I am very pleased to present the third and concluding part of my sterling interview with writer/film-maker Jonathan Nossiter. The immediate occasion of the talk was the October 13th release of his extraordinary book, Liquid Memory, as well November’s release of his 10 part documentary, Mondovino, the Complete Series. I’ve interviewed many people but perhaps no-one more singularly engaged with both the cultural meaning of wine and the with deepening of our understanding. Of course, wine cannot be understood in a conventional sense. It is an ongoing, perpetually renewed encounter. And the greater part of the work or spiritual exercise, pun intended, is to be performed by us, by our subjectivity open to difference. In other words, it is dialectical. This is why Mr. Nossiter’s discourse on wine shares many themes and concepts with other arts, with Cinema, Literature and Painting, for example. Like them, wine, too, can be an art-form subject to new approaches and new evaluations through time. Wine lives, both practically and ideationally. It is movement, music, and dance. It is Liquid Memory.
Great thanks to Mr. Nossiter for his participation in this effort. He took valuable time away from editing his latest film, Rio Sex Comedy, to answer my many post-interview questions and requests for clarification.
A final personal note. It has been my a abiding thought since the founding of this blog that one day I might interview Mr. Nossiter. It is not too much to say that it has been a key motivation to write Reign of Terroir. So when he picked up the phone in Rio the pleasure was, well, something I shall always remember. I therefore dedicate this last portion of the interview to the many wine bloggers out there fighting the good fight, working to make thoughtful contributions to the complex discourse on wine. Marchons, marchons!.
Admin How was the reception of Mondovino when released, especially in the United States?
Jonathan Nossiter One of the scariest things that happened with Mondovino was when it was released in the US. I have never in my life seen so much personal vitriol. I’m accustomed as a film director to all kinds of reviews, but they’ve always dealt with the work. And so, of course, I’ve never responded to any of them, either the good or the bad. But Mondovino elicited personal attacks that floored me. And one of the most absolutely insane expressions, a moment of pure Bushian mania, was the outburst on Robert Parker’s website. There were hundreds of pages of absolutely staggering ad hominem attacks; gratuitous, uninformed, contradictory and hugely inflammatory (the vast majority from people who’d never even seen any of my films, including Mondovino, but once urged on by Parker’s former attack dog, Rovani, they barked and nipped with frothing, rabid fury). I tried to respond but was overwhelmed by the level of rage and willful, gleeful ignorance. In retrospect, it’s comic. I was called both a left wing fanatic and a Nazi sympathizer.
Mind you, it wasn’t everyone on the board. I was also happy to see a number of brave souls (laughs) who tried, even if they did not particularly like Mondovino, to defend the notion of respect and a minimal level of civility.
But it was pretty shocking. I am interested to see that that board seems to be imploding. There are more and more threads that have apparently been shut down. There’s been a big scandal with Parker’s collaborators accepting paid trips from wineries that they subsequently reviewed. And lots of people have abandoned the board because it’s basically been censored like a kind of Stalinist propaganda arm by its administrator, that uproarious Dickensian character Mark Squires, already a figure of fun in Portugal where, to their consternation, he’s been assigned by the grand Poobah, despite not speaking Portuguese or knowing the culture. It seems that threads on the Squires/Parker board were being censored, with certain people with dissenting ideological views censored or even kicked off the boards. Ignorance and vitriol will in the end often self-implode. I was also told that one of their regular (non-censored!) posters recently issued a death threat to me. The hangover from Bush-Cheney hasn’t disappeared, alas.
Have you heard of the WineBerserkers site? It was founded in part, it’s said, by folks either fed up with or bounced from the Parker board.
JN Is that right? I’ll have to look it up.
I can’t imagine the reception when your book comes out here. Of course, there was some push back from Parker when the French edition appeared.
JN He hadn’t even read the book and he called me a leader of ‘the wine gestapo’. A nice touch from a non-Jew addressing a Jew. And further evidence, if he goes after a small-fry like me, that his power (and whatever reason he ever had) are in steep decline.
How does the English edition differ from the French?
JN The English edition is much shorter. I worked with a great editor at FSG, Courtney Hodell, who kicked (with grace) my ass; and she was right. I’ve never written a book before and I’ll probably never write one again; I’m a filmmaker, not a writer. I got a kind of master class from her about writing with more precision and purpose. So I was able to weed out a lot of stuff that was repetitious and hone clearer ideas with an English language readership in mind. About a third of the chapters in the French edition are not in the American edition and it has been substantially reimagined. And thanks to Courtney and my Brazilian editor Luiz Schwarcz, hugely improved.
I’m much happier with the American (and just released Brazilian) version of the book because it’s a book intended for a much larger audience. I don’t mean in terms of numbers, but in terms of breadth. I hope it will be of interest to people who already like wine, who like to think about wine, but it’s also intended to try and open up a cultural debate about wine for people who didn’t think that wine matters.
It’s an absolutely extraordinary book. It’s provocative in the sense that you are constantly thrown outside of yourself, your comfort zone. You really do have to think a great deal about your relationship to wine. The richness of it’s ideas… just when you think it’s all been said, it’s all been written, along comes your book.
JN Thank you. It’s nice to hear that. That’s the beautiful thing about wine. That’s what wine does. It forces me -forces all of us- to rethink all kinds of things constantly. Which is why these new movements like the ‘natural winemakers’ are so exciting because they’re challenging me as a wine drinker; and I know they’re challenging other winemakers to rethink what they thought was the right way to make wine.
I think that wine is the greatest stimulant for making us rethink questions of taste and identity, of our own and of others.
The book is a powerful defense of ‘otherness’ and the necessity of entering into that dialogue.
JN That seems to be one of the critical things about wine. That’s why I felt it was mad that in the US after Mondovino I was labeled as a kind of fanatic. The point about wine, it seems to me, is that the element of subjectivity is so huge, it’s so determining, that when we think that we’re certain, we’re denying what wine is, which is why mathematical scores are an abomination. Wine is vital, living, polymorphous, and constantly changing.
To me the beauty of wine is the fact that you cannot grab onto it and define it absolutely. I’ve stopped going to professional tastings. I cannot stand it anymore. For me, whether sit-down or stand-up, vertical, horizontal or abdominal, those pucker-faced tastings -like a Miss World contest- strip all of the pleasure and beauty -and most of the meaning- from wine.
A single bottle of wine, even of the most marginal value, you need to get to know it, like you need to get to know a bloody person. You need to spend at least an hour with it. You need to see it evolve from the time you open it, from the time that it itself opens, to how your palate changes, to how the atmosphere changes. How can you possibly have a sense of what the wine is in front of you by tasting 50 wines (if not more) in the space of an hour, spending at most only a minute or two in front of each, as many critics do? This is madness to me. Madness. And it has become the predominant method for wine critics all over the world. And then imagine that after that most superficial of contacts with a wine, a mathematical value is attributed to the wine’s value and quality! Lewis Carroll is alive and well.
Wine is a living, breathing entity. That’s the beauty of it. It is fully alive. And that means it is fully changeable, and our perception of it is too.
I think you know that this is not a relativist or fatuous postmodernist discourse. It doesn’t mean that everything is subjective and that whatever you like is great and that we’re all equal. Obviously the book tries to examine the tension between what is infinitely subjective and what is verifiable, or what is at least concrete. What is concrete in wine is the earth, the roots that go into that earth, the vine itself that produces the grape, the crushing of the grape. There are undeniably objective elements to wine, much more objective than in movie-making or literature, or other arts. So that we’re not just talking about bullshit and air.
At the same time, I think it is more profoundly subjective than even our subjective understanding or perception of many other works of art.
I hope the book is an invitation for each one of us to reconsider in our own way, on our own terms, what the tension is between that subjectivity, our subjectivity, and the things which are concrete. The more we’re aware of our own subjectivity, the more we try to understand ourselves, the more free we are.
What is additionally true in wine is a vineyard that has been continuously planted for several hundred years, or a thousand years, with an evolving clone of the same grape or with different grapes. And the history of man’s relationship to that. These are real things. That’s why I was horrified during the release of Mondovino in the US: the arguments were often flipped on their heads! The idea that terroir can be dismissed as European marketing, or worse, that terroir is anywhere you want it to be.
I hope the book is an invitation to rethink things on their own terms, obviously in a dialogue with my propositions, with things I’ve tried to show. I’ve tried to offer up my own subjectivity in as naked and transparent a way as possible. I lay my cards on the table. And I invite the reader to reconsider his subjectivity; and to reconsider mine as well!
The reign of terror also includes the emerging power of critics in the last twenty or thirty years and how they’ve distorted the wine landscape, in my opinion. The book is very much a call to the reader to question and consider the role of so-called wine authorities who are not winemakers, and a plea to listen to the words of the often hugely learned and articulate winemakers themselves.
And the 10 hour, 4 DVD set of Mondovino will simultaneously be released.
JN Yes, that’s right. That’s a coincidence. I’m happy about that. Particularly for wine lovers, the 10 part series, to be released in November by KimStim, is much, much more interesting than the feature film. It really goes into much, much more detail with winemakers themselves and with wine itself. Mondovino as a film is not really about wine. Wine is the MacGuffin of Mondovino. It’s only marginally about wine. It’s about a lot of other things.
The 10 part series is much more about wine itself and deals in depth with characters like Aubert de Villaine and Michel Lafarge for example. Therefore, I hope it is of greater interest to wine people.
I was curious that in your book there is no mention of the wines of Portugal. Are you familiar with them?
JN A little bit, actually. In Portugal they were very disappointed I didn’t mention them. In the Portuguese edition of the book, the preface is written by one of the best winemakers in Portugal, in my opinion, Luis Pato in the Bairrada (and a fascinating example of someone who makes wines in a modern idiom, fruit forward and easily comprehensible but that are still redolent of the Bairrada terroirs). He’s become a friend, but he chided me in the preface for not having spoken of Portuguese wine! Actually I love his preface, because he takes issue with many of my positions. And this dissent, this skepticism of anyone’s views, is really the key to the book.
But I told him that the book, like the film, is not the work of a wine specialist seeking to take an exhaustive view of the wine world. I’m a layman. I made a bunch of wine lists for a bunch of different restaurants in different cities over the course of twenty-five years. I’m not an enologist. Even though I’m technically a sommelier, I’m not really a sommelier. I’m an outsider. The book is not in any way an attempt to offer an encyclopedic guide to the world of wine. It’s an extremely personal view of why I think, culturally and historically, and also in terms of sensual pleasure, why wine matters. It’s an extremely personal memoir from a film director bitten by the wine bug (not phylloxera!) since he was a little kid.
