Jonathan Nossiter : Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 262, ISBN 978-0-374-27257-9

Reviewed by Richard E. Quandt

Nossiter is an accomplished film maker, the author of Mondovino among others, with roots in North America, France, and more recently, Brazil. His book contains his reflections on and his many years’ of experience with the the making, marketing and drinking of wine; what is good and what is bad in the wine industry; and most interestingly, conversations with some of the most distinguished wine makers in France. In the course of this exploration, we visit famous wine shops (Legrand and Lavinia) in Paris, stop in famous eatieries (Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Alain Senderens, Le Dôme, La Cagouille and others, and converse with distinguished winemakers (such as Jean-Marc Roulot, Christophe Roumier and Dominique Lafon). In the meantime, we make the acquaintance of Nossiter's friend, the exceptional actress, Charlotte Rampling, and most importantly, learn about what Nossiter likes and what he hates.

Right off the bat, we find that he detests “winespeak“; that mindless piling up of meaningless adjectives and metaphoric phrases for which wine writers are so well known. As an example of that he quotes the Wine Spectator as describing a wine as ”richly aromatic and brims with dark berry and currant aromas and flavors, shaded with espresso and dark chocolate overtones set against somewhat gritty tannins. A meaty note adds extra depth as the finish lingers on and on against the tannins”. We can all think of such evaluations and they are all nonsense, and Nossiter is to be commended for taking an early stand against this precious yet nefarious practice. Nossiter is a firm advocate of the importance of terroir, and when he speaks of it, he sounds positively poetic, as in ”Without terroir—in wine, cinema, or life (I’m happiest when the three are confused— there is no individuality, no dignity, no tolerance, no shared civilization. Terroir is an act of generosity. The last thing it should be is sectarian or reactionary.”(p. 11) And then he goes on: ”The defense of terroir is not a reactionary, unquestioning clinging to tradition. It is the will to progress into the future with a firm rootedness in a collective past, but where the rootedness is left to evolve freely and continuously above ground, in the present, to create a sharply etched—and hard-earned —identity. It's a way to counteract the relentless homogenization of certain global forces. It is the only way, I believe, to progress ethically to respect and place oneself in relation to, but not to ape, the past.” (p. 12) And later he says, ”de Villaine's relationship with his terroirs (and thus with time itself. . . since a terroir is also the historical development of the relationship between man and nature) belonged to a rhythm to far outside my (syncopated, kinetic) pace for a theatrical release film. . .”(pp.81-82) This borders on the mumbo-jumbo he decried earlier but gives us a clue as to the arch villains: globalizing forces and homogenization, to which we will add, as we go along, excessive alcohol, excessive fruit (”fruit bombs”) and excessive sugar. This is tempered by a modest disclaimer on p. 19 to the effect that he does not intend to speak with authority but only provide a guide book based on personal experience.

After a lovely and evocative description of the old Les Halles we encounter a sound prescription for a wine buying strategy, namely to buy less good vintages from top vignerons. This is advice that many have suggested and it may just work out fine in the long run.This is followed by a cautionary tale of how the terroir of Charles Joguet's Clos de la Dioterie has been adulterated after Joguet's domaine was bought by others. Much of the book deals with Burgundies and Nossiter's clearly has a great affection for this region: ”They are the most ambiguous and elusive wines on the planet. They are much closer to poetry than prose . . . The charm of Burgundies stems in large part from their aroma, exuberantly fruity when the wine is young; ethereal at once savage and sophisticated, when it ripens. In the mouth, they are often sensual and captivating but nevertheless impenetrable— but because of their delicacy, not their strength.” (pp. 52-53) A little later we have the first reference to Robert Parker, and not a favorable one at that; in talking about the vigneron Maume he says that he is ” demonized outright by admirers of the facile, including megacritic Robert Parker.” Odd facts emerge and keep us interested, such as the fact that there is a wine industry in Brazil, which this reviewer did not know, started by Veneto immigrants in the past. In any event, terroir is everything in Burgundy and does not exist in Bordeaux, "Château Pichon-Lalande is merely a brand name and not a delimited terroir at all." (p. 92)To which we need to add that Bordeaux has lost its sould in recent years (p. 21).

