A man with a passion will view the entire world though the optic of that passion. Whatever it may be—wine, women, motorcycles, baseball, Egyptology, fishing, or chess—he is capable of seeing in his passion every imaginable type of relationship, aspiration, contentment, dispair communion, and lesson of life. If that man is a writer then he will eventually set down his experiences in words and use them to try to make sense of the wider world.
Elliot Essman, an accomplished wine writer, has thus decided that the time has come to make such use of his passion, wine. Or so the title “Use Wine to Make Sense of the World” would lead us to believe. A more modest title would have been more appropriate since the world he is talking about is entirely his own, though fellow wine aficionados may well feel at home there.
Essman holds up his glass of wine in search for all manner of insights—about social interactions, choices, language, education, the brain. Unfortunately, he tends to get stuck on the drink and fail to reach the insight.
“Wine,” he says, “is my life and inspiration,” but it also appears to be something of a prison, for what he truly craves is a women who, among her other fine qualities, will share a passion for wine—or at least understand his.
In 25 encounters/paragraphs spread throughout the book, he describes dates during which he seeks the perfect communion between “wine, women and, yes, song” (the “yes” is Essman’s since he also has a passion for music). In those passages it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the author is on a date with a woman or with a glass or bottle wine, but those encounters are nevertheless among the most interesting, if distressing, parts of the book. Though the 25 dates (I leave it to the reader to discovery why he stops at 25) are only briefly sketched, they reveal, perhaps inadvertently, as much about the humorless tensions of the middle-aged dating scene as about the pitfalls of sharing a glass with an incorrigible wine authority.
Essman knows his wine and can likely find words to describe every note of the hundred or more wines (heavy on the French) mentioned throughout this slim book. But those wines, for all he tries, can only make sense of what doesn’t work in a relationship, rarely what does.
Through the dating sequences and other sections exploring social situations (parties, dinner invitations, etc.), the author reveals himself to be an obsessive note-taker, “high-strung” (his words), frequently fighting against a tendency to snobbery and loneliness, quick to judge people for their choices of wine, always concerned about the quality of his.
As a man obsessed with good taste, or at least the right pinot for the right occasion, he is prone to melancholy, as when he states, “Inflexibility and rigid taste preference in wine bothers me, perhaps because I have been rigid and inflexible in other areas of my life and this has caused me unhappiness.”
The book shows a constant inner conflict between the author’s wanting to share his passion and his wanting to be understood. That conflict is sometimes endearing, as in the dating sequences, and sometime annoying, since Essman can be unkind when describing those who don’t share his passion or depth of knowledge.
“If you gain expertise in wine, no matter how genuine your passion and interest, someone, somewhere, will make the unalterable judgment that you are a wine snob. The mere action of holding a glass of wine up to the light and sniffing a wine rather than just gulping it down is enough to cement this judgment in some minds.” That’s a great observation, so it’s a shame that in making it the author can’t keep himself from looking down upon those that would hold that “judgment” when he concludes, “Accept it, and love these people for other things.”
Flattering oneself and ones choices is an unfortunate byproduct of writing about one’s own pleasures but Essman’s overall approach would be more appealing if he (or his editors) had done a better job of holding his distain for the non-initiate in check.
The author does occasionally step back from his quest in order to examine more objective aspects of his passion, such as when he tells about the 17th-century Diary of Samuel Pepys, in which much is written about drink, or about wine cocktails.
“The more you know about wine,” he writes, “the greater the satisfaction you will attain from it, even if it makes you downright silly.” I wish he had let down his guard enough to get silly in this book.
Clear, concise, at times well observed, “Use Wine” is a pleasant and easy read even if it is too sober to have the playful, philosophical edge promised by the title. Essman at once romanticizes and rationalizes wine as he holds it up to the light, takes a sniff, and gives well-rounded discourses on its variety and personality. It would have been nice to see him take some flights of fantasy in his analysis.
Like Beaujolais Nouveau, this book is too light for meaty wine discussions or in-depth wine explorations and too condescending to the novice to lead him or her into the fold. Nevertheless, Elliot Essman’s quirky and personal take on his love for wine is an easy-going addition to a wine library if you, too, see the world through the optic of wine.
© 2010, Gary Lee Kraut
By Elliot Essman
153 pages. $15.95.
Published 2010 by Outskirts Press.
Available on Amazon.
Elliot Essman’s wine writing can be found online on stylegourmet.com