This is not an essay reviewing Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork (although I read it last week). It doesn’t actually fact-check Cork Dork. It’s not even really about the New York Times op-ed, “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine”, which is excerpted/repurposed from the book’s seventh chapter, “The Quality Control”, and has occasioned a lot of consternation, thought, and response from people who care about wine. This is because the op-ed is, to put it mildly, not very good, and also bad.

What I want to do instead is talk about something a little to one side of the larger questions being grappled with by the rest of the wine internet, something near and dear to my withered heart: fact-checking.

One of the big potential virtues of a book by a journalist & writer who is willing to quit their day job and spend a bunch of time immersing themselves in (to be clear, mostly a very specific, New York wine-service professional version of) the wine world is that the result will be that rare combination of industry knowledge & outsider research, something more granular & textured than the usual hey-don’t-be-intimidated-by-wine-here’s-five-rules book but less insider baseball-y than an importer’s memoir.

And indeed, there’s something to be said for, you know, reporting. Most people have a pretty dim sense of wine additives and manipulation, and actually gaining entrance to one of the large companies that pumps out the sort of industrial grape beverages that control the majority of the market, going to a trade show for those products, etc is effective & important. Thinking about where the grapes come from and looking at herbicide runoff and water use would have been a good step, too.

Reviews of Cork Dork, which is hitting bestseller lists & is worth talking about because it will become a conversational entry point for the people I serve wine to at night, are going to invariably use the phrase “deeply researched”. The Times book review at one point calls it a “compendium of facts”. Because of all of those things—original research being something the book brings to the table that a lot of wine books don’t; praise for said—it’s worth evaluating the reporting in and of itself. In the midst of all of the other responses to “Ignore the Snobs” (which are all good in their way, even if they are often spirited defenses of #realwine that have been ably trolled by the headline), one aside in Alice Feiring’s post made my ears prick up.

“As a trained sommelier”, Bosker writes in the op-ed, “I spent long days studying the farming practices that distinguish the Grand Crus of Burgundy and learning to savor the delicate aromas of aged Barolos from organic growers in Piedmont.”

Feiring rightly observes that this is a kind of expertise word salad meant to establish bona fides—and also that everything about it is slightly wrong. At most, generously, you could say that the appellation laws for a Grand Cru AOC in Burgundy like Bonnes Mares might mandate, like, slightly lower yields than those for the 1er cru “Les Fuées” it borders (I just checked, pointlessly: it’s 42 hectoliters per hectare versus 48). And yields imply stuff you would do, as a farmer? But actually, no; farming practices have nothing to do with what distinguish these little special postage stamps of land we call ‘great growths’ in Burgundy, and anyways the vines within a given Grand Cru are owned by a whole mess of different people, all of whom are farming slightly differently.

(I’m trying to show my work. Feiring, much more gracefully, does the above in a sentence: “Farming practices do not separate the Grand from the Village, geology and micro-climate do.”)

Same obviously for aged Barolo = organic growers, since the further back you go (what are we talking about here, the ’70s?) the more likely it is everything in the Piedmont is just doused in chemicals. You’d have to keep going until you got a bottle old enough that it predated the invention of conventional agriculture, cutoff for which would be around the Second World War. Or talk specifically about the rare exceptional growers who didn’t adopt herbicides & synthetics.

I am being as joylessly pedantic as possible here and probably sound a little like an asshole, especially to those of you who tuned out right around the time the phrase “appellation laws for a Grand Cru AOC” was deployed. The language is charmless, I admit. But this sentence (not in the book) is, in a very ideal world, the sort of thing that would get underlined in pencil and then be subjected to a few minutes of consideration by a similarly pedantic third party. (By the way, by all rights an evaluation of Bosker’s work shouldn’t hinge on whether or not she’s a wine expert, since that would be impossible to accomplish in 18 months. What she’s offering is research, reportage, letting experts turned characters have their say, voice, style, a certain amount of personal involvement, organizing and deploying all of that in a coherent narrative—you know, writing.)

Anyways. I wondered, when I finally sat down to read Cork Dork, how many and which bits of the book had been fact-checked. The chapters divide nicely into setpieces that could be pitched separately as features to a variety of outlets. (To Bosker’s credit, if you compare the tasting notes chapter, “The Ten Commandments”, to the New Yorker piece “Is There A Better Way to Talk About Wine?”, there’s nothing too obnoxious about the recycling; everything’s been rearranged, rewritten, and expanded for the book. This is less common than you might imagine.) And so at some point, some of the stuff that’s related to what ended up in the book probably ended up on a fact-checker’s desk.

