess of a woman, holding wine & grapes, surrounded by flora.
I had been saving this wine since the fall, interested in tasting it but truly unable to imagine what it would taste like (and therefore unsure of when to open it). But it turns out I waited until just the perfect moment. This was great for late spring; after winter’s comfortable reds & reads, I want some sharp women & sharp wine in my life again. These two do it. #booksnbottles#thebuzzedword
Book: Circe by Madeline Miller
Bottle: Leah Jørgensen Cellars Blanc de Cab Franc
Region: Willamette Valley, OR
Grape: Cabernet Franc
Imported by Vos Selections and Five Grapes
Found at Crystal City Wineshop (D.C.) and The Corkery (NYC)
Imagine you’re a 21-year-old college student having an affair with a married man. Actually, your best friend is kind of having one with his wife too. But no one knows about you and him. And you’re all at a rich woman’s house in France with all these other adults playing at this art-person lifestyle, and it’s really not your scene, but you’re kind of into it. It’s decadent and weird and almost too much. So you drink a lot of the rich woman’s white wine, whole bottles, sitting around her table staring at these people, wondering what your life even is.
Ok so that’s a big part of Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney’s amazing debut novel about two girl friends who get embroiled with a rich older couple. (Rooney is my age, and her novels are perfect portraits of millennial youth—more to come on her.) I’ve always wanted to be invited to someone’s villa to drink wine and have affairs (don’t we all?) so I lived vicariously through this book while drinking this stony white wine (the beverage of choice for Frances, the narrator), which I picked out by going to my wine store and asking for “something a rich white woman would have, but more interesting.”
The obvious choice was Sancerre but it can be overpriced. This version—which is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, as all Sancerres are—is made almost entirely with grapes that don’t leave the region; that is, they’re grown and drank primarily by the French locals of the Saint Bris region, which was exiled from Chablis in the late 1800s phylloxera plague. But that worked out because now they can plant whatever they want, using the chalk, stony soils for things like this fantastic Sauv Blanc (instead of only Chablis Chardonnay). This is a lovely, bright, citrusy Sauv, elegant but unfussy, unpretentious, and very drinkable. Which is definitely what a 21-yr-old in the throes of a passionate affair wants to drown her sorrows, and also what I want when I’m on my couch but imagining a dream life on the coast of France.
Imagine a seaside makeout: Salty kisses and sharp little lip bites, hands in tangled hair, sitting on black rocks as the salt air sprays around you, feeling buttery and flush in someone's arms. That's what this wine tastes like, and it's also half the plot of The Pisces, Melissa Broder's funny, whip-smart, very modern novel. .
The Pisces follows a Sappho scholar named Lucy, fresh off a breakup that caused a mental breakdown, as she moves to her sister's beachside Venice, CA home to dog-sit and get her shit together... where she meets and falls in love with a merman. She struggles with her feelings for him, the insanity of the situation, and her own addictions, self-destruction, selfishness, and misplaced love. While at face-value it's a romance, it’s really about self-love. Lucy Tinders to find random men to make out with, hoping it will make her feel better. (It doesn't.) When she's disappointed, she curls up with the dog, swathed in soft white blankets and self-pity. She’s forced into a group therapy for women with love/ relationship issues, befriends one, and regrets it when the woman ends up hospitalized for suicide, seeing in her the worst of Lucy’s own demons. The love affair with the merman is passionate, the sex raw (it is often on a jetty) and actually very well-written (sex writing is so hard y'all). But its dangerous, and you keep page-turning knowing something bad is going to happen.
For a wine, I wanted something saline, mineral AND funky, a hard combo. When I saw this baby, I knew. A razor-sharp Chenin Blanc from a 💯 natural producer in the Loire, the Minéral+ earns its name. Dry and stony from the limestone it’s grown in, with lovely notes of whole lemon rounding out the body, it’s exactly what I pictured for that “making out with a merman on rocks” thing. I’m not normally a big Chenin drinker, but the almost tart dryness here suckered me in. It also makes me think of a wine Lucy might have drank in that gorgeous Venice house as the sun was setting, warm light playing over the sparkling ocean out the windows. They’re perfect examples of modern, unconventional prose and winemaking, and I guarantee you’ll have a passionate love affair with both.
I thought considerably about this pairing, and it might be one of my favorites.
"Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree with poetry is," writes Ben Lerner in this slim little volume that explores why, for millennia, people, even poets themselves like Lerner have been actively hating poetry even as its held as one of our highest art forms—"an art hated from without and within." He traces the form's misunderstandings from Caedmon, the first ancient poet, to today, where it's poorly taught in schools, almost ensuring an early dislike. As I recently got into poetry after also being one of those people who "didn't get it," in part because I hated the way it was taught in my high school English classes, I really loved the wry, articulate arguments in this book. Lerner explores everything from to Dante and his infernal inferno; to unpacking the seepage of contemporary poetry into things like an inauguration; to Plato’s fear of “excessive emotions” poetry might inspire. The book is only 86 pages and could be read in one sitting—indeed, it’s written as a single stream, no chapters or breaks, intent on being read that way—and functions almost like a long lecture, but one that you actually want to hear and learn from. My particular favorite is around pages 11-14, when he discusses the tendency of non-poets to simultaneously revere the art of poetry and hold it suspect, and to marvel that anyone is a poet while feeling guilty that they don’t participate in poetry;
“There is one underlying reason why poetry is so often met with contempt rather than mere indifference and why it is periodically denounced as oppose to simply dismissed: Most of us carry at least a weak sense of a correlation between poetry and human possibility that cannot be realized by poems. The poet, by his very claim to be a make of poems, is therefor both an embarrassment and an accusation.”
Reading this book, I thought, what is a misunderstood wine? One people think they hate. The answer was easy: Pinot Grigio. Maligned as the wine of suburban housewives who drink it by the box, in oversized glasses, cheap and sweet and mass-produced, the stigma against the actually delightful Italian white wine is real—for years, I'd agree to drink almost anything but Pinot Grigio. But the Pinot grape, one of the Noble Grapes, deserves better. I set about trying to find a Pinot Grigio that would "convince people who think they hate it that it's actually good," as I articulated to many wine sellers. Though all loved the question, I stumped quite a few of them—"we just don't really sell a lot of Italian Pinot Grigio" was their somewhat embarrassed response. But then, I found this bottle at Discovery Wines in the East Village. Imported by one of my faves, Rosenthal Wine Merchants, Bruno Verdi's PG is a wine that truly surprised me. When I poured it, a beautiful scent of ripe peaches rose from the glass, but upon taste, it was full and tangy, with green apple, lime, and even honey. This was not my mother's Pinot Grigio. It's like everything you think of when you think of the worlds "Italian white wine"—round and positively luscious, like late afternoon sun on a Tuscany hillside. I could drink this all day. And after tasting it, you'll never say "I hate Pinot Grigio" again.
Have you ever picked up something (anything) and known that it was kinda supposed to be good but not really knowing what you were in for? That's what happened with both this book and this bottle. By the end of both I was completely floored, and so excited to have a new author and a new style of wine to start nerding out over.
I picked up this Jurançon Sec without knowing much about the style; my wine shop guy recommended it as in a style of things I'd like, and an exceptional bottle at that. The "Sec" was what nabbed me—anything with "dry" in the name is usually a good bet.
It lived up to that label, and then some. The "Chantes de Vignes" is a crisp, wonderful table wine with a nose like a fragrant bunch of mixed herbs fresh from the farmers market. But in an even bigger surprise, it's deliciously not grassy, but rather green fruited—notably lychee and green apple for some sweet + tart action. A little, dare I say it, tropical? It's was sharply acidic, too, and high in alcohol: 13-14%. Very surprising, and very delicious.
Afterwards, I wanted to learn more. (Gonna get a little nerdy here, so skip on down to the book if you're not into learning about obscure grapes.) I came to find out that Domaine Cauhape, the maker of this wine, is a megastar in the southwestern France region of Jurançon, and currently the only producer of a little-grown grape called Camaralet that makes up 40% of this bottle. Peppery, usually high in alcohol, this was where the bite on the end came from. The majority of the wine is Gros Manseng, another not-widely-known southwestern France grape that was traditionally used for sweet wines but is lately used for dry whites; hence all that fruit. IF you can't tell, I'm now very intrigued by both of these, and by Jurançon as a region, and am eagerly awaiting drinking more.
I knew a little more was I was in for with Solnit's book, A Field Guide To Getting Lost, if only because I've been reading Solnit for years. A prolific writer, historian, and activist, and author of the well-known essay and book, Men Explain Things To Me, she's what people mean when they say "a writer for of time." She's incredibly intelligent and well-versed in seemingly every subject, what people used to call "worldly", and her unique voice is even-keeled, though her depth of discussion betrays her enthusiasm about her subjects. I heard about Field Guide at random, but when I looked it up the premise—an exploration of issues of uncertainty, trust, loss, memory, desire, and place—seemed right in line for me, having been ruminating on life's uncertainties as I approach my birthday.
She, of course, delivered, and the resulting essays made me think about not only the many meanings of "lost", but also (in kind of an existential way) about the staggering largeness of the world and how much goes on in it that we don't really understand. It's a lot, but Solnit makes it really approachable. (Promise—I hate philosophy and would never recommend that to you.)