I speak only glancingly about German wines, but I probably drink German wines a third of the week and believe they’re among the finest white wines in the world, perhaps the ones that give me the most pleasure and sense of well-being. But I don’t speak German, I don’t spend that much time in Germany; I don’t feel that confident discussing them in a larger context because of that.
Portuguese I’ve only learned in the past five years since I’ve lived in Brazil. I didn’t know Portugal or Portuguese well before. But in the past two years, the past year and a half, I’ve been going there quite a bit. I’m looking on my bookshelf above the editing table, there’s a bottle of Donati, an empty bottle of Domaine de Beudon, their sublime 11,4% Humagne rouge, and a wine from Colares, which is just outside of Lisbon, in Azenhas do Mar, which is a seaside resort.
Colares has a sandy soil that has pre-phylloxera vines. They make a red that is absolutely unbelievable! It’s sad that Portugal has followed Spain a little bit, it seems like. There’s been a huge embrace of sort of the new world style, a sweet, fruity, alcoholic beverage. It’s a pity because these Colares wines are completely ignored in Portugal. But it does mean that they’re dirt cheap. And there are a couple of different producers, including an excellent cooperative called ARENA. Even in a big supermarket the last time I was there, I found a ‘97 Colares from Bernardino da Silva for about 12 €. An 11 year old red from pre-phylloxera vines that is absolutely delicious! But not much regarded in Portugal, like the sublime white of Buçaco made by a great gentleman, Alexandre de Almeida. Nor are the spectacular whites and red Dão and Bairrada wines of Caves São João even much discussed over there. I have dozens and dozens of half bottles in my cellar of the Frei João whites from the last 20 years’ vintages, astonishing Bairrada whites that run about 2 € a (full) bottle. They’re made in a slightly oxidized Rioja-style, sort of bitter-sweet. They are very beautiful, haunting wines.
But it’s also a cultural patrimony that is all too often ignored at home because the wines are not made in the fashionable oaky, sweet, alcohol-laden style. And imagine that the leading Portuguse wine magazine, Revista do Vinho, upbraided me for defending wines of terroir, which they characterize as strictly elitist and not democratic, while they shill for $100 whites invented yesterday in the Alentejo by flying winemakers and promoted heavily via paid ads in their magazine! Who’s not democratic again? It’s too funny.
I myself am looking forward to visiting Portugal in October. I shall look for the wines you’ve mentioned, and many more! Well, this has been a extraordinary experience.
JN I’m glad you’re not disappointed by the level of bullshit! You must have been prepared for it. Anyway, since you’re a neighbor, give my best to Randall Grahm. I like Randall a lot.
I will. His search for terroir goes on.
JN As It does for all of us.
This, part 2 of my interview with Jonathan Nossiter, contains among some of his finest ideas, ideas elaborated with great lyrical passion in his forthcoming book Liquid Memory to be released to the English-speaking world by Farrar, Straus and Giroux October 13th. To fully understand all that follows please read part 1. But even if this portion is read in isolation, it is undeniable Mr. Nossiter’s views here have the force of a kind of revelation. Even if we had only this much to read we would nevertheless understand far more about how the world’s cultural forces intersect in wine than we did before. He mingles or interweaves concepts not often lucidly or convincingly placed near one another. I remember reading in my student days the great intellectual Walter Benjamin. He would rearrange the books of his library at random, mixing genres, subjects and historical periods in unexpected ways. His task was then to think new conceptual associations and liaisons among the titles.
Note the picture of the wine bottles on a shelf above, kindly provided by Mr. Nossiter. This photo, in my view, is very close to the spirit of Benjamin’s intellectual ambition, and superbly captures the adventure of reading Liquid Memory. From the book,
“Terroir has never been fixed, in taste or in perception. It has always been an evolving expression of culture. What distinguishes our era is the instantaneousness and universality of change. Before, the sense of a terroir would evolve over generations, hundreds of years, allowing for the slow accretion of knowledge and experience to build into sedimentary layers, like the geological underpinning of a given terroir itself. Today layers are stripped away overnight, and a new layer is added nearly each vintage.”
Part 3 will post the week of September 27th.
Admin What has been happening in the world of wine since Mondovino’s release?
Jonathan Nossiter I think the global outlook for winemaking has improved radically in the last couple of years. I think there’s been a concerted global rejection among winemakers recently of the ethos that has dominated for the previous 20 years, which was increasingly towards making wine as a product for a world consumer culture, and stripping it of identity, subtlety, delicacy. I haven’t been back to the states in years, but every time I go to Europe, every country I go to, I am really, really stunned by the number and variety of wines that suggest this seismic shift.
I was in Italy in May because my wife had made a film on Brazilian winemakers [Vinho De Chinelos/Immigrant wine] that was in the Slow Food Film Festival in Bologna. We came across dozens of exciting wines from tons of regions, regions that 15 years ago in Italy were producing the most cynical industrial swill or else the most cynical market-driven pseudo-boutique, globalized style product. I was very despairing at the state of Italian wine before.
But it’s just amazing the number of winegrowers in Italy now, from Sicily to Friuli, who seem to be reversing course or inventing new stories, or emerging from obscurity. In Bologna at a very good restaurant called Camminetto D’Oro with a wonderfully (caminetto d’oro_carta pdf) adventurous list, we drank the sublimely fragrant and fish-friendly “Frappato” red from the Sicilian Silvana Occhipinti ; an insanely oxydised but energetic and complex white (or orange!) wine from the Colli Bolognesi called Vej, which the guy on his label calls “antique wine” and another white by a guy named Zidarich in the Friuli, clearly inspired by Josko Gravner’s organic, earth-related experiments. They’re expressions of what the French call “vin naturels”, a definitely natural, organic, radically non-interventionist and frequently oxidised style. But it’s a form of oxidation that is homeopathic…that makes these wines beautifully resilient and alive. I don’t know if in the US there is a term for those kinds of wines.
Not quite yet; natural wine, perhaps. But I know there will be, and that they will be subject to certification of some kind. I can already see the signs.
JN Yeah, I’m sure. Those wines are going to piss off a lot of people. They’ll be denounced as unclean and unhygienic, unsound, just as Cassavetes, Fassbinder and Pasolini were denounced as unclean and unsound. But, you know, I love the opposite style also, Kubrick and Max Ophüls, works of high polish, maniacal control and sophistication! I’m not a fanatic. I’m not strictly partisan in that sense. But I think the resurgence of “vins naturels” –because clearly many wines from before the 2nd half of the 20th century were made this way- is a great contribution to the wine world. Whether you like those kinds of wines or not -I personally love them- but there is no question they open up the debate about the nature of wine and about the nature of taste, and also about the nature of the relationship to a place because these wines often allow a -literally- more unfiltered view of the landscape, of the terroir. And it’s incredibly exciting to see this phenomenon occuring across Italy.
A wine like Angiolino Maule’s “Pico” from the Veneto for example, is much more sophisticated than this Colli Bolognesi, putative white, “Vej.” That wine is filthy. It’s three years old and it was already a kind of russet orange. Deliberately made in a dangerously, thrillingly oxidized style.
What’s great about these wines, like the radical filmmakers -say John Cassavetes- whether you get pleasure from them or not, is that they are going to have an influence on even mainstream winemakers. They are going to make people think. ’‘What is it that we’re doing? Why are we doing it?’’ Someone may not want to go that far. And I’m not sure I’d want to drink those wines every night. I’m very happy to drink an incredibly lush, rounded and juicy Dominique Lafon Meursault, if I can, after drinking one of those.
But the point is that this diversity wasn’t so readily available or visible even a few years ago. And people weren’t even trying to think in that way, on such a comprehensive scale, even ten years ago, certainly in Italy.
I was going to tell you about this guy, Camillo Donati in Arola, the Colli di Parma. He’s amazing! I had never never been much of a fan of Lambruscos. Not until my Brazilian-Italian wife, because of her family’s origins, started prodding me, and got me to overcome my ignorance and snobbery. I started tasting other Lambruscos, which I felt were really interesting and really good. But when I tasted the Lambrusco of Camillo Donati it flipped my world upside-down. Suddenly, the whole point of Lambrusco became clear to me. It’s actually very sophisticated, very earthy, and insanely vital, at least his style of it from the Colli di Parma. (It’s not the central area of production for Lambrusco, generally. There are lots of different areas where Lambrusco is produced.) He’s been working biodynamically since the early 90s, like Domaine de Beudon, interestingly enough, from the Valais, which is a recently discovered passion (last month in fact!).
We drove up to Parma to visit Donati after the [Slow Food Film] Festival in Bologna with a critic from Slow Food-Gambero Rosso. They’’ve actually now split, thankfully. Gambero Rosso became as corrupt as most of the other wine magazines. And Slow Food is planning on launching a new guide, a new magazine that, hopefully, will not be as a corrupt as Gambero Rosso. Their intention is to offer a guide that is less ratings-driven and less concerned with social status and power. Anyway this guy was very interesting, one of the people involved with the new Slow Food effort. We invited him along because we had a lot of respect for him.
But Camillo Donati, as soon as he heard ‘Gambero Rosso’ critic, he put his dukes up! (laughs) Most winemakers will want to curry favor with a Gambero Rosso critic. In fact, he said [the critic] ‘‘You never sent us your samples. I’d like to try your wine. We’ve heard about your wine from many people”. Camillo said ‘‘Why would I send you samples? If you want to get my wine you’re welcome to get it like anyone else. It only costs 4€”. And then the Gambero Rosso critic said, trying to establish his street cred, that he wasn’t just another critic sitting around behind his desk, he said, ”You know, I go to vineyards a lot. I’m always in the vineyards. I’m always helping winemakers. I often prune vines”. And Donati cut him off in mid-sentence. He said, ”Not here, you wouldn’t. Every single vine on my land is a vine that I know personally. I’’m the only one that touches them”. (laughs) That got him [the critic] to rethink a little! It was great. Afterwards they got along very well. Donati realized that he was not in front of a critic just looking to show off and to spew out a stream of useless adjectives, but someone who actually was eager to learn.
