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 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.