Drinking My Words: Are All Writers Wine Writers?

Algonquin_Blue_BarBy Natalie MacLean

Candy-coloured bottles of spirits glow against the mirrors behind the bar of the Algonquin Hotel. I’ve come to this New York City landmark on a brisk April evening to think about my journey over the past few years, and the connection between writing and drinking as a way of understanding a place and its people.

I often read the work of one of the country’s beloved writers while I’m traveling in a region to sharpen my observations, whether it’s The Leopard by Sicily’s Giuseppe di Lampedusa, the short stories of Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges or Peter Mayle’s books about Provence.

What better place to contemplate the link between writers and alcohol than the Algonquin Hotel? Rich aromas of leather, oak and booze fill the air. A man sitting in one corner of the bar seems as remote as a lighthouse, looking down on the after-work tipplers at the tables. The buttery tones of Ella Fitzgerald fill the spaces between their scattered conversations.

Like Camelot, the Algonquin is famous largely for one piece of furniture, a Round Table. This six-foot circle of polished oak is where the city’s leading wits used to gather in the 1920s.

Today, it sits at the back of the wood-panelled lobby, under an oil portrait of the young writers who used to drink and dine around it every day for almost a decade: humourist Robert Benchley, theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, playwrights Edna Ferber and George Kaufman, New Yorker founder Harold Ross—and my all-time favourite writer with the acid pen, Dorothy Parker.

Algonquin_Round_TableAlmost a century later, their boozy lives still speak to us almost as eloquently as their literary legacy. Their writing back then had a prominence impossible in today’s multimedia clutter, though they’d all be brilliantly pithy on Twitter. Still, they remain memorable.

My favourite Parker lines come from her comments at the wake of a fellow writer. A friend by the open coffin remarked, “Doesn’t he look wonderful?”

“Why shouldn’t he?” Parker replied, “He hasn’t had a drink in three days.”

dorothy parker quotePerhaps these writers fascinate me because I’ve always freely admitted to loving the hedonistic joys of wine (okay, the buzz). Alcohol makes me happy, and stops me from being a tightly wound control freak as some people (quite unjustly) characterize me. After a few glasses, I magnanimously forgive those people . . . for now.

James Joyce said that drinking is the revenge of shy people, but I’d say it’s the passport of the socially awkward. Wine is a universal language of pleasure that has helped me to connect with hundreds of people around the world.

It has allowed me to slip into social situations and feel an immediate connection, as we taste the wine and smile. Many of the winemakers I meet are scary smart or famous or forbidding. But exchanging a few wine-geeky references made the initial bond that allowed our conversation to flow with the wine.

Establishing a trust that says “you share my passion: you’re like me,” enables my questions and their answers to become less protected, and get downright indiscreet in some cases. As a fully immersive writer, some of what I write is while I am abuzz with my subject. (Fortunately, a very sober editor goes through it before it’s published.)

The title of my first book—Red, White and Drunk All Over—made people smile, but it also drew some criticism. (Who’s tightly wound now?) I claimed, rather weakly, that “drunk all over” simply referred to savouring wines in many places around the world. That said, I’m an equal-opportunity drinker: cocktails, cognac, vodka, whisky, saké, wine, you name it. I got called to the bar years ago for the affirmative action in my glass.

So I’m here at the Algonquin to unwind with a cocktail or two as respite from my professional focus on wine and to celebrate the end of a long journey in this book. Earlier in the day, I was one of twenty journalists at a tasting of more than a hundred Californian cabernets, hosted by their agents.

This type of event, when you compare one type of wine made during the same year from many producers, is called a horizontal tasting. (Not to be confused with your likely position by the time you finish.) A vertical tasting, by contrast, would mean tasting many different vintages of one producer’s cabernets.

Events like this are tough, especially when the wines clock in at 14 and 15 percent alcohol. I spit, of course, or I wouldn’t have made it past the seventieth wine. Still, after such a sensory assault on my mouth, I feel like I’ve spent two hours with a drill-crazed dentist who thinks anesthetic is for wimps.

If I drink a few glasses of high-octane wine like this with dinner at home, I usually fall asleep watching C.S.I., and wake up just as they’re nailing the bad guy. I’m the victim of the wine’s blunt force trauma.

I remember all the times I’ve tried to convince friends that tasting wine and traveling to far-flung, exotic locales is hard work. The usual response is an amused smile, or outright laughter.

Ah, the glamourous life of a wine writer, they think: tasting delicious wines in gorgeous settings, being wined and dined by witty people in fine restaurants, getting effusive e-mails from admiring readers. But tasting wine as a professional is like being a driver in a foreign city—unlike the passenger who’s just along for the sensory ride, you have to pay attention and use your wits.