Donati makes not just a Lambrusco but also Sauvignon Frizzante, and Sauvignon in the region of the Colli di Parma stretches back at least to the 18th Century, so it’s not part of the international fad. He also makes a Trebbiano Frizzante, Malvasia Frizzante…. He is simultaneously recuperating traditions of Lambrusco, dry, earthy, complex Lambrusco and somewhat newer traditions, like Sauvignon, but still a 200 year-old tradition. And he is also experimenting. He’s planted Cabernet Franc. He makes a Cabernet Franc Frizzante that’s wild.
Donati to me is kind of a classic example of exactly why the debate is dead between a modernist and a traditionalist. He’s both, of course, like anybody who’s progressive. He invited us to lunch; he lives in a modest house, with his wife and his daughter. We were stunned by one wine after another. My wife Paula asked him, ”You only charge 4€ for all these wines? Surely you could charge a little more without becoming an expensive, super-elitist wine”. He looked at Paula, and he said, ”Look, wine is, first of all, for everybody, and it should be made and sold for as democratic a price as possible. And second of all, most important for me, is that by selling my wine at 4€ a bottle I earn enough to pay my debts. I live well enough for me to be happy. What do I need more money for?” And then he passed a plate of luscious culatello from a prosciutto producer down the road and bit into a chunk of sweet parmigiano made by his neighbour.
I wished I’d met Donati when I was filming Mondovino. Especially when I saw that instead of putting up all the prizes his wines have won and articles in magazines on his walls, as many, many wine producers do the world over, he had a few photos of his deceased parents and two certificates attesting to the fact that his dad was a partigiano [partisan], in the resistance against the Nazis. And from the begnning of the war, not from ‘44 when it was a much easier for people to join the movement. I chuckled when I thought what if I had actually filmed with him and shown these documents. All those snide attackers of the film for having mixed politics and history with wine would have snarled that this was yet another setup or fabrication!
But really, there are all kinds of cynics that can dismiss an engagement like Donati’s as sort of, you know, romantic claptrap, a kind of quixotic, unpractical view of the world, and heaven forbid, as anti-capitalist. But there is a fairy-tale aspect to it, and I say screw them. Because part of what is beautiful about the world of wine is that fairy tales are sometimes very true, much more true in the wine world than elsewhere I think.
There’s another wine that the same critic [from Slow Food-Gambero Rosso] had us taste, from the Marche, called ‘Barricato’, which doesn’t refer to barrique but to the barricades. It was started by a couple of hippies in the Marche region in the 70s. The wine has become a kind of cult wine in Italy and is apparently sold on the gray market for, I don’t know, a hundred bucks a bottle. And they got really pissed off! And they’ve now put on the back label: This wine should be sold for 11€.
Ten years ago, obviously that wine existed and so did Donati ten years ago, but you didn’t get access to them. You had to be local or to be lucky to know them. Or it had to be one of the new finds of a Neal Rosenthal or Marc De Grazia or a Terry Theise. But anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be discovered by a zealous American importer didn’t even have much visibility even in his own country.
What’s amazing today is that there is a growing movement everywhere, and it’s a movement that’s interconnected. It goes back and forth between little Camillo Donati and his Colli di Parma, to Domaine de Beudon in the Valais in Switzerland to the hugely talented newcomer Bruno Duchêne in Collioure with his daring Grenache whites, to Dominique Lafon in Meursault, to Nicolas Joly in Savennieres, to people of all different levels, of socio-economic levels, prestige levels… They are creating a global dialogue, producing concrete results and concrete effects. It’s not just a nice global dialogue about how to deal ethically with the planet. People are really, actually, doing something concrete. And I feel tremendously encouraged and moved.
The twenty or thirty year reign of the transformation of wine into a pure product of greed and social ambition, I think that reign of terror is coming to an end. Maybe it’s not coming to an end, but it is being met by a very powerful counter-movement.
Indeed. One of the most beautiful sections of your new book Liquid Memory is titled ‘All Roads Lead To Burgundy’, in my opinion the heart and soul of the book. As I read your of beautiful encounters with Dominique Lafon, Jean-Marc Roulot and Christophe Roumier, a question constantly occurred to me: How did Burgundy degenerate to such a degree by the 70s such that their rejuvenation had to take place? What on earth happened there?
JN Well, you’re better off asking a Burgundian. Honestly, I think that importers had a lot to do with it. I think it’s a combination. I think it’s a combination of a new generation of winemakers, like Christophe Roumier; that’s why I wrote about them, that’s why I tried to give them, allow their words to come through unfiltered. It’s a generation that was born in the late 50s, early 60s, who came of age in the late 70s and the 80s; who simply said ‘’We’re throwing away a national treasure, an international patrimony by creating chemical-driven, diluted wines’’. I think they influenced their fathers.
And I think there was a powerful movement on one side, and I do think the work of Kermit Lynch and Robert Haas, Becky Wasserman, Neal Rosenthal, has been critical. I think that it really provided an outlet. I think all of those people from the 60s on, particularly in the 70s and 80s, really encouraged these people to think locally, as a way to think internationally with maybe a little more understanding.
Obviously, given the geography and the history of the division of Burgundy domaines, they’re much smaller, it’s easier for people to react there against global trends. It’s obviously much harder for a Bordeaux chateaux, given the Bordeaux environment and because of the size, to try to go against fads and fashion. It’s always easier for individuals to go against fads and fashion.
That’s for certain. Now, I look at the blogosphere. And, of course, among them there are some very well known critics we can perhaps touch on in a bit. But the question is that, yes, one can write any kind of nonsense that one likes, any vapid tasting note, assign any score, all in the name of democratization. Yet at the same time, there is no push back from committed growers. And the comments section on various blogs and forums don’’t fill up with outrage that marketing and homogenization tendencies are eviscerating memory, as you might say. Critics often follow the path of least resistance.
How do you educate what is cynically called the ‘consumer’, assumed to be devoid of memory, assumed to be one who passively accepts advice? How do you educate the individual to take a more critical view of marketing approaches?
JN That’s an unanswerable question. What can any of us do to counter-act things we think are not right? We can try and act. That’s all. It’s up to anyone who likes wine to dig as deeply as they are able to into what wine is and why it is interesting to them; and why it has been interesting to other people.
The more people gain confidence in themselves, the more they’ll reject the imposition of monolithic views of wine, like the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker, et alia. I think that critics like Parker or Michel Bettane, or magazines like Wine Spectator function on fear and ignorance. It’s a double-edged sword. For those who feel they don’t know about wine, they look to these magazines, these critics as guides and gurus. And to those who feel that they’ve become instructed, they feel like they’re members of an exclusive club. Unfortunately it creates a cycle of recidivist ignorance.
I think the first gesture has to come from winemakers. The great news is that I think it’s been coming from winemakers all over the world. And when they start to make different wines, and then when, you know, it’s a chain isn’t it when importers like David Bowler, from the younger generation, start to go after these winemakers, and hustle on the street to convince restaurateurs, sommeliers and wine shops that ‘Hey, there’s a different kind of drink out there, there are different ways of thinking the same kind of drink’. All of this has a cumulative effect.
It goes without saying that critics who would rather think in a different way about what wine is rather than as a consumer product with a pseudo-mathematic value that can be attached, that exists in an equally spurious mathematical relationship to price, everyone is contributing at that point.
These are all drops in the bucket. But enough drops and you fill the damn thing.
—Very special thanks to Patrick Petruccello of Kahuna’s Food and Wine for his invaluable technical assistance.
10/12 Please see this urgent update.
9/22 Correction I wrote to Terry Witt, Executive Director, of Oregonians For Food and Shelter, the organization that appears to have been the original source for the ‘confirmation’ of Spotted Wing Drosophila in Oregon grapes. I asked him for an elaboration of the results of the meeting held earlier today. He wrote,
“We just had the meeting where ODA, APHIS and OSU were present to discuss what is know about the Drosophila suzukii. It appears that the “news” about it being confirmed in Oregon grapes may have come from our email alert about the meeting and at this time has NOT been verified, but growers have just now begun looking at all fruit across the state.’
I further contacted Helmuth Rogg, Entomologist, IPPM Program Manager, Plant Division, of the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). And he wrote,
Yes indeed, today we held an informational meeting on the SWD which was attended by industry, OSU, USDA and USDA-ARS.
And no, we have not recorded SWD in grapes!!!
There is no official record of SWD from grapes. So far we collected SWD from blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and peaches. We collected SWD from about 6 counties, mainly in the Willamette Valley, of Oregon.
We will prepare a public website on which all interested parties can contribute and receive information. The main objective of this website will be to present information, data and results of work done by ODA, OSU and USDA-ARS. As soon as we have it ready to go live, I will let you know.
We have more information on our Oregon Dept of Agriculture (ODA) website with links to ODA and OSU’s pest alert.”
The information about outbreaks in Japan, however,still stands. Read the balance of this post and also see THIS LINK.
The news we have dreaded to hear has been confirmed. The Spotted Wing Drosophila, America’s latest invasive pest, has been found infesting grapes in Oregon. From the Oregon Natural Resources Report:
The spotted wing Drosophila (often named “Dragon Fruit Fly”) has invaded Oregon from California and has already been confirmed in several Oregon fruit crops – blueberries, caneberries and grapes. Stuart Olson, a local peach, apple and cherry grower, believes this could literally shut down fresh fruit sales from Oregon. Unlike the vinegar fruit fly that takes to rotted fruit, this critter infects ripening fruit and is visible in the fruit as a small maggot.
A meeting to discuss the matter has been set for September 22nd. (Follow the ONR link above.)
According to Martin Damus, Entomologist for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency,
“I contacted officials of our National Plant Protection Organisation that work in Japan, to clarify some questions about the spotted wing drosophila’s hosts, primarily the reports on grapes and apples. Our official there just had to look at Japanese websites (which I cannot do) and found that spotted wing drosophila is classed as an agricultural pest in nearly every prefecture of Japan, and that it has recently been in “outbreak” conditions in blueberries in Aomori prefecture (the northernmost prefecture of the main island, Honshu) and also in outbreak conditions on grapes on Hokkaido (the island north of Honshu, with a very cool-temperate climate).
What no-one has yet told me is if grapes are a “preferred host”, or if they only go to them under outbreak conditions, that is when all preferred hosts are already attacked. I also have no specific information of under what conditions grapes are attacked — are the grapes sound or damaged? Are they ripe? Are they over-ripe? These are questions I still hope to have answers to.
