“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





06 May 2009



One big sexy organoleptic frolic ends:
my mate Max dies peacefully in Sydney

by PHILIP WHITE - This obituary first appeared in The Independent Weekly on 1 MAY 9

Early eighties. I’m the last one into the lift. We got the maximum fourteen in her. Big hotel. Tuxed and polished, but feeling awkwardly sober, I face the door, trying not to seem too presumptuous, too big. I look terribly hitman. We lurch upwards.

“Bergamot.” A deep male voice at the back.

“Lavendar, basil, sandalwood ... ”

He’s listing the components of my perfume.

“ ... amber, vanilla ... very old style ... Guerlain! It’s Jicky!”

That was Max Lake. Max was a great surgeon with a desperate fascination with pheromones, smells, and cabernet sauvignon. In fact, any serious food and wine. And sex. He wrote many essays and books on these topics. Jicky is a perfume created by Aimé Guerlain in 1889. The other day, after a fall, the mighty Max died calmly of long life.

When he got out of the lift he drew up on his toes and sniffed my neck.

“Ooooh”, he said.

I was in awe of the pig-headed determination Max put to proving he could make great cabernet in the Hunter Valley. Which he did. But ’til then I hadn’t been aware of his parfumerie skills. He didn’t give a fig that the punk crewcut hitman in the tux was soused with sheila’s scent. He said it turned him on. Exactly, I suggested, as it turned me on, and the likes of Colette, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, who’d also worn it.

Max went on to make mention of “one male wine writer’s attractive use of Jicky” in his 1989 book, Scents and Sensuality – The Essence Of Excitement. That was in the day when it was verboten to wear any scent at all to a wine industry event. As if wine was always meant to be drunk in sterilised rooms.

Max knew that a room full of people, or a lift, had a rich cornucopia of smells whether anybody wore perfume or not: his fascination lay in the counterplay of aromas of humans, foods and wines, and the background aromas of wherever this sexy organoleptic frolic took place.

He theorised at great length about pheromones, the hormone-like compounds which control much of our sexual behaviour: generally undetectable chemical transmissions to which we involuntarily respond. He believed that these odour-free transmissions are often accompanied by aromas that in themselves trigger arousal, as the nose detects the aroma and presumptuously warns the brain to expect the accompanying pheromone to rock in at any moment. Anticipatory excitement, see?

Many of these natural scents, Max discovered, were present in good food and wine, and he quite sensibly dedicated his life to these things. Truffles, oysters, caviar, great cheese, aged champagne, burgundy and bordeaux – all the most delectable and expensive foodstuffs – carry many aromas that generally accompany one arousing pheromone or another. This explains our unlimited capacity to spend enormous amounts of money chasing the great gastronomic climax.

Max was fascinated, for example, in the incidence of isovaleric acid in wine. It can form during malolactic fermentation, the secondary ferment in which bacteria convert the harsh, metallic, malic acid of grapes to the softer, fatty lactic acid of milk, the first acid we taste after birth. Max theorised that this aromatic compound makes mothers motherly, babies nuzzly to the IVA-perfumed breast, and fathers protective when they detect it in mild doses. But in high doses, it’s a major contributor to the smells of stale sweat and stinky feet, the aroma of the ordure of the battlefield or the football changing room, where it makes men more aggressive and violent and generally repulsive to women.

Max thought that the presence of small amounts of such a compound in, say, a great white burgundy, played a major part in humans’ attraction to it.

Of his many books, Scents and Sensuality sits comfortably beside other great works on the subject, like Lyall Watson’s Jacobson’s Organ And The Remarkable Nature Of Smell, or the theories proposed in grand fictions like Patrick Susskind’s Perfume and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.

Typically, the wine industry’s white coats ridiculed Max’s sexy theorising, and for twenty years we were hard put to find anything resembling sensuality in most of the wines these chill industrial chemists manufactured.

Which was not to be said of the wines Max made at his famous forerunning Hunter winery, Lake’s Folly. While the white coats snubbed the humid Hunter as a source of cabernet sauvignon, Max was amongst the first I knew who was aware of the prominent humidity of Bordeaux at vintage, and appreciated that this moisture produced wines of more supple softness than those grown in very dry places. Compare a Clare cabernet (tight, ungiving, olivine) to a Hunter (sensual, supple, fleshy) and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

If we are to regain the respect of the wine world, we’ll need a lot more Max Lakes. More Pan; more Bacchus. More lust in the thirst and hunger.


Unknown said...

That's simply a juicy, great piece of writing about Max Lake. We do need more people like him in wine and everywhere, more people to call out our fears about sensuality, more people to recoil from the white coat philosophy. Give me the feral over the tidy and tame anyday.

meredithjean said...

I swear there is a pheremonal exudate resulting from your choice and sequencing of words and tense, as you parcel love and respect for your pal. It is not detectable by the conscious brain, but on a sub-conscious level it evokes a tenderness. So tender Mr White, you pack the tender very well. Amazingly I have read both Jitterbug P and Suskind's P. Weren't you blown away that a book translated from German can be so delicious to read? The stinking bloody foul birth scene in the first couple of pages delivers a truer glimpse (sniff) of that period (er 18th century? I can't remember) than history ever has.