In "Bright Lights, Big City," Jay McInerney's 1984 debut novel, the most popular consumable pleasure is not wine, nor even liquid. It's the white stuff the author calls "Bolivian marching powder." But Mr. McInerney, it turns out, has been a wine enthusiast since he worked as an upstate liquor shop clerk while he worked on the novel. Ten years after its publication, with several New York novels under his belt, his friend Dominique Browning, the editor of House & Garden, asked Mr. McInerney to be the magazine's wine columnist. She was looking for a writer, not a technical geek, and in his columns, Mr. McInerney keeps the formulaics of the wine priesthood at bay in favor of unexpected yet elegant descriptions.
His latest book, "A Hedonist in the Cellar" (Knopf, 272 pages, $24), is his second collection of wine columns. The heavy lifting, he says, goes into his novels (most recently in "The Good Life"), while the wine beat is graceful gliding in comparison. Mr. McInerney, 51, splits his time between Manhattan and Watermill, where his twin daughters, 12, live with their mother, his third wife. He will marry socialite Anne Hearst on December 9.
Urban Vintage had lunch with the Urban Novelist last week at Felidia, for a conversation on Mr. McInerney's personal cellar, who does the cooking at his dinner parties, and what to drink with turkey.
Q: What will you be drinking at Thanksgiving?
A: Well, anything works with the holiday meal, but nothing works perfectly — except for champagne. This year, it will be Delamotte Rosé [$48 at Acker Merrall].Then, probably because I was just out in California, I'll have Ridge "Geyserville" zinfandel [$30 at Garnet Wines]. I sort of forgot about zin for a couple of years. I guess we all get in these ruts.
Q: Any sweet wines?
A: I love to do off-dry gewürtztraminers, but they tend to freak out the civilians. A lot of people claim they only drink dry, but then they're swilling these overripe chardonnays that are basically sweeter than your average German riesling. Actually, a little bit of sweetness is good for all those Thanksgiving side dishes. So, if a certain friend comes to my table, I'll probably throw in a Hoffstatter "Kolmahoff" gewürtz, from Alto Adige in northeastern Italy [$45 at Zachys].
Q: Which wines get pride of place in your personal cellar?
A: I am a Bordeaux guy. Last night, I bought a couple of terrific older Bordeaux at an auction benefiting the Mercantile Library. But lately I've been doing more burgundy. Red burgundy is the Turgenev to Bordeaux's Tolstoy.
Q: What about California pinot noir, which was the motivating passion in the movie "Sideways"?
A: The best are very good, but they're their own beasts, not imitation burgundy. I especially like the pinots from Santa Barbara and Santa Rita Hills. Since "Sideways," a lot of them are being rushed into production. Where the hell is it all coming from? I think some of these bottles labeled pinot noir have some syrah dumped into them.
Q: Did you grow up in a wine drinking family?
A: Wine was completely alien to us as I grew up. Although I do remember that in the 1970s my parents started adding white wine to the bar. But wine didn't appear on the table until I started to bring it home. They were real John Cheever people — martinis and adults behaving badly. The fact that my parents didn't drink it was an argument in favor of wine.
Q: Which grape is least appreciated by the wine drinkers out there?
A: What separates out the hardcore is some appreciate of riesling. No matter how many wine journalists try to convert the public to riesling, it's still just us. I did three riesling pieces in the book, maybe four. I tried! For most people, riesling is still like art house movies — with subtitles.
Q: You're known for throwing lively dinner parties. Who does the cooking?
A: I'm a chaotic cook. No matter what I tell myself, if I don't start by noon, I'm screwed. I recently did a dinner as a delayed wedding present for [architect] Campion Platt and his new wife. I'd said, "Look, I'll give you a great dinner party instead of place settings from Tiffany." By the time they were due to arrive, I had pine nuts in the oven which had almost caught fire and my finger was bleeding from a knife slice. Nothing was ready. Luckily for me, the guests got stuck in an old elevator in a loft conversion building in SoHo. They were trapped for over an hour. Thanks to that reprieve, I was able to get it together. We had a fabulous first raw course that had blown me away at a restaurant in Spain: ultra-thin slivers of foie gras and raw shrimp with black truffles and truffle oil. People went crazy for it. Then braised lamb shanks. The wine was Vieux Telegraph 1998, a great Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Sometimes, I invite my friend Lora Zarubin, food editor of H&G. I'm always hoping she'll volunteer to prepare a dish, and she doesn't disappoint.
Q: Does wine get into your novels?
A: Not in a big way. But in my current novel, "The Good Life," there's a character who introduces the wines at his dinner parties. Several friends have pointed out that I'm making fun of myself.
Q: Has fatherhood changed how you feel about wine?
A: One of the stabilizing things about both wine and children is that you need a place to house them. They ground you. Secondly, having wine is very much like having children because it orients you toward the future. I have to be thinking about where I'll be seven or 10 years from now, when the wines will be at their best. So you're looking farther ahead than you would otherwise. It's not like doing drugs, where you live completely in the present. And finally, wine orients you more to home and hearth, because you don't drink it alone. You share it with people. Wine and children both lead to socializing and conviviality.
Q: You once had a reputation as a hard-liquor drinker. Still do it?
A: Once in a while, I still love a great margarita or a little Armagnac or Calvados. But mostly I don't drink it and am happier for it. If you have a shot of Jack Daniel's, it's pretty hard to taste that first glass of wine. Plus which, we only have a limited number of brain cells.