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Thursday
Sep242009

Notes from a Cellar-Book: The Antidote for American Puritanism

 "There is absolutely no scientific proof, of a trustworthy kind, that moderate consumption of sound alcoholic liquor does a healthy body any harm at all; while on the other hand there is the unbroken testimony of all history that alcoholic liquors have been used by the strongest, wisest, handsomest, and in every way best races of all times, and the personal experience of innumerable individuals in favour of the use." – George Saintsbury

The man on the book cover looked unhappy, faintly rabbinical and very, very old.  The title didn’t urge me further, what could be more tedious than someone's notes from a cellar book? I could almost smell the mold.  But it was the last book on the shelf and a reading assignment was due. That is how I discovered George Saintsbury, journalist, scholar of French literature, English don and friend to Rudyard Kipling.  His prolific writing and scholarship was matched only by his prodigious appreciation for food and wine. The result may be his most welcome contribution to civility, a narrow volume about his history with wine and spirits, Notes on a Cellar-Book. 

Reading the book is something akin to reading an annotated Shakespeare. You can either read merrily along, like skipping a rock across a calm lake, and understand a bit of Saintsbury’s musings, or you can dig deep, and refer to the copious notes of his editor, Thomas Pinney.  Pinney explains that Saintsbury is a challenging writer for two reasons. One is delightful – he has a penchant for making up words, the kind of words that should be in the dictionary but are not.  For example, he uses “public housey” as a descriptor for one unfortunate wine. (When I read that to my husband he said, “It stinks.”)

The other challenge is that Saintsbury’s reading was so vast that his allusions are often incomprehensible, a sort of turn-of-the-century William F. Buckley, Jr. This is more a problem for his editor than for the reader, who can choose to skip along rather than dig deep. Pinney says, “"The consequence of the bookishness combines with an unremitting allusiveness is, I am convinced, that there are large tracts of Notes on a Cellar-Book that readers today (emphatically including me) simply do not understand- we do not know what he is talking about."  

Saintsbury had planned to write a history of wine but when he had time, he felt he was too old to complete something so extensive. This book is a collection of memories, stories and historical notes.  There is much to entertain the modern reader. For example, his distain for prohibition, the legislation for which coincided with the publication of this book. He dismisses them as “pussyfoots,” without culture or joy.

He also gives an early example of customer service and word-of-mouth marketing.  He recounts an experience, in which, after a long dialog (and tasting?) and a "scanty" purchase of claret by a young Saintsbury, the old purveyor walked him out, not just to the door, but all the way out to the street and said,  "Mr. Sainstbury, Sir, if ye ask anyone to dinner and tell them where ye get your wine, we shall not be ashamed." 

Saintsbury’s most welcome contribution was his defense of the good life.  According to Pinney, some found Saintsbury’s prodigious appetite excessive. “To delicate and fastidious tastes, such an appetite may seem coarse and undiscriminating; but there are others who may find it splendid, even heroic. The capacity to enjoy is, after all, a virtue.”

This capacity to enjoy is evident in the story Saintsbury tells of his maiden aunt who was living on what we might call these days a fixed income. When she had some trouble with her eyes, her "ocultist" (which I take to be an eye doctor and not a medium) recommended she drink Burgundy. Saintsbury gave her some expensive Richebourg to taste along with some of "a sound" Pommard, which was more than half the price of the more expensive wine. He expected the price of the expensive wine would "frighten or shock" her. But she chose it, explaining, "I think my dear boy, the best is always the best."  

The joys of reading Notes from a Cellar Book are many – there is the historical perspective to be sure, but most rewarding is getting to know this genial old don and celebrating the capacity to enjoy. The best is always the best.

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