Unfortunately though there is at least evidence that this fly does attack grapes, and that it does so in a cool climate.
Sorry not to be of more help. It would certainly be prudent, I would suggest, of vintners to hang out a few traps and see if they have the fly. The traps are not pheromone lures, so they don’t have to worry about drawing the fly in from other crops. It will only be found if it is already in the wine crop.”
—-9/22 Update. I’ve just received a second email from Martin Damus, Entomologist from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. He provided THIS LINK to a Japanese website with relevant info on the SWD.
He also adds,
“The webpage also indicates that there are no chemicals registered in Japan for this pest on grapes. This could mean two things: either they haven’t any (not so good), or it is a sufficiently rare occurrence that none are regularly needed (better news). Not sure which is true, if either.”
For further info please see my summation of a presentation given August 26th by UCCE Farm Adviser Mark Bolda and Martin Hauser of the California Dept. of Food and Ag. Spotted Wing Drosophila Emergency Meeting Results
While I prepare the second part of my interview with the Mondovino’s director, Jonathan Nossiter for Tuesday’s post, I thought it would be quite sublime to intertwine another portion of my conversation with Ken Burnap, the retired founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Winery first begun July 14th. The reason is simple. As discussed in the first installment of Mr. Nossiter’s interview, his 2007 book Le Goût et Le Pourvoir is being released October 13th as Liquid Memory. Among the book’s multiple concerns are the ideas of the preservation of place, of terroir, receptivity to otherness, and the respect for cultural difference and history, all intersecting in wine. One of America’s foremost winegrowers of any era, Ken Burnap’s career is certainly in keeping with these values. It is highly recommended that parts 1 & 2 be read before continuing. Detailed background may be read there.
Admin I wanted to ask about the experience of finally discovering the vineyard, the David Bruce vineyard. There is this wonderful story about you drinking a bottle of Champagne when it was seen. There you are, up there in you truck, finally having settled on a vineyard, made the big decision…. The pivotal moment.
Ken Burnap Well, it was a pivotal moment. I’m hearing things from you about me that I’ve only told to one person in my entire life. (laughs) So I’m kind of startled! But that’s absolutely true. There’s nothing I’m trying to hide.
I think it was Jeff Emery, he wrote up a series of ‘historical’ notes which included a few details. And it may have been when I interviewed him. But to speak with you about it is, of course, best.
KB I had decided because of the research I did on where I should grow grapes in California that the three best possibilities was along the Russian River in Sonoma, perhaps around Livermore, near the water because of the stabilizing effect a large body of water has on temperature, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. I gave up on Livermore pretty quickly because some of the areas… and I got most of my information on Livermore from a book written in 1941 by Schoonmaker. There was a lot of information from a test station they had in Livermore. I knew Myron Nightingale, a big booster of that area. He and his wife made the first botrytised wine, to my knowledge, ever made in California. It was a Sauvignon Blanc they had growing out there that used to get attacked by this terrible mold. They tried to kill the mold. They finally plated it and found that it was Botrytis and they thought, ‘Hey! Wait a minute. We should try to make it.’ It [the Sauvignon Blanc] just didn’t want to develop. He actually wound up infecting a whole bunch of grapes with some laboratory plates of mold, (laughs) he and his wife. They made a fabulous botrytised wine.
I apologize. That’s the worst thing about me. My mind tends to wander. But I gave up on Livermore fairly quickly because the areas that seemed to have the best promise for Pinot Noir (and actually it wasn’t that great for Pinot Noir to begin with I didn’t think), but most of the areas that did have potential were very rapidly having housing tracts put on top of it. So I gave up there and concentrated efforts in Sonoma, the Russian River area, again because of Joe Swan who was making those fabulous wines. Sometime, if we ever get together, I’ve got to pour you some Zinfandel made in the ’70s and ’80s by Joe Swan. His wife said one time ‘You and Joe have the same problem. The best wine either one of you ever made was the first wine you made. And you’ll never be able to make another one. It’s driving both of you crazy.’ (laughs)
So I spent a lot of time out there. But I really liked some of the stuff David made. And he was doing some pretty avant garde stuff. It turned out a lot of it was stupid, but then a lot of the avant garde stuff I did was stupid. I don’t know what it is. Every generation in any artistic field it seems like they have to test the limits, and they totally ignore what people have learned in earlier generations. They’ve got to do it themselves, to screw it up or make a success out of it.
Anyway, I finally decided the vineyard would be somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains; it’s where I wanted to be. I was living in Orange County at the time and I was making two and three day trips up here with my geological maps, my car full of scientific instruments. (laughs) But I would invariably stop by David’s [David Bruce] place because I loved his wines. David is just a great guy. He’s just enough off-center to be interesting to talk to sometimes. So we we’re having dinner up there. He’d decided to cook one of the ducks that’d been giving him a hard time. And he had a great cellar. I’m not sure where he got all these great Burgundies, but he had some really great Burgundies. He didn’t bring them upstairs very often but every now and then he would. And he got one and said ‘OK, Ken. How’s it going? Have you found the great place where you’re going to make the fabulous Pinot?’ I said, ‘Naw. I’ve been up and down these mountains and I can’t find anything.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a piece of property that you should look at. It’s breaking my heart but I’m gonna have to sell it. [....] I don’t want to, but I think that is the perfect place to grow Pinot in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’m so convinced of it that I pulled out 100 year old Zinfandel vines that were making fabulous wine.’ I asked, ‘Is that where your ‘68 came from?’ That was the wine that made David’s reputation. The ‘68 Zinfandel came off of that vineyard. Fabulous, fabulous wine. I think he bought it in ‘64. They pulled all the Zinfandel up and planted Pinot Noir. He said he hadn’t been able to make a wine off of it yet because it’s now in its third year. There might be some grapes this Fall.
So I asked, ‘OK. Where is it?’ ‘Ah, you can’t miss it. You go down this road, you go up that road…’ I went up there and I couldn’t find it. I went up and down this road.. I’d stop and look. But you couldn’t see anything, certainly there were no grapes I saw anywhere growing. I called him on the phone and said ‘Dave, I can’t find this place.’ He said ‘Well, did you go do such and such? Do you remember that mailbox?’ I kind of vaguely remembered the mailbox. He said to make a left hand turn there. ‘I don’t think there’s a road there.’ He said ‘Yeah, there is.’ So I went up this thing. It was dirt and had weeds as high as the hood ornament on my truck. That’s where it was, right on top of the mountain. God, it was a beautiful, beautiful vineyard.
I took a bunch of soil samples. Next day I had a guy come up with a backhoe. We dug a trench to take some more soil samples. I took them back to Orange County. I got all my results in. Oh, shit! This is it! This is the place! So I went back up there to look at it for the last time. I had been telling my wife, my business partner and everybody that I was doing this, that I really wasn’t going to grow grapes. I was just curious whether or not there was a spot that you could grow great Pinot Noir in California. And once I found it I would say ‘OK. That’s the spot.’ And I’ll tell anybody where it is if they want to know. And I really, honestly, maybe in the back of my mind I thought I want to grow grapes, but it was really more… I wasn’t looking for a place for me to buy, I was looking to see if there was a place that fit the criteria that I had come up with. I honestly didn’t want to buy the property to grow grapes at that point.
So, anyway, after I got the [soil] results, I went back the following weekend. I just wanted to see it one last time. And that was it. I was going to see it off. And I went to a wine shop in Santa Cruz and bought a bottle of, I think I bought a bottle of Cliquot, I’m not sure what they had in the cooler. It was cold. I got some plastic cups (laughs) and went up top the hill and sat down and opened the Champagne. And drank the whole bottle! (laughs) And somewhere along the line, the sun hadn’t gone down, but here’s the Monterey Bay… somewhere along the line, I really don’t think it was the Champagne, it might have been a contributing factor, I thought, ‘Shit. I want to do this. I want to grow grapes. That’s why I’ve been doing all this!’ That’s when I made the decision to try and buy it.
I honestly wasn’t looking for a place to buy. I was looking only to prove my point.
Then we went into that buyer/seller dance. David and I immediately decided it was better if he got a broker and I got a broker. We didn’t talk to each other directly! (laughs) Twenty-five acres, about eleven of them in vines and grapes. And I am embarrassed at the price I bought it at so I’m not even going to repeat it.
Everything that I’ve been able to do since I retired is because of the value of that land. I’ve had several businesses in my life, and when I wind up selling them the thing I made the money off of is the land it was sitting on. I never rented property. I would always buy it. It’s the one smart thing I’ve done. It worked out best for everybody. David got to settle up with his wife. He kept his house, and he kept his winery intact and [another] vineyard. And I got what I to this day think is the greatest place to grow Pinot Noir in California.
And I am really sorry that I had to sell it. Anyway…. They pulled out all the vines and replanted everything to some sort of clone that they felt was better. I think it was a Pommard clone. I forget the wine writer, an English wine writer from the 30s when he wrote this, these flowing, ornate descriptions of wines, that actually referred to Pommard, ‘that treacherous Pommard’. There was some thought that there might be some Grenache in it back in those days.
What do you drink now? Are you still learning from your own wines?
KB I’ve been a sailor pretty much all my life also. One of the things that my wife and I did, about seven years ago, I commissioned a boat to be built. I had a race boat for about thirty years. But I got older. That kind of boat is really hard work. I didn’t want to have to depend on a crew of seven other guys anymore. I sold the boat. Then after about two years I thought ‘I can’t go without a boat’. At this point Nancy, my wife, and I, we’re an item. She also likes boats. We met because she was on the [ ] crew that delivered my boat back to Santa Cruz from Hawaii after one of the TransPac races.
We had this cruising boat built. We had this idea that we would sail around the rest of our lives on a cruising boat. My racing boat had been cut down to where there was nothing on it. I mean, there was no refrigeration, it was just Go Fast. So, I had a boat built that had freezers on it, a big refrigerator, air conditioning, electric winches. It was really nice for two-handed people, you know, one guy getting along in years, the other a lady. We could handle this boat just great.
It was built in France. We picked it up in France. We took delivery. We went down the coast and into the Mediterranean. Up then to the Adriatic we went to Turkey, we went along the North Coast of Africa; we crossed the Atlantic into the Caribbean. All of that took about four and a half years, 29,000 miles we sailed.
