September 17 2007
Eric Arnold, a Wine Spectator Editor, released his first book today called “First Big Crush,” a Hunter S. Thompson-esque romp (minus the hallucinogens, but with a ratcheted and commensurate amount of beer) through a vintage year at Allan Scott wines in New Zealand.
Inspired by unemployment (and sans the WS gig which came after the fact) and taking a risk to write a book on what I assume to be spec., Arnold has written a bawdy and lively story that is part voyeuristic romp and part ex-pat “tales from the fermentation tank.”
If you’re interested in learning about the winemaking process, but bored with the stuffy idea of wading through textbook definitions of malolactic fermentation, then this is the book for you. Arnold writes like the Graduate Assistant you wish you had for that 400-level class in the last semester of your Senior year. Accessible, insightful and refreshingly free of any of the b.s. artifice that is the crutch of people hanging onto insider status, this is a FUN book that reads like a serialized blog, complete with a voice that resonates for anybody under the age of 40, or the young of heart. Make sure you drink some Hogue Fume Blanc when you’re reading the book. Arnold’s introduction will explain in some detail why Hogue is significant, and I will let you in on the fact that being “socially adjusted” makes the book even funnier, like listening in on a conversation at a bar.
I caught up with Arnold for a quick Q & A. The following is our un-edited exchange. My questions are bolded. His answers are italicized.
Good Grape: The Book has a very blog-style, first-person Gen. Y voice to it. Did you go into the writing of the book thinking you wanted to write something that might hit an audience more like yourself and less like the typical wine enthusiast?
Actually, I’m Gen X. At the very tail end of it, anyway. But yes, really from the first sentence my intention was to use the voice in which members of my generation speak to each other. Otherwise, what would have been the point? Why write a wine book that’s the same as so many of the others (boring, elitist and failing to really focus on who makes the wine, how they make it and why it tastes the way it does)? However, I also tried to follow the idea that any good, immersion-style nonfiction writer does his or her best to convey the style and voice of the people they’re profiling. On top of that, too, I think the voice in the book matures significantly by the final few chapters, as I – and the reader, hopefully – gain a much stronger grasp of what goes into winemaking. I’d love to tell you that that element was intentional, but I don’t think it was. Growing up just sort of happens whether you like it or not, and least of all when you’re actually paying attention. A total bitch, ain’t it?
Ed. Note: I think Arnold is 30, the same age as my wife. A small quibble, but he’s the first year of Gen. Y—my benchmark being a relative appreciation for the John Hughes films of the 80s, which mostly missed my wife, but something I’m incredibly fond of as a Gen. X’er a couple of years older.
Good Grape: Do you read wine blogs and if so, do you have any favorites and what do make of writing and video bloggers gaining notoriety in what has traditionally been a very closed-off media circle covering the wine industry?
Absolutely, I read and watch them religiously, especially Dr. Vino, Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog, and primarily Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV. What he’s done is immensely important for a range of reasons, all of which become more and more apparent the more you watch. Mike Steinberger from Slate.com really captured Gary’s appeal and significance perfectly. But most of all, what Gary’s done that’s so brilliant, is remind people that wine is supposed to be fun. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come close to pissing myself laughing at some of the things he’s said and done – and learned at the same time.
Also, I think all the Wine Spectator editors have done a very good job with their blogs, and embraced them as an opportunity to connect with and respond to readers – really put a face with their scores, descriptions and general ideas and experiences. That’s been a great first step toward opening that very closed-off media circle. They’re showing that they’re just regular people who care very deeply about providing their readers with the best information they can.
Good Grape: You mentioned in the book that Hogue Fume Blanc got you onto wine because it was a cheaper way to drink on a Saturday night when you were in college. When was the last time you drank a Hogue Fume Blanc and do you agree that college students are drinking a ton more wine then they used to? What do you think is the college student wine equivalent to “Natural Light” or “Keystone Light” i.e. decent, but cheap?
Last time I drank Hogue was probably less than a year ago. I’ve got to say, it’s still a really good wine for not that much money ($8 or $9 retail, depending on where you go). It’ll never knock your socks off, but it won’t taste like squirrel piss either. It’s a great party wine.
Do I agree that college students are drinking more wine now? Couldn’t tell you, since I haven’t set foot on a college campus in a long time. But next time I do, I hope the experience is like something out of Old School. The KY wrestling match is one thing I never managed to accomplish in my four years.
In all seriousness, though, the research stats you hear from the wine industry these days would indicate that college students are indeed drinking wine, mostly to pregame…but hey, it’s a start. As for calling Natty Light or Keystone decent and cheap, um, where did you go to school exactly? Cheap yes; decent, no.
Good Grape: If somebody in their twenties gets really excited about wine after reading your book, what’s another book you would refer them to? It doesn’t have to be a reference book.
