Bottled Poetry: How to Pair Wine with Books

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Dan the Man

“If experience in wine retail has taught me anything,” says Dan Hutchinson, general manager of The Wine Shoppe at Green Hills, “it’s that book clubs might just be an excuse to get together with friends and have a glass or two with some conversation in between.”

Can’t argue with him there.

Here in Nashville, The Wine Shoppe is to wine what Parnassus is to books: a comfortable neighborhood spot where you can walk in, chat with knowledgable folks, browse to your heart’s content, and walk out with something selected especially for your taste. So when the two came up with the idea last year to partner in presenting book and wine pairings for monthly Wine with the Author events, it was a natural decision — one of those lightning-strikes-and-angels-sing kind of moments.

Here, Hutchinson talks a bit about how he selects wines to go with books, music, and anything else a customer might have in mind.

First of all, it’s pretty impressive that you read every book for these events. How do you choose wine to go with a book? Does it involve a lot of research?

My first rule of thumb is to stay away from the obvious, such as the name of a wine or how it is marketed. It would be fine to pour a California wine with a book that was set in California, and, of course, that would make sense. But it’s more fun if you can go deeper than that and say, “Well, this book is set in the late 1800’s in California, and the wine we are pouring is from a winery whose founders moved to this same town at around that time. So it is possible to imagine that these characters may have known the founders or at least would have shared life experience.” I think that gives the wine a story as opposed to just a cursory thought.

executionerFrom there you can go even more thematic if you like. We once did an event for Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, which chronicles the real life struggle of a 16th century executioner as he grapples with his faith and profession. It was a really powerful story and one that had no clear connection to enjoying a glass of wine. What I settled on was a red from a region in France called Cahors and a rosé from a vineyard that has a 16th century church graveyard on the property. The wines of Cahors were once referred to as “The Black Wines of Cahors,” which, of course, was mostly due to their color, but I felt the symbolism of such a dark title combined with the fact that the region once supplied the Vatican with their official sacramental wines made for an interesting corollary. In that sense, the pairing was more of an idea than a direct draw from the text, but that sort of thinking can lead you to some really interesting discoveries.

If everything works the way it should, the book tells you what to pour and the adventure of finding it can be the most fun.

2. What’s the toughest challenge you’ve ever had in choosing a book/wine pairing?

Without a doubt, it would have to be The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. If you’re not familiar with the book: It’s a moving novel based in part on Kevin’s own experiences while serving in the war in Iraq. The book is beautiful and haunting, but also quite heavy. I struggled with this one for a while, because I didn’t want to pick something that would in any way make light of the subject matter at hand – that would undermine the power of the story. In the end, I tried to focus on the idea of war’s unintended consequences. Kevin talked quite a bit about how war changes us all. If I had to pick one moment in history that exemplifies that more than any other it would be the bombing of Hiroshima, after which the world was changed forever.

The wines we poured to go with that book were from a winery called Airfield Estates in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. The name of the winery comes from the fact that it is housed in and on a WWII era Air Force base that was set up on land leased from the farming family that still owns the winery to this day. While the public mission of the base was pilot training from the Pacific fleet, the legend that has persisted around the property is much darker in nature. It is rumored that the site was chosen as a strategic point of defense for the newly established Hanford site where a considerable amount of the Manhattan Project research was being done in secret. Once the land was returned to the family post-war, they did not immediately start making wine; but when they did, the infrastructure left behind by the military became the groundwork for their new endeavor. In the end, I suppose the idea became that war touches us all whether we know it or not and often in the most unexpected ways. Here again, it was the story behind the wines that provided for the most thought provoking pairing.

Book: The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick, author of Silver Linings Playbook White wine: The actor Richard Gere plays a role in that story. So Dan researched what Gere likes to drink (“but not in a stalker way or anything,” Dan says), and chose a Grisela Tessari Soave Classico, a white wine that’s one of Gere’s favorites.
If you’re reading: The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick
Try pouring: Grisela Tessari Soave Classico, a white wine that’s a favorite of the actor Richard Gere, who plays a role in the story

What’s the most unusual wine pairing a customer has ever asked you to make?

I’ve had some weird requests, but one stands out. A few months ago I had a customer who was having a dog-themed party. She wanted wines chosen on the basis of what dogs lived at the wineries. Luckily, she had a list of some wineries and their dogs, because I have to say, I have no idea what dogs different wineries have. (To be honest, I’m more of a cat person.)

What else do you like to pair wine with? Music? Art?

If I have one true love in the creative arts it is, without question, music. Of course, I stopped calling myself a musician as soon as I moved to Nashville. These surroundings can be more than a little intimidating, but to take a play from Nick Hornby and John Cusack, I would call myself a “professional appreciator” of the craft.

With that in mind, I used to challenge myself to come up with menus and pairings for my favorite records when I was a chef in the Seattle area. It’s still something I do for fun. and I’m always particular about what I listen to when cooking at home.The right music can influence a meal while you’re cooking it, just as it can while you’re enjoying it later.

And that’s really what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? Allow me to stray to the cliché here a bit, but what are books if not meals for the mind? A good story adds to the experience.

Thieves in the Afterlife

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Coming up: Nashville author Kendra DeColo presents her new book, Thieves in the Afterlife. Hutchinson finished reading it last week and says he has almost decided on the wines. He’s aiming for a red and a white with appropriate complexity to pair with these poems, which he calls “fantastic and intense.” (Read a sample poem: “After Hours, Provincetown”)

Wine with the Author
Wednesday, March 12
6:30 PM at Parnassus Books
Free, no advance tickets required

Should be a delicious pairing. After all, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “Wine is bottled poetry.”

PS: Not a wine person? Then you might enjoy the popular tumblr “Book and Beer,” which presents pairings of another sort. Still no? Perhaps tea, then. Try these images of tea and books.

tumblrSpeaking of which – we’re having so much fun poking around tumblr sites, we decided to start one of our own!

Visit Lucky Stars for photos, quotes, and other tidbits gathered from around our store and around the Internet every day, all tossed together rather informally.

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What to read while you pour:

ISBN-13: 9780989979702
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Saturnalia Books, 3/2014
ISBN-13: 9781250043610
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Picador, 1/2014

The Yellow Birds (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780316219341
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Back Bay Books, 5/2013

ISBN-13: 9780062285539
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Harper, 2/2014

ISBN-13: 9781438510071
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Book Jungle, 2/2009