If you're a wine geek, and perhaps even if you're not, you've heard of Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar-Book. Prof. Saintsbury (1845-1933) was a journalist and later a professor of English Literature at Edinburgh. Notes on a Cellar-Book is his only book on wine and spirits, published in 1920 towards the end of his career, during the dark days of Prohibition in the United States and a noisy temperance movement in the UK.
Cellar-Book is one of those works that everyone knows about but few people have actually read, and five minutes with an original edition of the book will reveal why. It is so chock full of obscure literary allusions, puns, references to once-current events and other arcane matters that it is almost impossible to follow. I've tried to plough through my own 1920 edition of it unassisted many times over the past couple of decades, and to be perfectly honest, I never really made any headway on the road to comprehension.
Thomas Pinney's new edition includes detailed annotations that finally make the Cellar-Book comprehensible and enjoyable.
So is it all worth it? Yes, if you are seeking an insight into Saintsbury's realm -- the aesthetics of wine and food in a scholarly world that existed before anyone dreamed up the Wine Spectator, Gourmet Magazine, Robert Parker, and the Food Channel. Before celebrity chefs. When an English professor of modest means could enjoy Richebourg and Montrachet, before hedge fund zillionaires who dump ten thousand bucks on a bottle of Burgundy, or a couple million to remodel the corner office.
It's a memoir and a collection of personal observations, not a comprehensive review of any particular wine or wine region, chock full of Saintsbury's remembrances of great meals and bottles he'd enjoyed over a long career of eating and drinking very well, thank you very much, with his college brethren. The Professor also takes every opportunity to toss barbs at prohibitionism and prohibitionists everywhere.
In an appendix, Pinney includes a number of Saintsbury's short articles and essays on wine, not included in the original Cellar-Book. One describes the wine cellar in an elaborate (and elaborately expensive) doll's house that was presented as a gift to Queen Mary in 1924. Yes, just one generous lifespan removed from our own times, but it was definitely another world.
Hats off to Thomas Pinney for bringing that world and this hoary chestnut back to life for modern readers.