In that process, it was no problem when we were in France (the boat was built in La Rochelle). We went to the open market every day and we bought a lot of French wine and a lot of cheese. My wife had goats and made goat cheese at one time. She had a very successful business of goat cheese. So she’s a cheese nut. We found some wines during that extended period on the boat that I really didn’t know existed before that are now some of my favorite wines.
I am actually getting around to answering your question! (laughs)
Albariños, for instance. We we’re in that part of Spain and the wines suck. I don’t like the reds. I’m talking to somebody there that’s in the wine business. He says ‘Oh, you gotta try this. Albariños are really nice whites.’ ‘Oh, come on. Whites from Spain? I don’t want to do that.’ ‘Try this.’ Well, I’m crazy about them. To this day we buy some Albariños every now and then.
And when we were in Italy, we were drinking Pinot Grigio, white. That was kind of new to us too. Now six years later the world is awash with Pinot Grigio, 85% of it bad. Well, not bad but very simplistic. Very blah.
So the wines that we drink today… very few whites. I really dislike Chardonnay. That’s probably why I didn’t have very much success with it. I really didn’t realize it at the time but I just don’t like Chardonnay. Something about the grape pisses me off.
We drink a lot of red. We have a home in Mexico. And boy, when you’re down there, you’ve really got problems with wine. They’ve got a trade treaty with Argentina. The Argentine reds are pretty good. There’s a Wal-Mart that moved in not too far away. Bless their purchasing agent, they buy a lot of French wines. I’m buying French wines in Mexico.
The wines that I really love today, if I could have good ones and not drink anything else, would all be from Burgundy. My favorite Burgundies are Morey Saint-Denis, maybe eight miles in each direction from Morey Saint-Denis… ah, make that six miles.
I like the whites from Burgundy if they haven’t spent a lot of time in wood. In fact, I like them better if they haven’t spent any time in wood. Macon Villages, that to me is the greatest cheap white wine in the world. Unfortunately it’s not as cheap as it should be! Meursault is my favorite. But my favorite white right now is Sancerre.
You know, when I was buying Sancerre in a bistro in Paris in the 80s that was almost the cheapest wine on the list. The Muscadets were the cheapest. Now a Sancerre, we just got back from France a couple of weeks ago, is 55, 65 euros! Which means eighty, ninety dollars a bottle in restaurants!
End of pt.3.
Part 4 will appear next week. Pt. 1 here Pt. 2 here
Many months ago I contacted the esteemed gentleman Neal Rosenthal, asking after the email address of Jonathan Nossiter, the director of Mondovino. Mr. Rosenthal, you may recall, enjoyed very important on-screen moments in that film. To my surprise he responded in the fullness of time. I cannot say why. Perhaps each bottle of wine he imports contains a GPS locator under its label or embedded in its cork and he, therefore, knew where I lived! In any event, I owe him great thanks for opening the door for all that follows. As well do I owe great thanks to an assistant to Mr. Nossiter who informed me that he was shooting a film in Rio, his home. Time passed, and here we are.
Mr. Nossiter is best known as a film director. Among his credits are Resident Alien, Sunday, Signs and Wonders, Mondovino, of course, and the forthcoming Rio Sex Comedy. He is also a producer, editor, cinematographer, and writer. And this last talent found literary expression proper in the 2007 release of Le Gôut et le Pouvoir.
The book received great critical acclaim. Well, not quite.
We all remember well Robert Parker’s remark upon the book’s release.
“[A]nyone with half a chimp’s brain can see through Nossiter’s transparency easier than a J.J.Prum riesling…it is Nossiter and his ilk(call them the scary wine gestapo)chanting the same stupid hymn that demand wines be produced in only one narrow style….”
With all the wit and wisdom heard at our recent healthcare Town Hall meetings, Parker’s discursive instability should, at the very least, give us pause concerning the fate of the work of winemakers, never mind writers, should they ever venture an opinion not in line with his.
But just as the screamers at the Town Halls have not read the proposed legislation, so does Parker’s rhetoric give those with “half a chimp’s brain” comfort not to read the book. But it should not be this way.
The truth of the matter is that the book, soon to be released as Liquid Memory, has not the remotest relation to Mr. Parker’s utterance. Read it. To be released October 13th, Liquid Memory brings a different tone to the discussion of terroir, taste and power. For discussion there will be.
Of course, the basic requirement remains that the book actually be read in order to be a faithful participant in the talk to follow. I have. And I am here to tell you it is a beautiful, cultured book, a book of passionate, subtle ideas. It is a book about the cultivation of difference and the joys of its discovery; it is about the preservation of the ‘other’ and their increasingly marginal histories.
As Mr. Nossiter writes,
“A true expression of terroir . . . is a very precise means to share the beauty of a specific identity, a specific culture, with the rest of the world. It is using the local not to exclude, but to include any one of us in the mystery and distinctive beauty of an ‘other.’”
Perhaps most importantly, it is about the ethics of taste, and therefore, necessarily an intimate look into the nomadism of Mr. Nossiter himself. Again,
“What is taste? It could be described as the expression of a preference between, say, A and B. But what distinguishes taste from mere opinion is that such a preference emerges from a sensory, emotional reaction with the subsequent ability to intellectually decipher that reaction for the self (and, if really necessary, for others). But ultimately, the defining characteristic of taste is the coherent relation of that preference to one’s own conduct, to an ethical relation to oneself and to the world.”
Though sympathetic to the cause, Liquid Memory is not an anti-globalist manifesto; neither is it a demand, through the dog-piling of torrid tasting notes, that the reader submit to a singularly original palate. God, no.
Liquid Memory is the playful, reflective, sometimes darkly comic search for an ethics of meaningful engagement with the world of wine and more. And the reverse? An individual locked in a repetitive, defensive opacity, policing strange and exotic intruders, believing themselves to be the measure of all things, such an individual will never learn a new thing, either about wine or the world. That, in my view, is the moral of this book.
But a full book review must wait for a later date, though much of its content will be touched upon in the conversation moving forward. What I offer here, and over the next two Tuesdays, is my recorded conversation with Jonathan Nossiter.
I phoned him at his home in Rio late last week.
Admin Hi. This is Ken Payton calling from California.
Jonathan Nossiter Hi. How are you doing?
I’m doing very well. A little nervous.
JN Why is that?
It’s an extraordinary opportunity to speak with you.
JN Trust me. My wife would beg to differ! (laughs) And my three kids would say you’re about to waste you time. But feel free to ask whatever silly questions you’d like and I’ll give you even sillier answers.
May I record the conversation?
JN Yeah, yeah, of course. I am always grateful when someone does. I am very skeptical of peoples’ ability to take notes without listening to tape.
What I do is transcribe interviews word for word, with very little editing, little paraphrase.
JN Yes. So shoot…
I am curious about your current film project. Can you say anything about it before we discuss the book?
JN Sure. It’s called Rio Sex Comedy. It stars Charlotte Rampling, Irène Jacob, Bill Pullman, Fisher Stevens…. It’s kind of an anarchic comedy about foreigners fucking up in Rio, fucking up and fucking in Rio. (laughs) It will be done early 2010, I think.
You’re still in the process of editing?
JN I’m still cutting, yeah. A window of opportunity opened up now because I having huge technical problems. I’m not able to edit for the next couple of hours. So, take advantage.
There’s a wonderful Wim Wenders film called Lightning Over Water.
JN Yeah, yeah. I’ve seen it.
He follows [co/director] Nicholas Ray through his last days as he slowly dies of cancer. At one point Wenders mentions that one of the scenes he’s shooting for Hammett will cost $200,000. [This film was released in 1980.] He asks Nicholas Ray what he would do with $200,000. Of course, he replies that he would make ‘lightning over water’. I don’t know the size of the budget of the film you’re currently working on but what would you do if given a very large budget?
JN I would spend most of the budget on Romanée Conti and save the little I need to actually make a film to make the film. (laughs) What else would someone in my position do?
I mean, if someone wants to offer me a huge film to make I’m not saying I’d never do it in my life, but I feel we made an epic. I shot for five months. It’s a cast of literally thousands. Half the city of Rio is involved in the film. I’m working with people that I consider some of the greatest actors in the world. It was a longer shoot than a lot films with twenty times the budget. I’ve been cutting for eight months; I’ll probably be cutting for another four months, which is a luxury that most big budget films don’t even know about because there is so much money at stake. They can’t take the time. Of course, they don’t need the time most of the time because they know exactly what they are doing. I don’t really know what I’m doing so I need the time.
As far as I am concerned I am able to do exactly the kind of films that I dreamed about doing, that I continue to dream about doing. I’m not sure what I would do with more money. You know, I’d love to live better than I live. (laughs) But I’m not sure for the film itself.
It’s an interesting project because the actors are the co-producers of the film. We all agreed it’s a kind of cooperative affair. We don’t have real producers on the film. We‘ve sort of co-produced it ourselves with financing from France and Brazil, a very small amount. Everyone got paid the same amount. The crew was 10 people. I’m here cutting by myself. There is someone in Paris I’m going to be working with who I’ve worked a little bit before, a very good editor, Sophie Brunet, the editor for [Bertrand] Tavernier. She edited Hôtel Terminus and other Ophüls films.
But otherwise, you know, (laughs) it’s not like there’s a 1000 people involved. For me that is part of the pleasure of making films. I suppose in the wine world it’s the equivalent of someone with a two or three hectare domain. You’re not going to get rich from it, but you have complete control over what you do. More than control you have complete liberty to do what you want to do. And that to me is the most exciting thing about filmmaking.
As you know it’s often one of the most exciting things about wine is when people are completely free. I was just in Switzerland, and was on the jury of the Locarno Film Festival. I tasted a couple of, I tasted a bunch of Swiss wines and was blown away by one domaine, Domaine de Beudon in the Valais. I had heard them about from an agronomist who works at Slow Food University, among other places, and teaches Biodynamics, Biodynamic farming all over Italy. He told me about this place that has been making biodynamic wine since ’93. And I ordered a case and had it sent to Locarno Film Festival. I opened it with the jurors, with my fellow jurors, pretty much every night for the whole length of the festival. I had never tasted Swiss wines with as much depth and purity. Dôle, Fendant [called Chasselas outside of Valais], Humagne [Rouge], 11.4 % alcohol. Incredibly fresh, bright, beautiful, beautiful wines made by just a couple!