A scathing critique of the Atelier de Joël Robuchon follows; Nossiter critizes the prices (one glass of a white wine from the Côte de Nuit by Jayer Gilles cost €17) and the service (outrageously bad). (Parenthetically one should note that the outstanding publisher of this book, Farrar Straus and Giroux, could have typeset the symbol for a euro better than by overstriking an equal sign with an open parenthesis.) Particularly delicious is a conversation between the author and the sommelier (pp. 102-103). But high praise is heaped on Le Dôme, undoubtedly deservedly so. A full indictment of Parker follows: the prophet of ”sweet, fat and rich wines” and the ”principal agent in the dissemination of this new vinous world order.” (p. 130) Nossiter also makes fun of Parker's wine descriptions and rightly so; it also follows that he does not think much of American, South African and Australian wines, which does not follow. In any event, he like Jancis Robinson a lot more than Parker: ”She is head and shoulders above Parker, both intellectually and as a taster” (p. 189); see He also reveals himself to be skeptical of blind tastings; he thinks that this is equivalent to ”kissing an anonymous person in a darkened room ”. (p. 154) While one probably should not argue about another person's simile or metaphor (or metonymy or synecdoche either) , those old enough might remember the game of ”post office,” which was not half bad. But more seriously, how is one to judge wines if not in an environment in which irrelevant factors have been eliminated? Which of course, goes immediately to Nossiter's critique of the” Judgment of Paris”; the great 1976 tast-off between American and French Cabernet Sauvignons on the one hand and Chardonnays on the other. Nossiter leaves no ambiguity about how he feels: the 1976 tasting is ”one of the greatest catastrophes that has befallen the wine world. ”(p. 237). Presumably this view represents the critique of the facile conclusion that American wines ”won” (soit disant!) both competitions. It is true that American wines were first in both competitions. But in the Cabernet Sauvignon competition, three wines (one American and two French) were judged to be ”significantly good” and one wine (American) was judged to be significantly bad (see http://www.liquidasset, . But what is the overall picture with respect to French and American wines in that tasting? That needs more analysis. So why is it that wine writers who know nothing about statistics do not bother to read the literature of experts? To wit, the paper by Dennis V. Lindley, one of the great Bayesian statisticians of the last century, entitled ”The Analysis of a Wine Tasting” (see Are they afraid that rigorous statistical analysis will reveal something that they cannot get their nose or tastebuds around? (Also worth looking at is Nossiter claims that the idea of wine competitions is absurd, for the same reason that ”Audrey Hepburn [might not be able to] win a Miss World competition when surrounded by more carnal choices.”(p. 240) But whether there is a competition or not, individual tastes will always differ, and any assessment, whether in the spirit of a competition or just among friends shooting the breeze about wine, will always be affected by individual preferences, whether for fleshy mammary glands or for fruit, acid, tannin or whatever. Nossiter seemingly endorses silly views, like when he quotes Jean-Marc Roulot to the effect that ”I can't like a wine made by an a**hole” (p. 166). Does he mean that an a**hole is incapable of making a good wine, or that he can identify who is not an a**hole by drinking and then liking his wine? Other weird views expressed is the remark by Dominique Lafon that ”we try not to prune during the waning moon” (pp. 192-193), which makes me wonder whether the positions of other celestial bodies might not also be relevant for successful pruning.

There is much that is enjoyable and informative in this book, and I learned a lot from it. It does not cover all relevant subjects; there is very little about German wines, nothing about Italian wines and only a limited discussion of Spanish wines (he hates what they Spanish have done to their wines in the past 15 years). He is outraged by the price of Pingus at the Atelier de Joël Robuchon (€803), and that is a horrendous price; but in fact, while quite expensive under the best of circumstances, one can get it for much less. A search, using the search engine|D-null turned up about 12 vintages of Pingus, ranging in price from $450 to $745, with one exception, which was $1,200 (and these prices are in dollars, not euros). In any event, the author has vast experience in wines, knows a lot of interesting people and clearly has a message about wines. But the book is marred by eccentric judgments, a hopelessly pompous style and by a certain amount of solipsism: I found the the self-references, and particularly to Mondovino ultimately annoying.

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