Sometimes books are checked  by a third party with the same rigor & care as a New Yorker feature. Usually not, though. And given the number of people I know who were mildly suprised to find themselves in its pages, I don’t imagine anyone was on the receiving end of the sorts of phone calls I used to make to quoted—even anonymously quoted—sources.

I’m not saying that the book is riddled with factual errors or anything, by the way. (Although, opening it at random to chapter six right after I write that sentence, I can’t help but notice an almost-right but actually wrong technical description of malolactic fermentation.) This is more in the line of professional curiosity—how did this thing get made?

Because I am the kind of person I am, I took a paragraph and pretended I was checking it while I was halfway through reading the introduction a couple of days ago. Looking at a piece of writing through a fact-checker’s eyes partly means grappling with the question, ‘what is truth?’, always a fun one, but mostly means being as obtuse as possible:

“Spend enough time in the wine world, and you’ll find every connoisseur has a story about the bottle that launched their obsession with wine. Usually, their Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment arrives via, say, a 1961 Giacomo Conterno Barolo sipped in a little restaurant in Piedmont, Italy, overlooking the Langhe hills, the beech trees swaying as a gentle fog curls up from the valley floor. It’s something of a formula: Europe + natural splendor + rare wine = moment of enlightenment.”

First question, is this a fictitious example or (just as likely) something that a particular person said in an interview? If so, who was the person, and is this accurate? Do they remember the name of the restaurant? Let’s call them and find out.

‘Every’ is hyperbole but root around google/stack of books for a few more wine people who have stories that follow the formula.

Check Saul, Damascus.

1961 Giacomo Conterno Barolo. Okay, estate founded in 1920, so they were producing wine by 1961. Most famous for Monfortino; did they bottle a regular Barolo back then as well? Would it have been labeled ‘Riserva’?

Yes, yes; the acquisition of the great single vineyard the estate is famous for in Serralunga, Cascina Francia, was not until the ’70s. An auction catalog image search turns up a picture of a bottle of ’61 Giacomo Conterno Barolo, no cru or reserve designation appended.

the beech trees swaying as a gentle fog Would they be beech trees?

Searching a catalogue of trees common to the Langhe turns up a taxonomy of truffle terroir, with truffles in Alba attached to three types of tree, oak, beech, or cedar, yielding differences in color and aroma.

The oak trees likely growing alongside the beeches are probably too big to sway.

Can we find video of the fog in the Langhe?


Strawberry jam

9 April 2016

Click a link on Twitter to a 1986 Paris Review interview of Robertson Davies. Interviewer, the editor & publisher Elisabeth Sifton, says by way of warming up to a question:

“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said.”

You jot down the last bit, which has a nice ring to it, you think to yourself, this way—

Mary McCarthy: “You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina

—and then you wonder what she actually wrote, because you have a brain disease contracted via freelance fact-checking work, and all of that yields the following quick dive into a rabbit-hole:

First comes from Mary McCarthy’s “Fact in Fiction”, published as an essay in the Partisan Review as a “paraphrase of a talk or talks given to Polish, Yugoslav, and British audiences” in early 1960. (Later collected in On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961). It goes like this:

“And the novel, like newspaper boiler plate, contains not only a miscellany of odd facts but household hints and how-to-do-it instructions (you can learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna Karenina, and how to reap a field and hunt ducks).”

This is the punchline, kind of, to a loping series of examples of the way novels fold in fact, turning from papermaking in Balzac and tuberculosis in The Magic Mountain to the hotel business in Dreiser, whaling in Moby-Dick, etc.

“In newspaper jargon, you might call all this the boiler plate of the novel —durable informative matter set up in stereotype and sold to country newspapers as filler to eke out a scarcity of local news, i.e. of ‘plot.'”

People in the early ’60s had a tendency to use it in the ledes of book reviews (here’s Joan Didion who I think? is reviewing John O’Hara’s debut novel in 1960 for the National Review):

“Mary McCarthy observed not long ago that it is possible to learn from Anna Karenina a recipe for strawberry jam. It is possible to learn from Appointment in Samarra not only the details of a method of suicide but the name of a good hatter (Julian English wore none but Herbert Johnson hats); it is possible to learn from Miss McCarthy’s own stories any number of interesting and useful things, such as how to get free lemonade in an Automat or why it is unwise to go about on trains with safety pins in one’s underwear.”


