The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2017
ISBN: 978-0374228088 (hardback)
272 pp., $25.00
Reviewed by Neal D. Hulkower
My informal survey of friends has led me to surmise that those born after about 1950 have no idea who Clifton Fadiman was. This is regrettable. He lived from 1904 to 1999 and was an American author, public intellectual, and editor, as well as a radio and television personality. Though most of his books have gone out of print and his radio and television appearances were in their heyday in the mid-20th century, Clifton Fadiman is remembered fondly by many who enjoyed his unwaver- ing adherence to the King’s English and his adoration of fine wine. Eighteen years after his death at age 95, Anne Fadiman, an acclaimed author in her own right, has published an engaging portrait of her father that is as loving yet unabashedly revealing as only a daughter could render.
She tells her father’s story in 23 chapters, each titled with a single word. The first, “Thwick,” the sound a cork makes when removed with a butterfly corkscrew, is four pages that occasionally crosses the line into wine porn. As is the case throughout the book, Ms. Fadiman embeds her father’s quotations and word selections into her own prose resulting in an exquisite father–daughter duet of premier grand cru writing. His essay, “Brief History of a Love Affair,” “contained a number of words (including ‘sybaritic,’ ‘connubial,’ and ‘consummation’)” (p. 4), as well as a title that under- standably misled her as the object of his affection. She “was grievously disappointed to discover…that the lover in question was not a woman but a liquid” (p. 4). She con- cludes that “Wine provided sensory pleasures equaled only by sex” (p. 8).
Clifton Fadiman’s love of wine comingled with his love of writing. With his friend and wine merchant, Sam Aaron, whom he called the “vintner of my discontent” (p. 110), he produced The Joys of Wine and The New Joys of Wine. The third chapter, “Wager,” tells a short story by fellow wine lover Roald Dahl called “Taste” that Fadiman liked so much he included it in the two wine anthologies. A father stakes the hand of his daughter against two houses in a bet with a guest who must identify a claret blind. He does so but is discovered to have cheated. As a side note, Ms. Fadiman shares the fact that Dahl had “once poured cheap wine into fancy bottles, served them to his unsuspecting guests, listened to them gush, and then revealed that they’d been snookered” (p. 12). This demonstration of neuro- economics foreshadows by decades the work of Plassmann et al. (2008).
Fadiman père lived in reaction to his humble beginnings in Brooklyn. He was born to nonreligious Jewish parents who immigrated to the United States and worked hard to assimilate including speaking English at home. Disgusted by their accent and poor grammar, he “learned English ‘as if it were Latin or Sanskrit,’ and devel- oped the hypercultured voice” (p. 20) that lent him an air of sophistication when he hosted the radio quiz show, Information Please, from 1938 to 1951 and various tele- vision shows later on.
In response to the anti-Semitism that prevailed at the time, Fadiman rejected any association with Judaism and nursed a sense of inferiority his entire life. Chapter 13, “Jew,” begins with a statement that Fadiman’s love of wine was in part due to the fact that it was not Jewish since Jews were not known to drink. “My father may have felt like an outsider in many aspects of his life, but when he drank wine with friends, he always belonged” (p. 228). His determination to pursue an academic career in liter- ature ran into a dead end when the head of Columbia University’s English depart- ment told him that “we have room for only one Jew” (p. 88) and he was not the one. Nevertheless, although he went on to a career in popularizing literature that made him more prosperous and much better known than the chosen one, he always felt he was out of place. Though he eschewed Yiddish and favored British, he still felt he was a fraud. Ms. Fadiman’s reaction to the self-alienation exhibited by her father and other Jewish writers is charitable: “whenever I have the urge to go back in time and tell them to knock it off, I remind myself that I don’t have a clue what they were up against and never will” (p. 84).
Ironically, while Fadiman’s love of wine is the unifying theme throughout the memoir, his daughter, try as she may, never developed a taste for it. She had learned an impressive number of wine terms while still in elementary school and tried to develop her palate as an adult to no avail. She shared her father’s love of food, especially classic gourmet fare, but had to reconcile his belief that “civilized minds were naturally drawn to wine” (p. 101) with the fact that she simply had no taste for it despite the fact that she was civilized. “I was in my late forties when I finally admitted to myself that I would never love wine” (p. 181).
Among the elder Fadiman’s foibles was his male chauvinistic attitude toward women. He laid down port for his son but not for his daughter. His comments at a ladies’ smoker included “women are not as good at conversation and they know absolutely nothing about wine” (p. 68). Fortunately, despite the fact that she believed he had lower expectations for her because of her gender, Ms. Fadiman flourished.
As a writer, Fadiman fille is clearly her father’s daughter. “Oakling,” the name of Chapter 14, is the epithet used to describe a child of a famous writer, the oak who casts a shadow over the oakling. While her father’s formidable contributions included collections of original essays; introductions to anthologies of the writings of others, including two on mathematics; a children’s book; two editions of a lifetime reading plan; and the two editions of The Joy of Wine coauthored with Sam Aaron, Ms. Fadiman declared: “There comes a point when oaklings …stop worrying about withering beneath the shadow of the oak” (p. 153). When she is told that she has her father’s genes, she recognized that “He had my genes, too” (p. 184). Some credit could also be given to the genes she shared with her mother, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby, a noted war correspondent, screenwriter, and author.
The penultimate chapter entitled “Memorabilia,” begins with the statement: “My father didn’t leave much behind” (p. 207). In particular, he had drunk all of his wine. What Anne did find was his cellar book. It began with his first purchases on 18 October 1935 of 908 bottles costing more than $1,000 or more than $15,000 inflated to today’s dollars. The first two pages of the book, shown on pages 212 and 213, list classified growth Bordeaux and some notable burgundies with per bottle prices that modern day oenophiles would jump on even after inflation. The first entry, a 12 bottle case of Clos des Lambrays 1929, in Burgundy’s Morey- Saint-Denis appellation, was bought for $28, a tad over $500 inflated to today’s dollars. In comparison, the website wine-searcher.com shows the average price per bottle of Domaine des Lambrays Clos des Lambrays 2014 as $197 or $2,364 for a case.
Because it is more of a series of anecdote-laden essays with a large cast of charac- ters who appear sporadically, an index would have been helpful. I did glean additional insights and factoids from the Notes on Sources. The book made both an absorbing and fascinating read and prompted me to refresh my thin acquaintance with Clifton Fadiman and even to seek out his own writing.
I received the review copy of the book accompanied by a press release that included the dates of the promotional tour. Fortuitously, I was visiting a daughter a few days later in the Washington, DC area when Anne Fadiman was scheduled to be there and made it a point to go and get my copy signed. As she did with every- one, she asked me if I am a bibliophile or an oenophile. I responded that I am both and she inscribed the book accordingly. If you are either but especially if you are both, you should find this sketch of a fading icon of the recent past worthy of your attention. One can hope that this small thoughtful volume will keep the father’s star from vanishing while making the daughter’s brighter.