Who said there is no disputing taste? For many oenophiles, half the pleasure of wine is arguing about it. In recent years, the vinosphere has seen a contentious debate over what can be called, for lack of a less ponderous phrase, First Principles. What defines quality in a wine? How about authenticity? Is it ultimately more important for a wine to taste good or to taste true to its origins—to exhibit goût de terroir, as the French say? And if the end result is agreeable, does it matter how a wine was made? With much of the wine industry fixated on branding and marketing, and technology increasingly giving vintners the power to bend nature to their will, these questions have taken on added urgency, and the discussion of them has grown ever more acrimonious.
One of the more controversial salvos in the war over taste was the 2004 documentary Mondovino, which portrayed a viticultural landscape divided between embattled Old World artisans and the relentless forces of globalization and corporatization, supposedly led by the critic Robert Parker. Written and directed by Jonathan Nossiter, Mondovino was unabashedly one-sided—agitprop would be a fair description—and done more in the style of a mockumentary than a documentary. (Nossiter found plenty of low-hanging fruit to pluck: craven chateau owners in Bordeaux, rapacious consultants, status-chasing Napa vintners.) The slanted storytelling, coupled with the fact that Nossiter is seen and heard in the film, prompted many people, myself included, to dub him the Michael Moore of wine.
The auteur is now an author: Nossiter has published a book called Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters. Having just finished it, I've decided that the Moore analogy is inapt. For one thing, Nossiter is humorless, which certainly can't be said of Moore. More importantly, there is no denying that Moore, however buffoonish, is motivated primarily by a keen social conscience. Nossiter, by contrast, seems propelled by little more than a desire to draw attention to himself. The solipsism, self-regard, and preening on display in Liquid Memory is breathtaking; the subtitle should really be Why I Matter. Nossiter raises some important issues, but these merely become opportunities for him to trumpet the sophistication of his own palate and to scorn those who don't share his sensibilities. What makes Liquid Memory truly execrable, however, is that it portrays these differences as anchored in political ideology. In doing so, Nossiter barrels across a line that no one who genuinely cares about wine should cross.
Like Mondovino, Liquid Memory leads the reader on a sweeping tour of the wine world. And once again, the view is a stark one: Good and evil are at war in the garden of wine. The book's heroes are people who make earthy, terroir-driven wines that Nossiter enjoys (Christophe Roumier, Jean-Marc Roulot) or people who share his taste. The ghouls are those who produce or champion the lush, homogenous wines that he abhors (Michel Rolland, Robert Parker) or who sell them for what he considers extortionate prices (the acclaimed French chef Joël Robuchon).
Nossiter takes himself very seriously, and the book is larded with weighty pronouncements. But his stabs at profundity tend to be hilariously vacuous. The importance of terroir—which, in the context of wine, is generally taken to mean a sense of place—is a recurring theme in Liquid Memory; at one point, Nossiter explains that the "defense of terroir" connotes the "will to progress into the future with a firm rootedness in a collective past, but where that rootedness is left to evolve freely and continuously above ground, in the present, to created a sharply etched—and hard-earned—identity." He later submits the head-scratching proposition that "terroir, to be vital, must be local but not parochial" and proclaims that "the beauty of wine is that it leads us to be mistaken in an infinite number of ways." Pensées like this will send even the most ardent oenophile racing to the fridge in search of a Budweiser.
Liquid Memory presents itself as a call to arms; it exhorts wine lovers to rise up against "all those critics and arbiters who purport to speak with authority and are taking most of the fun and almost all the culture out of wine these days." The book, declares Nossiter, is "an invitation to discover your freedom to taste." He contends that consumers are being denied this freedom by figures such as Parker who have shrouded wine in an arcane language designed to "exclude, bully, and belittle" people and by global economic forces that have placed wine on "the pedestal of high luxury, stripped of any relation to pleasure and discovery" and turned it into a "remarkably brazen expression of psycho-mercantile intimidation bordering on theft."