A Life Uncorked
University of California Press
Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006, 384 pp., 214 color illustrations, 14 b/w photographs
Reviewer: Peter J. Dougherty
The proliferation of memoirs is so great that the stock appears to have split. It helps to think of them as micro-genres. One such genre may be called the confessional a la Augustine (as in David Oglivy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man), another, the witness to history, a la John Reed (as in Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw at the Revolution), a third, the life as learning experience, a la Henry James (as in Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Educa- tion of Richard Rodriguez). In his memoir, A Life Uncorked, veteran and venerable British wine commentator Hugh Johnson transcends these divisions and raises the ante. Rather than lifting one or another established form from the memoir shelf, Johnson effectively invents his own – a form in which the life of the author imitates the essence of the subject. In A Life Uncorked, wine itself becomes a metaphor for the life of the man.
This is a large, sprawling, many-themed, multi-faceted, heavily illustrated (in color) book that demands to be sampled (dare I say, savored) gradually rather than read through in a linear, lock-step fashion. Johnson begins with some autobiographical reconstruction of his early exposure to wine as a student in Cambridge in the 1950s and his embryonic career as a London-based wine commentator (not a critic) and book writer. He adds a nice chronology of the high points of his life in wine (p. 29). He then follows this account by an orderly parade of sections defined by styles of wine – bubbly, white, red, sweet. But this simple frame belies the dense, overflowing appreciation of all things oenological.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Much as Johnson seemingly attempts to cram every possible facet and story of a life in wine in this book, he is not a man without method or manifesto. The philosophical heart of this book is revealed most frankly (and perhaps not unsurprisingly) in its concluding passage:
Its life, in the last analysis, is what sets wine apart. There is nothing else we buy to eat or drink that brings us the identity of a place in a time in the same way, that memorises and recalls (if we listen) all the circumstances that made it what it is…embrace the identity, enjoy the circumstances, be transported to other places and times. Embrace even the mythology: it adds to the colour of life.
Armed with the understanding that Johnson regards wine in all its complexity, fascination, uncertainty, and mystery as a living, breathing companion to humanity, an index to places, times, and events, the reader is free to sample and explore this book not so much as a single work, but rather as a collection of integrated sojourns – part education of the palate, part historical sociology of the field, part reminiscence of people and events, part geographical gazette, part business ethnography.
Just as Johnson’s book offers many sides to the reader, readers of varying degrees of interest and sophistication will approach it from different angles.
It is perhaps the foremost mark of his love of the liveliness of wine that leads Johnson to plunge first into champagne, the “social drug” as he calls it in his chapter. For Johnson, champagne is “France’s greatest contribution to human happiness,” a claim that might raise more than the eyebrows of many of French winemakers he lionizes later in this book. After walking the reader through the history of bubbly from the monkish days of Dom Perignon onward, Johnson develops the story of champagne against the backdrop of Reims and the larger reaches of Champagne country, but the heart of this discussion comes later in the section when Johnson makes the case for champagne as an accompaniment to food – seafood and sea urchins and Asian delicacies. Following the travels of bubbly to sparkling wines the new world, Johnson finally circles back to a last acknowledgement of the monk Dom Perignon, whose attempt to blend a rival to burgundy led to the creation of champagne. That the bubbles were a happy accident fits Johnson, celebrator of serendip- ity, just fine.
White wine is, for Johnson, the most evocative of drinks; that which stimulates memo- ries of the outdoors, seashores, and sun. From Sports Day in the Hunter Valley outside Sydney, Australia, to the mannered climes of the English garden party, marked by painter John Verney’s depiction of summer at Saling Hall, whites capture and reflect the outdoor life. Invoking first the appeal of Riesling in this context, Johnson launches into his ethnog- raphy of whites beginning with the Germans, traveling through the French of Chablis and Chardonnay, then moving into his first extensive accounts of California and the southern reaches of Europe. He expects to be disappointed on the Meditteranean coast, but just as sure as the sun shines, identifies the bounty of Vermentino, Vernaccia, Malvasia, and other grapes peculiar to this region. One gets the impression from Johnson’s excitement for white that the sun never sets as long as these wines are available.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼The longest section of the book is, predictably, Red, but just as predictably, Johnson does not begin on an overly enthusiastic note. He rejects the over-zealotry of some red enthusiasts and rather more subtly sidles into his discussion of this vast subject, and obstinately adheres to his English affection for “clarets.” Dividing his main treatment of reds into explorations of Bordeaux and the Bordeaux persuasion and Burgundy and the burgundy persuasion, Johnson moves outward eventually embracing the many varieties, names, places, and people who populate this largest and richest dimension of wine and its culture. Johnson prefers the light reds of Bordeaux to the lustier, richer reds of other places. One gets the impression that, for all his affection for California, he regards American reds as he does American foods, a good match for each other if tad too intense for the European palate. He ends his discussion of red with more surprise and serendipity, noting that the reds varieties of Sicily – Fiano, Grillo, Falangia, Catarrato – offer a special treat in that they represent such an impressive sampling of native varieties.
Three hundred and twenty-six pages into this oversized work, Johnson begins his final section, Sweet. Herein he discusses Port, Tokay, and Madeira. This discussion is, not sur- prisingly, briefer than those of the earlier sections, but no less possessed of the wonder that he finds in the curious but splendid evolution of these varieties.
The reader of this review should know that the reviewer has merely scratched the surface and etched out the broadest themes organizing this book. Those readers steeped in the culture and commerce of wine will profit greatly from Johnson’s reminiscence of the many places and personalities that make up the world he has inhabited since his early days, a world that he helped to make. What appears to some as so much inside baseball of the wine business will be the greatest attraction to others, and this very real aspect of this book should not be understated.
That said, the impression Johnson delivers is unmistakably one of a lover, enthusiast, and commentator determined to reject attempts on the part of his fellow travelers to reduce life to form, art to science. For all High Johnson’s appreciation of what has come before, the past is prelude.
Peter J. Dougherty
Princeton University Press