I wish those friends could see me now, after a tasting: a crimson flower blooms inside my mouth, its fiery tendrils licking at the back of my throat. I think my lips are starting to peel off. I’ve definitely lost a layer of enamel from my teeth: bathing them in acidity for three hours will do that. My mouth is a fire-blackened building, my cheeks glow like red-hot metal.

fire wineWhile some wines overdo the alcohol, it is the necessary skeleton that supports a wine’s finer attributes: texture, tannin, aroma and acidity. It’s also the solvent that extracts flavour compounds from the grape juice, making them airborne so we can smell the aromas.

When we swirl a glass of wine, alcohol coats the sides of the glass with a thin layer and then evaporates. This releases the wine’s fragrant organic compounds or, to use the jargon, it volatizes the esters.

Wine lovers call this coating “tears” or “legs.” The higher the alcohol, the slower and more distinctive the tears. This doesn’t indicate a better wine, just a more alcoholic one.

This vinous fact is even mentioned in the Bible: Proverbs 23:31 advises the devout not to “gulp down the strong red wine when droplets form on the side of the cup.”

Maybe that’s what they mean by no more tears in heaven.

Many of the wines I taste are high in alcohol, especially port, Australian shiraz and Argentine malbec. But that was the style they need to be. Wines such as Niagara pinot noir, German riesling and Provençal rosé are all creatures of lightness. Tasting this incredible stylistic range makes me respect that each wine needs to be true to its own character, and that as drinkers, we need to be true to own taste rather than follow what’s fashionable or expensive.

Moving from glass to palate, alcohol is what gives wine its body or weight—that luxurious, rounded texture called mouth-feel. Too little alcohol makes a wine feel thin and watery, like skim milk. Too much makes it feel heavy and thick, like cream. But when alcohol is balanced with the flavour, tannins and acidity, the wine feels like whole milk.

That’s why some connoisseurs argue that if the wine is balanced, high alcohol isn’t a problem, nor does it clash with food. That’s why a robust Argentine malbec went so well with beef, while the German riesling was divine with fish.

I’ve had enough wine today, so it’s just cocktails for me tonight—the kind that the Algonquin writers loved a little too much. As I perch on a stool, the old Chinese bartender, whose name tag reads Mr. Hoy, hands me a cocktail list.

I order The Parker: vodka, cassis, and fresh lemon juice. The vodka sluices through the crimson liqueur like rain tearing the sky open. The stem of the glass, cool and smooth in my hand, feels as familiar as my own skin. Like Parker’s wit, the drink tastes sweet up front but finishes with a nasty bite.

Dorothy ParkerWit also needs a bite to be memorable. Alexander Woollcott, who joked that the Brandy Alexander had been named after him, told Dorothy Parker that her hangover ought to be placed in the Smithsonian.

Parker described their group as “the road company for the Last Supper.” Robert Benchley characterized their writing as the Elevated Eyebrow School of Journalism. You could write about any subject, no matter how outrageous, as long as you said it in evening clothes. The only sin was being dull.

One of the favourite targets of their wit was America’s love-hate relationship with alcohol, particularly Prohibition, which started in 1919, and outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol. Their favourite toast: “Here’s to Prohibition—the devil take it! They’ve stolen our wine, so now we make it.” Of course, they also toasted the repeal of Prohibition: “Temperance, I’ll drink to that!”

For those gathered at the Round Table, the urge to quaff was also a rebellion against America’s Puritan heritage—a powerful work ethic with a deep suspicion of pleasure.

Is that why many wine writers today never mention the buzz they get from drinking? Are they afraid of not being taken seriously if they’re having fun?

This reminds me of the critic who observed that the splendid Irish novelist, Edna O’Brien, was one of the “first writers to have sex in her novels; all the other writers just had children.”

Many famous American writers made drinking a lifestyle. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and John Steinbeck all lifted their glasses as often as they lifted their pens. All but Fitzgerald won the Nobel prize for literature. Their Teflon tolerance didn’t go unnoticed.

In 1928, New Yorker writer Ring Lardner looked at a list of 187 twentieth-century writers and estimated that a third of them were confirmed alcoholics, three times the national average. He called them the “brotherhood of the intemperate.”

Another writer, Barnaby Conrad, quipped that if U.S. plumbers drank like its great writers, “the drains of America would be constantly clogged.” Even today, statistics show that writers are second only to bartenders in deaths related to cirrhosis of the liver.

Yet the lure is strong.

Georges Simenon wrote movingly of being dominated by alcohol. “All life is coloured by it,” he once wrote. “New York, for example, seems made to be seen in this state. The crowds cease to be anonymous, the bars cease to be ordinary ill-lit places, the taxi drivers cease complaining. It is the same for all the big American cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston. From one end of the country to the other, there exists a freemasonry of alcoholics.”