A quote attributed to the philosopher Meno provides an introduction to the book: "How do you go about finding the thing the nature of which is unknown to you?” This is the book's central question, which she explores in a series of autobiographical essays that show what losing your way or yourself ultimately means for finding your way and yourself. She writes: “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” There’s a lot going on in this small book, and it’s phenomenal food for thought.
Together, this book and this bottle have given me A LOT to contemplate. And I know I'll be referencing both again, over and over, for a long time.
I am a very indecisive person. It's the Virgo in me—I will go back and forth 1000 times about something I've already debated for hours in my head. But there are two things I can decide instantly on, and that is books and wine. (The only real struggle comes with trying to reign myself in from buying too much of both.)
I instantly knew I'd love Michelle Dean's new book, Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion. I mean, look at that title! What wouldn't I love about it? A compilation of histories of eleven whip-smart women, most writers, all large personalities, who came to fame (if not fortune or favor) by speaking their minds—something women were not really allowed or supposed to do until 50 or so years ago. (And that some trolls in dark corners of the Internet will argue women still aren't supposed to do.)
In 30-page or so chapters, Dean tells of the lives and work of Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, Janet Malcolm, and Zora Neale Hurston. "I gathered the women in this book under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp,” Dean writes in the introduction, and goes on to demonstrate how their wit, fervor, and passions made them titans of the written word. Not too in-depth but fairly comprehensive, and very illuminating and interesting, each chapter brought me a little closer to understanding the deep legacy of women writers in this country, which is often overlooked—too often, men are the ones labeled 'great' and 'genius' and given a place in history. Dean does a great job of picking out gems to garnish the biographies; there are stories of affairs—Rebecca West's turbulent trysts with Orson Welles—and of influence—West and Hurston, Arendt and McCarthy. It's a thick book, but it's not a heavy read. I've been enjoying going slow, chapter by chapter here and there, working my way through this canon of women I'm a little ashamed to say I didn't know a ton about collectively until now.
Pairing with a book named "Sharp" means you need something, well, appropriately pointed. When browsing a wine store near my apartment that I hadn't visited lately, the shop manager, knowing my affinity for dry, acidic whites, directed me towards the Karas White Blend. "Very dry, very crisp," he said. On a warm spring day, that was maybe all I needed to hear. That it was from Armenia was a double bonus; I've been researching Armenian wines of late, after learning that the Caucaus mountain region of modern-day Armenia is believed to be the historic home of all wine making. (Notice that name—it's where Caucasian comes from, though the regions people probably were not white.) I was instantly sold.
Thankfully, my impulse was right. I did like this wine. And it is sharp, but not too sharp, thanks to Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc grapes that give it a burst of "green" flavors: Lime, green apple, green almond, pear. A tart citrus bomb but with a sweet nose, like sniffing a puckering hard candy before popping it in your mouth. This wine has OPINIONS. It's not going to let you just sit down and mellow out. It's no throwback, throwaway white. It will make its presence known—hello, you are drinking a descendent of wine history!! I was pleased to find I liked savoring it as much as the book—after being open for a day or so, the tartness mellowed out a bit, making it softer, yet still citrus-y crisp.
A pleasantly acidic bottle for a book of acerbic wit—two things I will always get behind.
Book: Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion by Michelle Dean/
Bottle: Tierras de Armenia Karas White Wine 2016, purchased at The Bottle Shoppe.
Here is the recipe for a perfect weekend day: An interesting but easy-drinking wine, a new favorite author to pore over, and some kind of baked good to snack on while you fall in love with both.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Lorrie Moore is a legend, and I am late to the party. A master of the darkly funny but not really funny story, it is surprising it took me so long to get around to her. But then, there are too many books in the world to ever try to get to all of them so I don’t feel that guilty. Similarly, given my penchant for dry, aromatic, minerally white wines, it’s surprising that it took me this long to discover moschofilero, the Greek grape that meets all of those criteria.
The moschofilero grape is the Greek equivalent of a Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris: Light, dry, medium acidity, and with some lovely floral notes and a bit of spice that give it character. I’d argue, in fact, that it’s better than your average Pinot Grigio because it’s also got some minerality by nature of the rocky Greek soil. That’s all to say: This is a great grape! Not super well known yet, but hot damn, it should be. I’ve found myself turning to it quite a bit lately, and this bottle, from Troupis winery in the Peloponnese mountains, is a total rock star. Salty, minerally, plus some deep pear and citrus for a little brightness—like the ocean crashing over the rocks below a verdant cliff where beautiful fragrant gardenias and wildflowers are growing, the sun glinting off the waves and the air thick with perfume. That's how I like to imagine the Peloponnese, anyway, since I've never been. This bottle isn't quite as kick-backable as those other light whites I compared it to, either; you’ll be able to sit with this, though it’s so good I don’t know how slowly you’re gonna drink it. Also: It's not expensive! Retails for around $15. That is a DEAL.
