I first fell for Lettie' Teague's new book, Wine in Words: Notes for Better Drinking (Rizzoli Ex Libris. $29.95) because of its looks. Was I that shallow, I wondered.
With its vintage typeface, it's sturdy dust-jacket free, embossed cover in butter-yellow, the feel of the book in hand felt like a legacy. So, I started to fan through this collection of essays, and then sat right down and started to read the 40+ short pieces.
I am fond of my colleague, Lettie, the wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal. It's true that she and I often don't exactly see wine through the same lens. We often have agreed to disagree. This was reinforced several times over in the book, and I have come to understand that is just the way we are built. She is a natural ectomorf. I'm, to my dismay, an endo.
Turns out her book is neither memoir nor wine guide, but a selection of thoughts and whims Teague believes the wine drinker should know.
The book is organized capriciously enough. With no particular arc, it's sectioned off into three parts. +Fun to Know. +Need to Know. +Who Knows. But even if I feel some fun to knows are need to knows and vice versa, the more I jumped into it, the more I appreciated how her prose sat on the juncture of, let's say, A.J. Liebling meets Judith Martin. It's when Lettie effortlessly steps into a Miss Manners role she is most charming and even sage.
Each entry is no longer than a blog post. For today's texting attention span these are measured spoonfuls for those who have not yet worked up to reading the full meal of wine encyclopedias for sport. I imagine that she really could guide reader and a drinker through blunders that no one wading into the wine swamp wants to make, especially the beginner who fears looking like one.
For example, in her discourse on the wine glass, she professes her love for the Zalto (check!) and artfully dismisses the notion that a glass is needed for every country and variety.
We all have tried to fake it at one time or another, like the time I truly had no idea who Pierre Overnoy was and sensed I couldn't admit it. Likewise, Lettie confessed in the Pitfalls of Pretending, about the time she claimed to have tasting knowledge of a wine in a certain vintage. Turns out the wine was not made in that year. She also recounted the tale of a misguided sommelier who when confronted with a customer request for the sold out gewürztraminer, offered a 'similar' wine. The replacement was an ill-advised sauvignon blanc. The grapes bear no similarity to each other except perhaps they are both aromatic, even if they boast different aromas. Moral of the story, there's no humiliation factor in learning. Or as she penned, "Better to be an ignoramus than a fraud."
It's these little stories, told with no artifice, with old-fashioned advice that I find fresh.
There are still the moments when I shake my head, "Oh, Lettie!" Such as her entry on orange wines, Orange is the Old Black. There she address skin contact wine as a fad ( of 8,000 years? That's more a rediscovery than a fad, methinks.) though I did learn from it that a few "oeniphiles" believe orange mean that the wine has been infused with the citrus fruit.
But when reading one of her final pieces, Worst Wine Word, I had another revelation. Lettie, believes the worst wine descriptor to be 'smooth.' As it turns out smooth is a bit of a bête noire for me, and its use annoys me almost irrationally. And as she wrote, "A wine--like a person--requires a bit of friction to be interesting."
It was then I understood that Lettie and I actually do agree more than I had ever given us credit for.