What’s the connection between alcohol and the creative process? Does booze loosen writers’ inhibitions and heighten their feelings? Are they more susceptible to drink than other artists? Or did early twentieth-century writers drink more because of the time in which they lived? Maybe.

The link between writing and alcohol goes back a long way indeed. In 14 BCE, the Roman poet Horace wrote: “No lyric poems live long, or please many people, that are written by water drinkers … the delightful muses have regularly reeked of wine in the morning.”

Some writers drink to restore their childhood sense of wonder, when nothing came between them and pure experience. Novelist Stephen King considered this an important point. “The main effect of the grain or the grape on the creative personality is that it provides the necessary sense of newness and freshness,” he wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

A century ago, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche felt much the same way: “In this condition, one enriches everything out of one’s own abundance; what one sees, what one desires.” But perhaps Tolstoy grasped it better when he observed: “Writing requires two people: the writer and the critic. Alcohol silences the critic until the writer is done.”

Prodigious drinking may also serve many writers’ need for emotional release. Alcohol narcotizes the overly-receptive writer, especially the American writer, who thinks that to be believable he must personally experience what he writes about. Think of the individualism glorified in the stories about the rebel, the mobster, the private detective, and the cowboy. All that flitting from experience to experience, emotion to emotion, is tremendously draining.

I know that first-hand: for my first book I tried the day-in-the-life approach of working as a sommelier, a liquor store staffer, a winemaker and a grape picker. For my second book, and strangely for someone who usually avoids animals, I threw myself into odd situations where I encountered them in almost every chapter: sharks, snakes, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, dogs, baboons, kangaroos, kookaburras, magpies, ladybugs and hawks.

Perhaps I knew at a gut level that being uncomfortable is the starting point for a good story. You use more of your senses and synapses when you’re on foreign terrain. Perhaps the animals were also part of my desire to stay connected with nature, especially in a world that’s increasingly mediated by social media and technology.

I never want to lose my awe of the land, yet I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it. It is grand and I am small, but I rise and respond to it. That narrative pattern emerges only when you’re finished. You have to earn your ending.

The epitome of writing on high-running emotions was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like most young men of the post-World War I generation, he “drank cocktails like Americans, wines and brandies like Frenchmen, scotch-and-soda like the English.”

He got an early start on the drinking life. As a boy of ten at his parents’ parties, he would finish off the “heeltaps,” the alcohol left in the adults’ glasses. He believed his writing required an acute sensitivity to the “infinite possibilities of life”—and only drinking could help him attain it.

I myself am highly sensitive to life’s possibilities right now, so I order the Vicious Circle, named after the Round Table’s popular moniker: Grand Marnier, rum, and fruit nectar. Mr. Hoy places my drink in front of me. Its honeyed breath of mountain flowers drifts up to my nose. A jubilant upswell makes me feel as light as a helium balloon bumping along the ceiling, trying to find an open window to sail through into New York’s night sky.

I admire the panther grace of Mr. Hoy, a compact man with a smooth, gentle face and rock-steady hands. As I sip my drink, I ask him how long he’s worked here.

“Thirty years,” he says in his soft voice, seeming to lean into the memory of it. He started working there at 60, an age when most people are thinking of an early retirement, and he’ll turn 90 this year.

He had triple heart bypass surgery in 2003, but his doctor warned him not to quit his job—the slower pace and solitude would kill him. So Mr. Hoy is still here, five evenings a week, contentedly mixing drinks and chatting with patrons. “I’ll be here until I drop dead,” he says, eyes twinkling.

My mind wanders back to those early twentieth-century literary lights who drank hard and did their best work while young. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby when he was 29; Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises at 25.

Despite his heavy drinking, Hemingway produced a vast canon of work. Yet for all his dazzling talent, Hemingway committed suicide—unable to cope with his own demons, or perhaps those created by alcohol. Would he have produced more work, or less, without drinking? Would he have chosen different themes? Would he have achieved the same intensity? Without alcohol, would he still have been able to, as he put it, “bring up emotion to where you can’t stand it”?

Modern attitudes toward drinking are altogether different. As theatre critic Cintra Wilson pointed out on Salon.com, the drunken character in Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten would never be tolerated today. He would be “peer-pressured into AA, given intense, excoriating batches of psychotherapy, tough love and antidepressants, and not indulged in the boozy pity patch he keeps crawling into.”

She may be right, but today’s writers are just as likely to pick booze as their drug of choice, despite the cornucopia of recreational drugs available now. That may be because creativity, alcohol, and lying are all closely linked.

Faulkner firmly believed that writers are all congenital liars to begin with or they wouldn’t take up the profession. Is that why alcoholic writers are so adept at denying their drinking habits, to themselves and others? As George Santayana put it, “We are all victims of systematic self-deception.” Hemingway, for instance, would browse through scientific textbooks for evidence that booze wasn’t as toxic to the liver as doctors thought.