I contacted them afterwards. They’re a couple who I guess are in their late fifties, early sixties. They’re working slopes. They have to go up on a téléphérique [aerial tram, gondola] to harvest half of it. They’ve got, I think, five hectares, maybe six. They struggle to survive financially, but they’ve also… they’re also creating something that is incredibly beautiful and moving. It was moving to drink those wines partly out of my own ignorance because I don’t know the Valais wines very well. I knew the wines of Bovard, Gilliard, and a few others but….
I am more convinced by the beauty of biodynamic wine-making each year. Which is obviously not to say there are not great wines made by other methods, including other biological methods, or organic methods. But it also seems true to me that the more that I taste biodynamic wines that are not made for reasons of fashion, that are made out of conviction, an ethical sense of a winemaker, a farmer’s place on the earth, and also a desire to translate a sense of place. And that was the astonishing thing about those biodynamic wines of Domaine de Beudon; I felt for the first time that I was in contact with the terroir of the Valais, that something distinctive was singing through.
I think the process of biodynamic farming allows for the soul of a place to express itself with greater transparency. That to me is thrilling. Because that’s like traveling. It’s certainly a hell of a lot more fun traveling like that than on an airplane. (laugh)
There are quite a few biodynamic producers here in California. But there are no rules about what essentially goes on in the winery itself. Biodynamics covers vineyard practices, and often one hears different things. I did a story recently on smoke taint removal from affected grapes. It is a very technology-driven undertaking. There is a curious tension between the technology available to a biodynamic producer in the winery, certainly here in the United States, and what one reads from Demeter about practices required for certification in the vineyard. Do you have anything to add?
JN As much as I am an advocate of, or feel like I’m an advocate, or rather a fan and admirer of those people who farm biodynamically and who are interested in a more holistic vision of the earth that they work, there are also a hell of a lot of charlatans involved, and also a hell of a lot of people who are doing it who aren’t charlatans but are doing it because it’s become a fashion. There are other people who probably don’t fully understand why they are doing it.
There’s little to add. There are no absolute pronouncements that can or should be made. I also think that it’s dangerous because winemakers are artists in one sense. And an artist’s practice is really up to the artist. I think it’s dangerous to pass sort of a blanket judgements about. And I want to very clear that I am not saying that biodynamic farming is the only correct practice. It’s a correct practice. It’s a laudable practice.
So what people do afterwards? I feel very much in sympathy with Jean-Marc Roulot who is very articulate and very clear about his vision of terroir and also his vision of what organic farming means. He’s been farming organically for at least a decade, probably longer. He’s fascinated by biodynamics; he’s extremely good friends with Dominique Lafon, his neighbor in Meursault, who is one of the great biodynamic advocates, as you know. But he himself hasn’t taken the plunge yet because he doesn’t want to do it until he’s sure that it’s something that he fully understands for himself, and that engagement with biodynamic farming is something that will have a personal dimension, a personal necessity for him. That to me is a sign, yet another indication of why I think Jean-Marc Roulot is a real artist. Not just a great actor. He’s got a lead part in the film, by the way, in Rio, Rio Sex Comedy. He plays Irène Jacob’s husband. He’s as good an actor as he is a winemaker.
But I completely respect it. I think there is an element of… it’s an act of faith to engage in biodynamic farming. And the worst thing is to deal with an act of faith when you’re not sure of your own faith. I think these things are obviously very nuanced.
You read my book. I think Christophe Roumier is one of the greatest winemakers in the world. He’s also one of the people I admire the most as a human being. Christophe doesn’t farm biodynamically. He doesn’t even farm on strict organic terms. He occasionally uses products, which he says himself. He has a vision… I think he has a profound respect for the land as part of planet Earth, and I think he has a profound respect for the land that he farms as an historical expression of a culture. He certainly makes some of the most delicious wines I’ve ever had in my life! (laughs) And I completely respect his skepticism. Interestingly Christophe also has told me that maybe one day he’ll get to bio. He can see himself perhaps one day arriving at farming biodynamically. But like Jean-Marc, he needs to find his own path to get there. And I think that is essential.
And I also completely respect people who don’t advertise the fact that they’re farming biodynamically, as if it were some sort of label of purity. The parallel in cinema is obvious. Just because someone is an independent filmmaker doesn’t mean that the films are actually independently minded. Ninety-five percent of independent filmmaking has historically been nothing more than a low-budget version of what Hollywood does.
Yes. I’ve had conversations with winemakers here in America, certainly in Oregon and Washington, who make it very clear that they’re a little annoyed that though they’ve been farming organically for many years, but they’ve never sought out certification because of the paperwork involved and everything else. They can’t take advantage of that [their organic practice] on the label.
JN Which is also what Jean-Marc says. He’s not interested. It’s a bit of the Groucho Marx thing: Don’t want to be a member of a club that would have you.
Partly it’s an administrative hassle to fill out paperwork, and partly because the whole point, it seems to me, about making wine, just like making films, is that you’re trying to express some form of individuality, individuality of place, individuality of yourself as a person. Therefore any adherence is always delicate to any sort of society. It’s delicate, it’s a delicate question. So I understand people’s skepticism.
That said, given the terrifying state of the planet, given the terrifying state of what people are doing on this planet, there is also something to be said, and part of my admiration for people who farm organically, who make wine from organically farmed grapes and biodynamically farmed, my great admiration for them is precisely because this seems to me a very powerful way to react to the terrifying state of the world, a powerfully positive way.
The planet is in dire danger. The idiots who have power in all countries seem to be hastening, wanting to hasten, the end of the planet. With exceptions, not many. And even when they don’t want to their hands are often tied behind their back by others. I wish that I knew one one-hundredth the number of filmmakers with the same engagement, the same desire to try and contribute to the well-being of the planet as I do winemakers.
Skyping with Franny Armstrong
At long last, after years of hard work, delirious, sleepless nights, 100s of miles of pavement walked, a 1000 doors knocked upon, half a million phone calls made, keyboards worn to dust, finally, all of this work done by director Franny Armstrong and producer Lizzie Gillett is going to reach its brilliant summation September 21st with the Global Premiere of The Age of Stupid in New York City, and throughout the United States. On September 22nd it is the rest of the world’s turn.
As you may read from an early March, 2009 post I wrote promoting the world premiere in London on March 15th of this year, I have never lost sight of the fortunes of the film. Little did I think I would, 6 months later, be speaking with both Franny and Lizzie! And what a pleasure was their ‘virtual’ company. Franny is rather like a combination of a downed power line crackling with dangerous energy and an old-school boxer entering the ring for the 15th round. But to see her on the street she could be easily mistaken for a conscientious school librarian, a very funny librarian. She both rages against the machine and is driven by a great love for this world. Lizzie, less publicly known, seems to me the emotional center, the velvet glove over the iron fist.
Speculation on their personalities aside, the two of them have persevered to bring to America and an international audience, what I think will prove to be the most important film yet made on the social and environmental consequences, if we do nothing, of climate change. But will we act? Ours is called The Age of Stupid for a reason.
Though I’ve yet to see it, no wonder there, I shall be sharing the collective experience at a local theater, one of 440 around America alone, on Monday the 21st. And I strongly encourage readers of this post to do the same. For a complete listing of theaters please see this. And for critical reviews, please read.
Please watch this Guardian documentary on the making of The Age of Stupid.
Admin It’s an extraordinary pleasure to meet you.
Franny Armstrong Have you got video?
Yes. I can see you. Can you see me? Let me turn on the video.
FA No. Turn on the video, yes.
FA You’ve got your back to the window. You look like a scary silhouette. You look like an axe murderer! (laughs)
Terribly sorry! (laughs) [I pull the drapes closed.] How’s this?
FA No. Still axe murderer.
Let me shift. Funny thing is I thought about this for the longest time, how best to set up the background. I’ve never Skyped before.
FA It’s great once you get into it. It’s free. You can waste a lot of time on here, I can tell you! (laughs)
Good morning from California. At least we’ve established that the world is round. Though there are still some ‘flat earthers’ out there. Just as there are those who deny climate change.
FA It’s best to ignore them at this point.
Yeah, definitely. So how are the New York preparations coming along?
FA You saw the email that went out yesterday. [Searching for my copy.] You’re on the mailing list?
Yes, I am.
FA It’s unbelievable! It’s totally ridiculous! The more crazy it gets, the more people get involved.
It’s very viral he way it spreads.
FA Yes. And we’re in the center of the storm here.
How did all the arrangements with California theaters come about? There are dozens of them.
FA There are dozens. It’s all through this one company, Fathom who do these one night only events. We had to petition them to take the film. They eventually took it after a lot of persuading. It’s 440 cinemas across America. All through their own team. One of the good things about it is that it’s not the ‘independents’; it’s the mainstream cinemas. So we’re really getting out to the mainstream.
Have you gotten a little taste of the toxic political environment here in America?
FA Well, I’ve just come from Australia, and I have to say that was even worse.
It’s not at all clear that out president can even tie his shoes without there being some right wing blowback.
FA The health thing is a bit upsetting. isn’t it?
Isn’t it astonishing?
FA Yeah, it’s really bad.
And the talking heads on television only represent 20% of the electorate.
FB If that. Less than 20% I would have thought. But what the hell is the argument against good health care for everybody? What’s the gist of it? ‘We want the money?’ ‘We would rather be rich than you lot have health care.’ Is that the basic argument?
I haven’t a clue. I just know it has something to do with ‘death panels’, I think. (laughs) How do you think our new president is doing with respect to the environment?
FA Well, this time last year we had a climate change denier in the White House; an oil industry man in the White House. So in terms of that we’ve progressed so, so far. Obama has achieved more in the last six months than America did in the twenty years beforehand, the twenty years we’ve known about the climate change problem. So, in one sense he’s doing fantastically well. But in another sense he’s not doing well enough because it’s slightly a win or lose game, this. Either we keep the planet habitable or we don’t.
And if America’s proposals get accepted at Copenhagen, then we’re pretty much committed to run-away climate change and huge catastrophe. So from that point of view he’s doing disastrously! But in terms of where we started from, he’s doing well. In other words, we’ve still got the three months left until Copenhagen. He could go to Copenhagen and say we’re going to go for a deal as strong as the science demands. And if he did that could change everything. Having said that, if Obama goes to Copenhagen and makes a very, very strong deal, as strong as we need, then he still has to come back and get it through the Senate, doesn’t he?