McCarthy publishes The Group, the novel that would make her career and undo her, three years later, in 1963, and as you’d imagine a few reviewers trot it out unkindly (also, note the prim editorializing: “love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term” oh wicked burn Thomas Rogers of Commentary

In “Fact and Fiction,” one of her recent essays, Miss McCarthy points out that there are large chunks of informative matter in most great novels; for example, one can learn how to reap a field and make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Perhaps one can. But in Anna Karenina, when Levin reaps wheat with his peasants, what is uppermost is the moral meaning of the action. […] In contrast, Miss McCarthy’s technical and informative matter exists more or less for its own sake. She gathers her facts from domestic life, but the facts often become denatured in the process, so that when she describes such matters as nursing or love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term—she is very clear and specific, but discouraging.

Misattribution takes a while but is, in the end, inevitable. Julian Mitchell, the English playwright, turns it into a floating piece of folk wisdom in a 1976 issue of Radio Times: 

“It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”

This is the one that tends to pop up on food blogs.

That eventually mutates into this cameo at the end of a 2013 essay about memoirs in the LA Review of Books: 

“The playwright and critic Julian Marks once quipped, “It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.”

(As far as I can tell, Julian Marks doesn’t exist—at least not in the conventional sense of writing plays & literary criticism, or of making quips. But, and I mean this at least twenty-percent seriously, maybe misremembering the name of someone else quoting from memory is appropriate in an essay about memoir?)

Forty-six years after her review of John O’Hara, Joan Didion’s recalls to The Guardian: 

“I remember reading a Mary McCarthy essay on how novels were bourgeois learning experiences,” she says, “and how you could learn to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Well, I’m not sure you can, but somehow I found that a very arresting thing to say. It kind of stuck in my head when I was learning to write.”

As it turns out, finally, you can’t learn how to make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina, because the scene itself is about making raspberry jam:

“…jam was being made there according to a method new to Agafya Mikhailovna, without the addition of water. Kitty was introducing this new method which they used at home. Agafya Mikhailovna, who had been in charge of it before, and who considered that nothing done in the Levins’ hose could be bad, had put water in the strawberry and wild strawberry jam all the same, insisting that it could not be done otherwise; she had been caught at it, and now raspberry jam was being made in front of everyone, and Agafya Mikhailovna had to be brought to believe that jam without water could turn out well.

“Agafya Mikhailovna, with a flushed and upset face, her hair tousled, her thin arms bared to the elbows, rocked the basin in circular movements over the rbazier and stared gloomily at the raspberry jam, wishing with all her heart that it would thicken before it was cooked through.”

This goes on for a little while.

Does it work? Elizabeth Bishop says so. From a letter, dated June 15th, 1961 from Rio de Janeiro, she writes to Robert Lowell:

“I think Mary’s novels are awfully good, too, don’t you? It’s funny. Before I saw the first one I was telling Lota how wonderful Anna Karenina is—how it even tells you how to make raspberry jam, and I went and made raspberry jam from our wild raspberries just that way—excellent—and then Mary makes the same remark.”


One last thing. The Paris Review interviewer finishes the question she started:

“Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly?”

Davies responds:

“Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t.”


30 January 2015

It’s easy to make fun of the wine-critic word salad Robert Parker invented, all layers & ripeness & things leaping from glasses–easy, too, to talk about ‘Parkerized’ wines, the style of winemaking that he is said to represent. Did he do a service, when he began to write about wine for Americans stressed out over buying $40 birthday presents for their bosses in more or less the same way that Consumer Reports reviews washing machines? In a very specific, very real way: yes. Has the idea of rating an idiosyncratic, living agricultural product in the same way as a washing machine done measurable harm? Well, yes.

And in the decades that have followed, and with all of the objections to for example the point system pretty much canon now, the wines that he got most enthusiastic over and the way he wrote about that enthusiasm have been caricatured so thoroughly that sometimes instead of attempting to parrot received wisdom it really truly is instructive to just survey & report. To put in another way: I could not write a better parody of Robert Parker’s prose, or describe the kinds of wines I’m told he liked, better than presenting his own writing with as little commentary as possible.

