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.

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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."

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.

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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