These writers were also fascinated by the drinking habits of their contemporaries. If they could measure themselves against another writer who drank more but was still productive, they could feel better about their own habits. Fitzgerald knew that Hemingway considered him “his alcoholic.”

In 1933, Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, that Hemingway “has long convinced himself that I am an incurable alcoholic because we almost always meet at parties.” Fitzgerald warned Perkins not to tell Hemingway of his intention to go sober because he didn’t “want to disillusion him.”

The observation about meeting other writers at parties points to another problem: then, as now, when writers are off duty, they’re often out relaxing and drinking. They need to work in private, yet must interact with other people, if only to write about them.

That’s where alcohol helps. It promotes sociability—even dull people become tolerable when viewed through the bleary end of a bottle. William Faulkner was an intensely private person. After he won the Nobel Prize in 1949, he refused both Time magazine’s offer to put him on the cover and President Kennedy’s invitation to the White House. Faulkner said that it was too far to go “for a dinner with strangers.”

The strangers here at the Algonquin, however, don’t seem unfriendly; in fact, it feels like we’re part of one tribe. A few more people have seated themselves at the bar. Their cocktails glow like tiny campfires along the dark wood surface. The chatter in the room is cheerful and loud, and their pink faces radiate goodwill. A flowering tenderness floods me with love for all these BEAUTIFUL people.

I ask Mr. Hoy for a cocktail called The New Yorker. As he mixes the tequila, fruit nectar and a squeeze of fresh lime, I listen drowsily to the clicking ice and chatter from the other end of the room, where a group of women are celebrating someone’s birthday.

A couple at a nearby table lean into each other, foreheads touching. All these details seem magnified and precious to me, worth recording for posterity. In fact, I think I’ll start making a few notes for the brilliant novel that now seems entirely possible to write this week.

The woman at the other end of the bar slowly sips a martini in which three olives float like commas. Her pale skin rests on her face like sheets draped over furniture in an empty summer home. Maybe its the preponderance here of women drinkers, but it occurs to me most of the celebrated writer-drinkers were men.

Hemingway-style boozing gave a man an attractive aura of both manliness and vulnerability, but a drinking woman was viewed as unladylike and promiscuous. Marguerite Duras, herself a heavy drinker, observed that “alcoholism is scandalous in a woman. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature.” Despite her qualms, Duras believed that she wrote better when drinking. Her prose reminded her of “the way you speak when you’re drunk, when what you want to say always seems so simple and clear.”

Drink like a man, write like man, these women believed. And not just Parker, who once prayed: “Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman.” Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jean Stafford, Anne Sexton, Jean Rhys and Carson McCullers could all out-drink and out-write many of their male contemporaries.

So where does that leave me, a woman who writes about wine who comes from a long line of alcoholics? Does my interest in alcoholic writers bode ill for my own sobriety, or is it an encouraging portent for a spectacular boozy memoir that starts with how well-maintained the tennis courts are at the Betty Ford Clinic?

There’s no doubt that wine tasting is not a profession for lily livers, even though you’re supposed to spit out the sample after tasting it. Wine professionals also like to drink for pleasure.

After I started writing about wine, it bothered me that I wasn’t a doctor helping to heal people or a teacher guiding children to enlightenment. What ideal had I given my life to? Facilitating bourgeois hedonism? Consumerism? Sloth? I needed a drink to sort it all out.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is honour in helping people find pleasure and relaxation. We all work hard and there are many stresses in our lives. We need the simple joys in life, like a good glass of wine, to regain a sense of ourselves.

Today, we no longer cherish the romantic notions that fueled the epic drinking of the Jazz Age. Few writers now believe alcohol improves their work; instead they prefer a sober mental edge to help them write well. Alcohol may make them feel more fluent, but it can also spawn a florid style that can degenerate into mush.

In my field, it’s called purple prose, and I’ve been running from it for a decade. As I finish this book, I’m still struggling to understand the mysterious process of writing and how alcohol affects it. I’ve always searched for flesh knowledge; an understanding of life skinned of its social protocols. But do I even know the price I have paid to complete this journey?

With those temperate thoughts, I end my evening at the Algonquin with a small snifter of brandy. My fingers wrap around the bowl of the glass the way two lovers cradle each other lying side by side. It’s past midnight now and most people have left; the remaining drinkers look like party debris.

After communing with spirits all evening—both the bottled and the writerly kind—I feel as though I’m now putting away a family album of faded photographs. As I bid good night to Mr. Hoy and walk out of the Algonquin, an inky drizzle almost hisses as it hits my warm skin.

Behind me, I believe I can hear the Round Table writers stumbling out, calling cheery, drunken goodbyes as they head home to a bed or a desk. I think we all agree with the Irish poet and New Yorker writer Brendan Behan’s self-assessment:

I’m a drinker with a writing problem.

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