A Naïve Domestic Little Unicorn

Writing in Forbes magazine, John Mariani surveys wine writing and finds that this is one area where inexperienced “experts” tend to bring too much imagination to bear on their work. He uses a scene from Brideshead Revisited to illustrate his point:

People madly in love with inanimate objects like a bottle of wine feel the need to exaggerate to make a point of their irrational obsessions. And as a wine writer who labors arduously not to repeat himself with inane adjectives in describing half a dozen of the same varietals, I feel their pain. […]  The most hilarious mockery of effusive wine talk is, of course, James Thurber’s New Yorker cartoon of a man at dinner with friends saying, “It’s a naïve domestic little [sic] Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

A more extended satire of such pseudo-poetical descriptions is in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, when his two louche heroes try to top one another in their assessment of a Château Lafite-Rothschild 1895:

“…It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle.”

“Like a leprechaun.”

“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”

“Like a flute by still water.”

“…And this is a wise old wine.”

“A prophet in a cave.”

“…And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”

“Like a swan.”

“Like a [sic] unicorn.”

Mr Mariani may have brought a bit too much of his own imagination to bear in this case, as well. He claims that this discussion is about a particular bottle of a particnlar vintage. But in fact, Waugh’s description makes clear that Charles and Sebastian were drinking three types of wine and were so hammered that they were even mixing different wines in the same glass and had no idea whatever of which one they were so effusively describing. Moreover, there is no mention in this passage of Château Lafite-Rothschild 1895. More sadly, Mr Mariani misses one of the best parts of the quote. In the concluding remark,  the wine was not compared to “a unicorn” but to “the last unicorn.” He also has a problem with his quote from James Thurber’s 1937 New Yorker cartoon. The wine there being discussed was, indeed, naïve and domestic but not “little” as well.


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