What Jonathan Nossiter's Liquid Memory gets wrong about wine.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Oct. 30 2009 9:34 AM

In Vino Pompousness

The Michael Moore of the wine world is back.

(Continued from Page 1)

The problem with Nossiter's professed populism is that he doesn't mean a word of it; it is just a pose. He denounces contemporary wine jargon as elitist—even smells a conspiracy behind it—yet how does he talk about wine? Mostly through historical, cinematographic, and literary allusions, a descriptive style that is vastly more inaccessible than all this chatter about cherries and berries. Of Burgundies, Nossiter writes that they are "closer to the experience of poetry, particularly as practiced by the ancient Greeks and, say, the classical Chinese or, not coincidentally, by the modernist poets since the turn of the twentieth century who've sought inspiration in the staccato lyricism of the Greeks and in the mellifluous indecipherability of the Chinese." Now, there's a tasting note for the Everyman! Likewise, it is a bit hard to square his indignation over wine's luxury status with the fact that the three winemakers who garner most of the attention in the book—Roumier, Roulot, and Dominique Lafon—turn out some of the rarest and priciest wines on the planet.

Liquid Memory is not just disingenuous—it's also completely outdated. Perhaps Nossiter just hasn't noticed, but Parker's influence is rapidly waning, and a very self-confident and democratic wine culture is taking root in the United States. Five or 10 years ago, you still saw plenty of blind obeisance to critics. Now, thanks in no small part to the Internet, people have discovered their "freedom to taste" and are happily exercising it. Not only that: They are increasingly embracing the kind of subtle, distinctive wines that Nossiter favors (and that I happen to prefer, too). They are being turned on to grower Champagnes, chinons, and albariños by passionate importers and retailers, and also by writers like Eric Asimov, Jon Bonné, and Matt Kramer, who encourage readers to seek out these wines without flaunting their expertise or trashing those whose preferences differ from their own.

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But this kind of heavy lifting requires a modesty that Nossiter conspicuously lacks; Liquid Memory is an advertisement for himself, a point made pitifully clear when he visits L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. Unhappy with the restaurant's wine list, he spends the meal upbraiding the staff (the sommelier is the book's real hero—he walks away while Nossiter is in midsentence). It is quickly apparent that Nossiter is playing to an imaginary camera and trying to impress the audience with what he believes to be his superior knowledge. What mainly comes across, however, is his off-the-charts smugness.

Liquid Memory also reads like the product of a bruised ego. Nossiter was stung by the harsh reception accorded Mondovino in certain precincts (notably, Parker's own discussion board), and he uses the book to hit back. It's not the score-settling per se that is troubling—it is the form that it takes: Nossiter attempts to politicize differences over taste. He compares Parker to George W. Bush, saying he has the same "virulent righteousness," and suggestively notes that there are signed pictures of Ronald Reagan in Parker's "blandly kitschy suburban home." Nossiter evidently wants us to believe that the conspiracy against terroir and the freedom to taste is of the vast right-wing variety. One of Mondovino's many detractors was the eminent Spanish journalist and winemaker Victor de la Serna; his punishment, in Liquid Memory, is to be tarred as both a neocon and a right-wing Catholic extremist

Personally, I have no idea how Parker votes or how de la Serna leans, and I couldn't care less. One of the many pleasures of wine is the refuge it provides from the news of the day and the partisan rancor that defines these times. The wine world is certainly no Eden, but at least among the grape nuts I know, there seems to be a tacit understanding that politics should end at the rim of the glass—that arguments over wine are spirited enough without injecting politics into the discussion. It's regrettable, if entirely in character, that Nossiter has sunk to this particular tactic. For someone who claims to cherish the culture of wine and to crave a more enlightened wine discourse, he has a curious way of demonstrating it. Nossiter has now aired his thoughts on wine in both film and print. At this point, really the best thing he could do for the cause of good wine would be to put a cork in it.

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