So there is a lot of work for the American people to do, really. Meaning: public opinion has got to shift far enough and fast enough so that Obama’s team in Copenhagen can make the right deal knowing that with the public support it will get through the Senate. Because at the moment that doesn’t exist.
So, definitely, Obama’s brilliant, but it’s not all down to him. There is a huge and very important role for the American public as well.
No doubt. Just out of curiosity, how have the lives of the principles in your film changed since its debut?
FA Dunno. They’re all going to be there at their local screenings. So the Iraqi kids are going to Amman [Jordan], Layefa is going to Lagos… and we’re going to try and get photos of them all emailed to us so that we can put it out on the satellite links so everybody can see. It will be so good!
Piers, the windfarm guy, has got one more big windfarm accepted in the UK. The one that’s in the film got turned down again. The appeal got turned down. But he’s not giving up. Now the proposal is only for two turbines for that one, even though it started with 16, then 9, and now it’s 2. (laughs) That’s pretty hopeless!
FA Actually, Lizzie spoke to her. Lizzie’s right here. Lizzie, this is a blogger in California.
Lizzie Gillett How’s Layefa? Well, she wants to be a film star now! Which is very sweet. She’s still studying medicine, but she wants to be a film star. She’s written a romantic comedy script which she wants Franny and I to produce and direct, funnily enough. She is going to the Lagos premier. It’s a huge cinema, it’s like 250 seats. That will be the first time she’s seen the film, actually. [phone rings] I gotta’ go. Sorry, another call. Bye.
Franny Armstrong Did you hear that?
Yes, loud and clear. And Alvin?
FA Yup. Well, he’s coming to New York next week. I’m so excited to see him. We’ve not seen him since 2006 or something, whenever it was. He’s turned into pretty much a full time New York reconstructor as afar as I could tell. Like doing community projects, rebuilding. He’s rebuilt his whole house very ‘eco’, not the old house that got squashed but his new house. During the film he retired from Shell. We’re expecting him to get quite a lot of press.
And Mr. Wadia?
FA Actually, I haven’t heard from him for a while. He and I used to be in quite close contact. But I haven’t actually heard from him. I’m hoping he’s going the the Mumbai screening, but I haven’t actually heard. Although I’ve heard that his airline is having a take over. Either that or he’s taken somebody else over. Presumably that’s why I haven’t heard from him because he’s busy with that.
So when do you manage to sleep. And do you have a social life?
FA I don’t have a social life at the moment. When do we sleep? Badly, because of all the time zones and because I’m always waken up. I’m always dreaming that the next thing we’re doing is happening today and I haven’t finished doing what it is. Sometimes I wake up in the night and I actually call Lizzie in my sleep! (laughs) She gets very annoyed. Because I’m panicking that we’ve forgotten we’re in Australia but the tape is not here and the premiere’s starting and blah, blah, blah! And then I call Lizzie and she’s like “Stop Calling Me When You’re Asleep!”
To be serious though, there are not that many times in your life that you have the opportunity to do something really good. And to do something really effective. And I can see that this is going to be the best opportunity of my whole life to do something, you know? We have so much influence right now that we’ve put all the rest of life on hold. Next year we’re going to have a whole year off. Not this year!
We want to make the most of this opportunity.
It must astonish you all the doors that have opened, the kinds of people you can call and get through to!
FA At the moment I seem to able to get through to anybody! (laughs) Although we are dreaming of getting Obama to speak at our premiere, on the phone or on a video link. I have to admit, I can’t get through to him! (laughs)
You’ve attempted to call the White House?
FA We’re contacting his press people, to participate in some way. Yeah, it’s a stunning thing, really. It’s surprising to me that you can just make a film and then suddenly you become somebody that’s involved in the debate. I’m speaking to all the people who are making the policy! And I’m throwing ideas in and they’re like ‘Oh! That’s interesting. I think I’m going to look at that.’
I mean the people who are in power are just ordinary people like us. They just happen to be in power.
Another thing that’s scary is that they swap departments, you know? So one minute they’re doing Education and then suddenly they’re on Climate Change. And they don’t know anything about climate change; they get briefings and stuff, but they don’t actually know that much. (laughs)
Who has been a most unusual contact you’ve met through this process, somebody out of left field you never anticipated speaking with?
FA Well, I guess Gillian Anderson. We’ve worked with her a lot now. She’s coming to the New York premiere, and she’s doing us a little promo video. I speak to her quite a lot. I don’t actually watch telly. But I know lots of people who are very excited about the X-Files. (laughs) People like that, it’s quite strange. And Colin Firth. I mean, lots of these celeb types who want to help climate change. They get in touch.
Could you say something of developing economies? I’m thinking of China, for example. Have you made inroads with the Chinese authorities? Will the film be shown there at some point?
FA We haven’t made inroads with the Chinese authorities although we’re trying to get the Chinese Environment minister to speak at the premiere. We hear a rumor that he’s going to be in New York. It would be brilliant, obviously, if he could. We’re working on that one.
And we were approached by a big Chinese T.V. broadcaster the other week. This is a big aim to try and get on T.V. in China. There is some progress there. Hopefully. But we don’t want to make the mistake, as some people do, of saying that it’s all China’s fault. In terms of who caused this problem it is not China; it is America, it’s Britain, the Western countries. We caused the problem. Yes, China is soon going to be contributing to the problem; but in terms of who caused it, it’s us.
Their position is completely understandable, which is that those who caused the problem need to act first. And then if you lot do (that’s us) then we will too. It’s a completely rational position.
Have you heard about our 10:10 campaign?
That’s what I was going to ask you about next. Indeed, I signed up for it the other day.
FA Oh, did you? That’s our response to the developing country…, to that argument. The people who caused the problem have to act first. That’s why, at the global premier, 10:10 is going to go global, meaning anybody who’s consuming more than they should be, they can then sign-up to cut their emissions by 10% in the year 2010. At the moment it’s only the U.K. even though you’ve already done it! You’re not supposed to be able to!
Is that right? Well, I did.
FA Oh, well. No, it’s great that you have. So hopefully, before Copenhagen, the developing countries can see that the people in the rich countries are ready to cut their emissions, meaning, then, that hopefully that can help the right deal get made. That’s the theory.
That’s the theory. Well, we’ve gone over our ten minutes. May I continue?
What are you doing today?
FA What are we doing today? Today I’m writing my Huffington Post blog, which is quite a laugh. And then we’re going down to the site. I haven’t seen it yet, where the premiere’s going to be. We’re meeting up with all the technical guys, and we’re going to go through the whole event and see all the problems. I’m then meeting up with some NGOs who are helping us market the whole event.
We’re going to meet with these guys who want to arrive at the event by swimming (laughs) in the Hudson! We’re gonna go talk to them and see whether it’s actually physically possible. We think it would be quite good fun if they arrived swimming. So we’re going to do a swimming test.
[We were suddenly cut off. Then reconnected.]
I have no idea what happened!
FA Yeah. Well, that’s Skype for you. So what can you do to help spread the word? We’ve got 115,000 tickets to sell in America. That’s quite scary.
I’ll do all that I can to get the word out. Are you getting real time updates on ticket sales?
FA I think we get weekly, although I haven’t seen them.
Weekly, well… between now and the premiere is a week.
FA Don’t say it’s a week. It’s a week and a half! (laughs) Alright, great. Nice talking to you. See you.
It was an absolute delight. Thank you.
August, the month where the British summer finally admitted it wouldn’t be able to make it this year and offered alternating bursts of spring and autumn to fill the gap in the schedule, mostly with rain. Luckily some shining wine experiences managed to make up for the lack of sun with a selection of excellent bottles opened at home, a new tasting group uncovered to continue my wine education and the re-discovery of Australia after a long period of neglect.
The beginning of the month continued one of July’s themes with another visit to Richard Granger. This time round I bought an off-dry Vouvray, the 2007 Domaine Brunet , another Cali Pinot Noir, the Au Bon Climat 2006 Santa Maria Valley, and the Brokenwood 2004 “Cricket Pitch” red, a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from an Australian producer famous for its iconic Graveyard Shiraz.
I realised that this was my first Australian purchase in months, and a quick check revealed that this year I’d only bought 3 bottles (including the Brokenwood) whilst over the same period last year I’d already bought 11 bottles . I can’t say this was a conscious boycott of Aussie wines, but for some reason when confronted by the selection in the Supermarkets and high-street retailers there is usually some other country that intrigues me more. That’s not to say I’m running out either, my collection still stands at 15 bottles (second only to France which is way ahead with 35 bottles) but I don’t seem to be replenishing them as much as I used to and it seems that it’s not just me either, with Decanter reporting in January that global sales had hit a 15 year low.
Given that we are in the middle of a recession it would be foolish to say that the British love-affair with Australian wines is cooling, but what I’m looking for in a bottle nowadays tends to be different from the bulk brands or high-octane blockbusters that have previously made Australia’s reputation in the U.K. It is also worth pointing out that Australia still tops the chart for U.K. consumer wine buying – with the U.S. (California to be precise) second & pushing France down to 3rd – however Australian (and Californian) brands often feature in the depressing glut of “3 bottles for £10” which seem to be everywhere in UK supermarkets at the moment. This may help explain why the value of Australian sales has dropped by 19% even though the total volume purchased has only fallen by 1%, (Harpers Wine & Spirit, July 2009) .
In the middle of the month I attended my first meeting of NEWTS, the North East Wine Tasting Society (see my report of the wines in the recent article Red Wines of the Western Languedoc). I had chanced upon this group after the recent PortoVino tasting from July, although to be honest they had chanced upon me as my ramblings to the friends I attended the tasting with were overheard by two other attendees, prompting introductions and an invite to the next meeting. I was a little apprehensive as there isn’t a lot of local publicity about the group and I had no idea what to expect, but I had a great time and felt at home with the conversation. I’m optimistic that joining the NEWTS will be good for building on my wine knowledge and experiences with most of the monthly meetings presented by the members themselves, with wine from their own collections, on a theme of their choosing – although the next meeting is one of the occasional “trade” presentations, this time from Majestic, the by-the-case retailers who lowered their minimum purchase from 12 to 6 bottles in Newcastle at the beginning of the year and have now rolled out this change Nationwide.
