Esther Greenwood was intent on losing her virginity. Wine was involved. Hours before, the heroine of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (not-so-loosely based on the author herself), had been picked up on the steps of Harvard’s Widener Library by a pale math professor named Irwin. Esther decided to seduce him after seeing his study, with its “stuffed leather chairs, surrounded by stacks of dusty incomprehensible books with huge formulas inset artistically on the page like poems.” That evening there were slippery snails and a heroic bottle of wine. “I tipped back my head and poured down a glass of Nuits-Saint-George . ‘You do like wine,’ Irwin observed. ‘Only Nuits-Saint-George.'”
When I first read that iconic book, the Burgundy made no impression on me. After all, I was barely out of my supermarket wine phase. I had no idea Esther’s Burgundy was from an eponymous village between Beaune and Dijon. I had no idea it was made from the pinot noir grape. No idea that it was born of limestone soils that gave the wine, redolent of roses and earth, more muscle. But when I reread the scene—long after I became a wine writer—I marveled at her use of the wine reference.
I lifted my eyes from the page and stared out into the possibilities of what-ifs. What if the first time I discussed The Bell Jar, it had been while sipping and contemplating Burgundy? Which Nuits-Saint-George could it have been? How did she even know about it? I mean, no ingénue from the early ’50s grew up having thoughts about that kind of classy Burgundy unless there was a back story—whether that came from Plath’s own privileged background or through her husband, the poet Ted Hughes.
Had I been prescient enough to research that bottle both on a sensual and metaphorical level, I would have had a greater understanding of Plath’s background and privilege. I could have based an entire paper around that one bottle of wine and its meaning. My feelings and sensitivities toward Plath and the book, published just weeks before she committed suicide, would have been enriched. My introduction to Burgundy would have been indelible—associated with seduction and madness.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
Rereading Plath’s book, I began to understand the huge potential in drinking wine along with literary discussions. Like, what should you drink not just to get a buzz but to gain greater understanding? Like, what to sip along with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, while exploring Charles’s hatred of claret (Bordeaux) or any of the other bibulous references of the book. I could easily deliver some wisdom about Amis’s down-rent “litre of fizzy red wine” in Money. What about a great lesson on sherry for Amy Bloom’s White Houses?
Books and bottles are natural bedfellows. Whether you’re in a book club or just appreciate a book with a glass in hand, following the clues and making that effort to find the right combination will not only make the evening more fun but will enhance the book itself. And of course, for me, the only wines to choose from must be those called natural, because they have so much to say.
What is this “natural” wine?
To make natural wine, start with organic viticulture. I lay out all of the minute details in my new book, Natural Wine for the People, but in short: You don’t add any of the legal 72 additives. You don’t remove anything either, such as alcohol or acid. Natural wine is made from one simple ingredient: grapes. (Oh, and depending on how strict you are, maybe with a smidge of sulfur, an anti-oxidant.) They can be murky to the eye, while some can be cider or beer-like, some can be beautifully classic, and the best are so exciting they provoke. Because of their lack of additives, the natural wines are, for me, better representatives of where they came from, and they evolve in the glass.
How to pair words with wines
There are so many directions you can take: literal, regional, or metaphorical. If I had The Bell Jar in front of me, I’d be pulling out some of the only natural Nuits-Saint-Georges, from the producers Gilles Ballorin, Prieuré Roch, Philippe Pacalet—they’re pricey, but Burgundy is a high-rent district. The experience will be a lot less expensive if you could find that fizzy red wine reference in Amis’s Money. If you came to me for recommendations, I’d send you directly to a Lambrusco-style wine, a category with an abundance of affordable naturals.
When the wine choices on the page aren’t all that relevant, why not choose a wine from where the story (or author) is based? Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Trilogy is an excellent opportunity to explore the regional wines where Lena and Lenù grew up: Campania, Italy. If you chose Natural Wine for the People for you book club book, well that’s too easy because there are so many references. Why not go for the most unusual sounding wines, like a white wine made like a red one so it has a deep amber color? If there are no obvious choices, you can opt for an emotional component. Is it a beach read? Yes, that could be a rosé. And remember rosé is more than just a pretty color. Then, it’s time to find a place that can sell you a natural wine.
Where to find them
If you’re shopping at a store that has stacks of Cupcake brand wines or ubiquitous Champagne houses with orange labels, you’re in trouble. If you ask them for natural, they’ll probably think you’re talking about organic. Don’t be fooled—”organic wine” may use some or all of the additives, so they can taste very conventional. You could instead say, “I’m looking for organic wines with nothing added in the wine-making process.” And if they understand, you’ve witnessed a modern miracle. You might be in good hands. If they don’t, find a different store.
Natural wine is now available in so many cities and towns around the country, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. You can start with the list of wine shops in the back of Natural Wine for the People. Or you can shop the back of the label—look for the name of the wine importer. The book has a list of the ones specializing in natural, like Jenny & Francois, Jose Pastor, Louis/Dressner. If you see a bottle with one of them, it’s a good bet the wine is delicious and natural. If you’re lucky enough to live in a state that allows wine shipping, consider ordering from one of the shops that are listed. They might also be willing to advise on the best wines for your book choice.
And then, figure on one-half to one-third of a bottle per person, get the thinnest lip on a wine glass you can, get yourself a corkscrew, and settle in to tear the books apart or sing their praises—and simultaneously discover the wisdom a poignant glass of natural wine has to offer.
Featured Image: @MichaelModePhotog/Twenty20; Author Photo: Carolyn Fong