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#NovelPairings with Damian Barr

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6th November 2018

#NovelPairings with Damian Barr

The award-winning writer talks about his love of matching booze with books, and going beyond the literal of the literary with a glass in hand

One recent evening, I finished reading Lila by Marilynne Robinson – often hailed as one of the most influential writers in modern American literature – while polishing off a £6 bottle of Malbec that I’d bought on offer from my local Tesco Express. Experts of both words and wine may note that neither choice did the other any favours.

For over three years, award-winning writer Damian Barr was a wine expert for The Sunday Times. Gradually expanding his critique to include spirits – because ‘people drink more than one drink, sometimes in one evening’ – he worked tirelessly to make potentially intimidating subjects more accessible.

Two of his many passion projects are Damian Barr’s Literary Salon, hosted at The Savoy in London, and A Book and A Bottle, a series of podcasts and events produced with the help of connoisseurs Corney & Barrow, the capital’s oldest wine merchants. The latter is about ‘pairing finer novels with great wines’ in a salon-style setting, involving drinks aficionados and successful novelists, who read, discuss and match along with the audience.

“Wine can often make people a little nervous, and it’s perhaps a tad ironic that I’m also attracted to the world of books – another subject that people can find intimidating,” says Damian. “But everybody likes drinking, and pretty much everyone likes reading, so I wanted to combine those two things.”

For me – and a great many others – a glass of wine is as much about atmosphere as it is about taste, as the scent of a rich red filling warm rooms in winter is one of the many small joys to be had during the colder months. But how do you go about finding that perfect union between prose and plonk?

Some books lend themselves naturally to a coupling due to the role that alcohol plays in the narrative. The booziest book ever paired, according to Damian, was The Secret History by Donna Tartt: “A campus book where everyone is hammered all the time – they drink everything.”

But it’s the literary rather than the literal that piques the interest of Damian’s followers, as well as the writers he works with. The mood of the book takes precedence: Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Is it joyous? Do you want a wine that reflects that? 

One example he uses is the tense and complex My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist, which he paired with Lane Shiraz Viognier 2013. On his blog for A Book and A Bottle, Damian writes: “[The wine] is not straightforward. It’s full of brooding tension – one grape would be lesser without the other, as would Elena and Lila.”

The process of #NovelPairings is an enjoyable one for the author, columnist and salonnière, who cites The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark as one of his favourites, balanced with a Lustau Fino Jarana Sherry.

“It’s a short book, but one that you can return to year after year, to uncover so much more between the pages,” he reminisces. “Sherry is the only drink that’s mentioned, and this particular drink was quite dry, but packed with flavour and spice, which I think perfectly matched the character of Jean Brodie, who’s caricatured as being a dry school mistress, but is in fact a woman of great passion, albeit misguided!”

Damian’s nuanced approach to looking beyond the literary is obviously resonating with readers and writers alike. Indeed, Ian Rankin, author of Rather Be The Devil, is a self-confessed worshipper of Spark, and has bestowed his seal of approval upon the choice. But does novel pairing bring anything new to their experience of the book?

“A number of things can do that,” confirms Damian. “I was discussing this with Amor Towles [author of A Gentleman in Moscow]; there’s a great moment when the aristocrat is trapped in a hotel by the Bolsheviks, and he talks of how wine is the concentration of a place, and a season, and a moment. That’s all completely true – wine is evocative of a time and a place.”

A Book and A Bottle returns on December 2nd aboard the Queen Elizabeth at The Mayflower Terminal, Southampton Docks, at 10am, featuring Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott and her bestselling novel ‘Swan Song’. You can purchase your tickets here

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