Maybe you’re thinking: Salty, Greek, why pair this with an American writer’s book from the mid-80s? Shouldn’t that go with Chardonnay? The answer is no, because Lorrie Moore is not smooth and round. Lorrie Moore’s command of language is light, bright, quick, and clever. It’s not at all what you’d expect; there are turns of phrase everywhere that make it a joy to read, and that enliven the sometimes heavy-ish themes of the stories. Divorce, unhappy marriages, failures at everything. Her protagonists are largely women, largely white upper-middle class, and largely suffering from the kind of unfulfilled life ennui that populates ‘80s fiction. It’s not new territory, but the way Moore spins it, it feels like it—she was one of the popularizers of this form, after all. Relatable and mesmerizing, the stories of Self Help will draw you in and keep you there… much like moschofilero will surely do.
A wine and a writer that, once you’ve discovered them, you’ll come back to over and over again, and that will stick with you long after you’ve put them down.
When warm months roll around, all people seem to want is an easy read and rosé. Which you can do! That’s fine. Both those things are great. But if you want to step that combo up a little, impress your friends and what not, may we suggest these two: How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, and this peachy-pink Bakari Pinot Grigio.
Neither of these are as they seem. Chee’s book is not an autobiographical novel at all, or a writer’s how-to (though would-be essayists could learn a lot from his near-perfect structure and voice), but a collection of personal essays that smarts of memoir but skips around, cherry picking parts of his life that lend well to the reflective essay format. Every one has a touch of hardship, of violence, of perseverance in it, and it’s inspiring in its frankness. There are stories of becoming a writer and studying under Annie Dillard; of the choice to enter an MFA and doing so at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop; of what it means to be a writer in America, a particularly deep piece that lingers long after you finish it. There are also stories of childhood trauma: Being a mixed-race kid in a small Maine town, half Scottish and half Japanese, the odd one out; of sexual assault by an uncle as a young boy; of coming up in San Francisco during the AIDs crisis, learning to do drag and being dragged by police. Despite the heavy subject matters, the book reads easily—the deftness of Chee’s prose keeps you swimming along, eager to know more, to soak up some of his earned wisdom.
The wine, too, is deceiving: Pink, yes, but actually a macerated (or skin contact, when white grapes are left to ferment with their skins on for a brief period of time, lending color and body) Pinot Grigio, somewhere between a very light orange wine and a tart dry rosé. It’s eminently drinkable but a lot more interesting than your typical “summer water”, with bright lemon and unripe strawberry lending a zing, and high acidity with a slight sourness to it. It’s light, though, an easy entry into skin contact wines with the familiarity of the Pinot Grigio grape. Bring this to your next picnic and impress everyone around you. But should you forgo company, these two are also you need to bask for a whole afternoon, like a cat in a spot of sun, refilling your glass with each beautiful essay.
"This wine is like a Georgia O'Keefe flower," I said somewhat tipsily to my roommate after drinking many glasses of the Troupis Hoof & Lur skin-contact moschofilero. Meaning: it's tight, round, full, and voluptuous. (The peachy hue helps, too.) A sensual but not self-serious wine, tongue-in-cheek, like "oh, you thought you were getting a regular Greek white? Honey, I'm about to blow your mind." Think honeysuckle flowers and tangerine slices that have been warming in the sun at a picnic and maybe a very light, sunstruck honey mead. But also crisp! And so clean! Light, too, as the moschofilero grape tends to be, even though it's wild fermented and unfiltered and has some body from the skin contact. This wine instantly became one of my absolute favorites, and was a fantastic expression of what real moschofilero can be when left to do its thing. That's the point, actually. The Troupis family made this particular bottle to emulate an ancient style of moschofilero—aka unfiltered and as wild as the Greek mountains it comes from.
Admittedly, I was not reading Valley of the Dolls when I first drank this wine. BUT! In thinking of what could go with it, I spied the classic novel on my shelf and thought, "Of course." While the pretty matching pinks certainly help (hey, I'm not above aesthetics), what could be more appropriate than a novel that's so deliciously transgressive? Filled with drama, sex, drugs, and divas, but also illuminating the struggles of women attempting to live up to the impossible societal standards of beauty, there's a lot going on in this book. Torrid love affairs, mental breakdowns—it's reality TV tropes in a groundbreaking novel. It unfurls and draws you in and will stick with you long after you've finished, an instant and forever favorite—just like the Hoof & Lur. And, lest you think this is drivel, the book is one of the best-selling of all time; it was the highest-selling in the year of its publication, 1966, and broke the record for most copies ever sold (17 million) in 1974. To date, it's sold 31 million copies, and the 1967 movie adaptation made $41 million, which is $307 million today.
A book and a bottle about feeling good and feeling yourself, for sure.