Ooh, tough one. I could give you a much longer list of books NOT to read. But a lot of people tell me they really like Matt Kramer’s books since he has a very no-nonsense approach (and he’s hilarious as a speaker, if you ever get the chance to see him in person). I’m looking forward to Dr. Vino’s book, which probably comes out next year. Just knowing him and his approach, I think it’ll probably be a natural step from my book to his.
Ed. Note: This was a loaded question because I would recommend Matt Kramer’s “Making Sense of Wine.” I wanted to see how he would respond.
Good Grape: You have a good wit that shines through in your writing with a non-traditional, occasionally off-color sense of humor. Four part question, here: 1) Who is your favorite comedian, 2) Please quantify how it is that you have nicer tits than Andrea Immer, 3) What’s a good one-liner that got edited OUT of the book, and 4) Do you fear reaction from your normally staid colleagues at the Wine Spectator?
1) Dana Gould, probably. Though Drew Carey, in his standup days about 10 years ago, was amazing. And I hate to say it, but John Valby, aka Dr. Dirty, the guy who plays the piano and sings all those unbelievably filthy limericks, is a misunderstood genius. I remember seeing his shows in college, and you felt like you were going straight to the lowest circle of hell to have your brain gnawed on for eternity. But it was worth it.
2) I don’t have nicer tits anymore… I lost almost 20 lbs. in New Zealand from doing all that manual labor.
3) There’s a cocaine joke in there that mentions Chris Farley. Originally it was Lindsay Lohan, but the lawyers made me change it since, at the time, she had never been arrested for possession, never been in rehab, and stated in her Vanity Fair interview that she’d never done blow. The book was practically being printed when she ran her car off the road and had enough Charlie in her pocket to be called Pablo. I was so pissed off about that. But lawyers do what they have to do….
4) Who said they’re staid? Most everyone here is very laid back, very friendly and has a pretty good sense of humor. You’ve really got the wrong idea about them. I bet the guys who write for The Economist show up to work naked half the time.
Good Grape: Aside from the inspiration at your high school reunion and your buddy Jim, did you look into going to another English-speaking country like Australia or a place that might have helped your love life like Italy or Chile?
Believe me, I was thinking about my sex life first and foremost! But ultimately it came down to me simply being legal to work in New Zealand at the time, since I was under 30 and qualified for a visa. I wanted to go there anyway, of course, but at the same time, who really wants to read another book about Italian wine or French wine? Who gives a shit? I needed to go someplace new and fun – a place that could benefit from me as much as I could from them. My sex life had to take a back seat. And oh my, did it ever.
Good Grape: What did you spend your book advance on? Any wine to celebrate?
Paying off the debt I incurred writing it. I’ll spend the remainder on one of those Thomas Jefferson wines since they’re basically worth about as much as Hogue Fume Blanc now.
Good Grape: Good hook-up with Sammy Hagar for the jacket blurb, I enjoyed that Spectator article a few months back. With the original Van Halen reuniting for a concert tour, are you a David Lee Roth or a Sammy Hagar era fan of Van Halen?
You know, in high school everyone liked David Lee Roth – they all said he had the showmanship and all. But I first listened to them with Hagar, and he was definitely the better songwriter and singer. I see the appeal of Roth, don’t get me wrong. But in all honesty, I was only enough of a fan to buy Van Halen CDs, not enough go see a show. I was more into Tom Petty, the Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who and Aerosmith, as well as some more off-beat stuff like The Pixies and Jesus and Mary Chain.
Ed Note: This too was a loaded question as I wanted to see how he answered. I prefer Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen. David Lee Roth is the popular choice, though.
Good Grape: What do you make of the dichotomy of winemakers being drinking, cussing farmers and most wine enthusiasts being conservative, Lexus driving elitists?
Well, I think we’re stereotyping both sides of it, here. Sure, winemakers can be drinking, cussing farmers, but they dial it back depending on who they’re talking to and when. And I’d say that most conservative, Lexus-driving elitists I know let the expletives and bad manners out much more naturally than anyone, but they keep it toned down for business situations, funerals and weddings – and maybe not even then. They’re assholes, really.
Good Grape: Who is better dinner conversation? Suckling, Laube, Kramer or Eric Arnold?
You’d have to ask my friends and family, who’d probably all say, “Any of the three but Eric. His minimum number of penis jokes per course seems to be on the rise lately.”
Good Grape: What’s the next book going to be about?
This interview, and what a joy it was. Right on the same level with Internet porn… just a click away from this interview! Explore the parallels for yourself!
Good Grape: Thanks for taking some time out, Eric. This is probably the first time I’ve had a reference to sex, penises, Andrea Immer’s breasts and wine in one conversation. We need to hang out more often.