I came across this particular collection of text while looking for something more or less unrelated. (How a particular vintage of a modernist Barolo producer was received a decade and a half ago, if you’re curious.) So! Here are some words & phrases used by Robert Parker when he likes something. They appear, all of them, exactly as written, on a single page of his 2002 Buyers Guide. A dozen or so wines, all told. And without me saying anything more, maybe you can decide for yourself what he values in a bottle of wine, and what kind of things he likes to drink, and how he likes to write about drinking them:

up-front, sexy
sexy, in-your-face
a provocative bouquet
a luxurious bouquet
a hedonistic, explosive nose
big sweet perfume
supple and velvety
velvety and forward
ripe, and attractive
aromas jump from the glass
flavors cascade over the palate
Powerfully, unctuously textured
awesomely layered texture
with additional levels of glycerin and flavor
layers of glycerin
stunningly concentrated
fabulously concentrated
decadent level of richness
Pomerol-like lushness
Full-bodied, ripe
Full-bodied-and lush
opulent, lush, fleshy
fleshy and flamboyant
sexy, hedonistic, seamless
Rich, full, fat, opulent, and decadent
copious spice, glycerin, and alcohol
fleshy, and flamboyant, with huge glycerin levels
this textured, full-bodied, fat, lush wine.


25 October 2014

“The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since. I found apples that tasted like bananas, others like pears. Spicy apples and sticky-sweet ones, apples sprightly as lemons & others rich as nuts. I picked apples that weighed more than a pound, others compact enough to fit into a child’s pocket. Here were yellow apples, green apples, spotted apples, russet apples, striped apples, purple apples, even a near-blue apple. There were apples that looked prepolished & apples that wore a dusty bloom on their cheeks. Some of these apples had qualities that were completely lost on me but had meant the world to people once: apples that tasted sweeter in March than October, apples that made especially good cider or preserves or butter, apples that held their own in storage for half a year, apples that ripened gradually to avoid a surfeit or all at once for an easier harvest, apples with long stem or short, thin skin or thick, apples that tasted sublime only in Virginia and others that needed a hard New England frost to reach perfection, apples that reddened in August, others that held off til winter, even apples that could sit at the bottom of a barrel for the six weeks it took a ship to get to Europe, then emerge bright and crisp enough to command a top price in London.”

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan (p. 48–49) touring the Lake Geneva Plant Genetic Resources Unit.

Year in review

2 July 2014

From Twitter, between January 1 and December 21, 2013. Question for the day: how do you archive & resurrect experience of the digital over time?


My sister at breakfast: “Do you know what the German word for birth control is? ANTIBABYPILLEN.”
4 January, 3:44 p.m.

On the Difficulties of Recollecting the Plots of Novels One Has Partly Read While Drunk. #unwrittenessays
10 January, 12:48 a.m.

“…but those who believe, that Abel lived an hundred and twenty nine Years, think it improbable he should die a Batchelor.
10 January, 1:06 a.m.

“If you put front vowels in your language, nobody will take it seriously as a language of Orcs.”
11 January, 4:47 p.m.

Tarantino films that feature scenes in which characters literally give each other acting lessons: Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs.
17 January, 1:28 a.m.

“There you are, like butter in sunshine.” Martin Luther insult randomizer:
20 January, 12:50 p.m.

RT: Thank God for technology. Before Twitter, I just used to go up to strangers and whisper in their ears. @tejucole
26 January, 1:42 p.m.

Read the rest of this entry »

Primo Levi on distillation

26 February 2014

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think about other things, a little like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid, but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

— p. 62, The Periodic Table


14 February 2014

Some seasonally-appropriate tunes for all of you who are trapped inside walls of ice and already opening the second bottle. Here’s love as: something you can lock out, or be invulnerable to if you’re cold enough, or not human; a curse, a poison, a way to get revenge; ten gin-and-tonics; some kind of joke; a hungry bear.

1. Unbelievers // VAMPIRE WEEKEND
2. I’m gonna lock my heart // BILLIE HOLIDAY
3. Nothing but a heartache // THE FLIRTATIONS
4. Misery loves company // BLACKFEET BRAVES
5. Aftermath // SZA
7. Standard bitter love song #8  // THE MOUNTAIN GOATS
8. We sink  // CHVRCHES
9. Stepping over hearts  // INSIGHTFUL
10. Get lucky  // DAUGHTER
12. No one’s gonna love you as much  // NICOLE WILLIS & THE SOUL INVESTIGATORS
13. I don’t believe you  // THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
14. Don’t fuck around with love // THE BLENDERS

Download here.