I found myself doing more than the usual amount of entertaining with both family and friends visiting and dining at Chez Greybeard as the month progressed. Needless to say there was no shortage of wine, but what surprised me a little was the overall quality compared to the usual monthly offerings. It’s not often I rate a wine high enough to merit the attentions of the “point seekers” (that’s 4 stars or 90+ depending how you swing) but this was a bonanza month for me with 5 wines which I’ll happily laud over and discuss in more detail.
It’s worth pointing out that the dearth of high scores for what I drink at home is not because I’m a particularly tough judge of a wine but a reflection of the realistic limits I place on my wine budget. The majority of the wines I’ll drink are in the £5-£10 ($8-$16) range with only one or two a month over £10 (and over £20 is usually reserved for Christmas or the New Year). Taken in this context this month’s famous five are more remarkable as they cover the complete spectrum of styles; a white, a red, a rosé, a dessert and a fortified.
- The White. The FMC (Forrester Meinert Chenin) 2005 Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch. This well known dry white from Ken Forrester cost me £12 in early 2008. I had been tempted to open it to complete a trio back in 2008 (see A Tale of Two Chenins) but decided it could handle a little more bottle-age. This overtly oaked wine had a rich, juicy nose, a full mouthfeel with a gentle sweetness and a creamy long finish with some honey. It was well balanced with a lot of complexity – the only criticism was that the oak wasn’t shy and it was starting to show signs of age.
- The Rosé. The 2007 Viña Valoria Rioja Rosado, 100% Tempranillo. This came with my parents and was bought from Corkscrew Wines in Carlisle, a retailer I must remember to visit if I find myself heading west anytime soon. This was easily the best rosé I’ve had all year, a sublime Rosado with a gentle nose of forest fruits. In the mouth it had a savoury watermelon taste and was extremely well balanced, a joy to drink on the one and only sunny Saturday afternoon.
- The Red. Reschke Bull Trader 2004 Coonawarra Cabernet Merlot. Named for the winery owner’s City Trading past this was a gift during my business trip to Sydney in 2008. Unfortunately note-taking was absent during drinking but memory dictated that this was smooth with integrated tannins and good complexity. Cherry was the predominant flavour and it held a fine line between elegance and fruit-bomb resulting in a very well made and drinkable wine.
- The Dessert. Jackson-Triggs 2006 Proprietor’s reserve Vidal Icewine. My first ever Canadian Icewine and based on this I’ll be coming back for more! Lime jelly and honey on the nose this was rich and viscous in the mouth. Whilst the sugar hit was a little extreme at first the finish showed balancing acidity and ended with gorgeous honey tones.
- The Fortified. Boplass Cape Tawny Port (NV). This was bought in South Africa (where they’re still allowed to call it Port on the local market) for the equivalent of £5. Made primarily from Tinta Barocca, by a winery with a long tradition of fortified wine making, the nose was warm raisin and sweet toffee, luscious in the mouth with the warm alcohol spreading out over the palate. There was good acidity into the finish, with a medium length and a touch of heat on the throat, equal to many a 10-15 year old tawny I’ve had from Portugal for a fraction of the cost.
It should also be noted that I opened a bottle of Château Musar 2001 Rouge this month, but I was a little disappointed with its overall acidity and couldn’t rate it as high as the others mentioned here, 3+ at best. More ageing is allocated for my remaining bottles but I doubt this vintage will reach the heights of the ’99. Even the Musar was significantly better than my biggest disappointment this month, the CataMayor 2005 Cabernet Franc from Uruguay. I generously put this down as a 2+ as it was pleasant enough with food, but for my first foray into this South American country it was not encouraging.
As for my other purchases, it turned into a lean month with a net reduction of 6 bottles in my stores. Italy was represented with an entry level Barolo and a supermarket own-label Amarone (more on that next month) while South America brought August to a close with the single vineyard 2001 Manso de Velasco Viejas Vinas from Miguel Torres and an old favourite of mine, the 2006 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontés, both of which are likely to be opened soon.
It’s raining again as I write this, September continuing as August left off. Here’s hoping the wine also follows last month’s trend!
A few days ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Bob Kreisher, president of Mavrik North America (MNA). After having written a piece on smoke taint some days earlier, it soon became apparent proper explanations of key elements were absent. It has been my good fortune to have been contacted by Dr. Kreisher, an ernest student of the subject. He offered very valuable clarifications. Indeed, he offered much more, as you may read below.
However, a proper word of caution. Mavrik is a private company. Much of the interview revolves around successful results implied by the use of a proprietary technology on unknown wines from unnamed producers. Further, I have not personally tasted any of the wines, either before or after MNA’s smoke taint removal process. Therefore this interview is in no way designed to give a competitive advantage to one of a number of companies associated with this general tech.
That said, the writer in me takes a particular delight in Dr. Kreisher’s charming thumbnail bio:
“Bob was born and raised in Indianapolis. He graduated from Purdue University the year it started its Enology and Viticulture program, completely unaware of this development. After many years in university administration, teaching, and consulting, Bob moved to California to help with the organizational design of an emerging winery. Meanwhile, Bob developed a keen interest in developing technologies of winemaking that are gentle and cost-effective to allow cutting edge cellar techniques that enhance the expression of terroir and winemaking, rather than reducing wines to similarity. After intensive research into available and emerging technologies, Bob formed MNA with Mariana Brown. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking, film, hiking, gardening, travel, and spending time with his family and friends.”
Still, questions remain. Most importantly, in my view, is that of a wine’s aging arc. Inasmuch as a given wine is purged of offending compounds involved in smoke taint only to the sensory level of a given set of tasters, might it be possible that the ‘bad’ molecules remaining will reassemble over time, and at some point cross the sensory threshold? And could this possibility hinge on the kind of smoke released or the grape variety? Since the research into smoke taint is still developing, dating largely from 2003, it must remain uncertain, as a practical scientific matter, whether long-aging wines will show smoke taint or some other as yet unrecognized gustatory artifact in later years. After all, a comprehensive explanation of a wine’s chemistry has yet to be written. How is it that residual smoke taint molecules would not deserve a chapter? But this is a matter of pure speculation on my part.
Here is a relevant doc from MNA. MNA Smoke Taint Standard Operating ProceduresMB090715
On to the conversation. I spoke with Dr. Kreisher the morning of August 31st.
Admin Good morning. I understand you’ll soon be on your way to UC Davis. What is the purpose of your visit?
Dr. Bob Kreisher It’s a, I don’t know if conference is the right word, a symposium, let’s say. The Trellis Alliance is bringing Kristen Kennison from the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) to speak and to share some of her research.
Yes. That would make sense. Since the first smoke taint post my blog has been visited by a series of Australian universities.
BK Curtin and the University of Adelaide, I would assume.
Yes. And I’ve interviewed Andrew Yap about his company, Cavitas, and Forensics specialist John Watling, for example, both on unrelated matters. A few others.
BK Great. They’re certainly years ahead of us when it comes to smoke taint. I’ve told a lot of customers this. I’m sure that the Australians wouldn’t feel the same way about this, but we’re really fortunate that they got to endure a lot of the really bad taint, and then figuring out just what the heck was going on and what to do about it.
Just out of curiosity, why do you think it is that the Australians are so far ahead of the US when it comes to research in these kinds of matters? It’s not simply smoke taint; it’s all kinds of wine related subjects.
BK Well, that’s true. But the big thing with regard to smoke taint is simply that they started to experience serious problems with widespread brush fires near vineyards. I’d say probably 2003 is generally considered to be the first year. Certainly the Australian Wine Research Institute is doing much of it, though it’s not only them. I think it’s that there’s a lot more money that’s being provided, for whatever reason.
Yes. It also appears the Australian research model is quite different from the American model. The Australian university system actively hires entrepreneurial outfits doing primary research, and provided they teach, assume a certain teaching load within the a given university, they could continue doing proprietary research on university grounds.
BK Yeah. I don’t know the model real well but I’ve been to the AWRI. One thing they’ve made very clear is that, although I think they were established with some public funds, they are completely self-sustaining. And AWRI operates a lab that charges for services.
So about the issue of smoke taint itself. First of all, what can you say about the varieties of combustible material. I’m thinking of eucalyptus forests as opposed to manzanita brush, a pine tree forest… are the chemical signatures of smoke substantially different with respect to the smoke taint of grapes?
BK Well, I don’t know that anyone knows the answer to that question definitively. But I can tell you this, I’ve had the opportunity to taste smoke tainted wines both in Australia and here. Obviously in Australia there’s a predominance of various eucalypts that are burning in most of the regions. And here there was probably some minor participation by eucalyptus; it was mostly manzanita, pine and redwood presumedly from of the fire up north. So the taste is pretty much the same. My cross-section here in the US is much broader than my cross-section in Australia, but I don’t notice any substantial differences. And I don’t see anything in the sensory literature that suggests that there are significant differences.
Early on some people were saying ‘Oh, it’s not going to be a big deal here because we don’t have eucalyptus.’ The truth of the matter is that eucalyptus next to a vineyard can and will impart eucalyptus oil to the skin of the grapes. And we’ve actually done some work removing that as well. But that’s a direct entry. Well, it’s not even an entry. It’s something that gets on the skins rather than something that’s in the skins.
So that’s a broad way of saying I don’t really see any reason to believe that there are significant differences. Which is not to say that there are not fine distinctions. It probably even matters what temperature a fire is burning at, how much moisture is in the wood, things like that. But when it gets right down to how the wine tastes, how you get the taint out of the wine, it doesn’t seem to me that there are any significant differences.
I’m wondering about the variety of grape and how it evolves in the bottle, that there might be different expressions from different smoke sources over time inasmuch as the chemistry in a bottle of wine is on-going, especially in an unfiltered wine.
BK There’s not. There’s both a good reason to assume that there wouldn’t be and also observational evidence that there’s not. I’ll talk about the first one first. The reason one would assume that would not happen is that, first of all, due to the very nature of their origins these compounds are the most simple form that is available. So what that means is that they’re not likely to be spontaneously generated from precursors say the way ethyl acetate is an oxidation product of ethanol. They’re not likely to react chemically speaking.
I do think there are important chemical interactions, but they are not likely to react with other components in the wine and evolve in that sense. We do know fairly well that they simply do not respond the way other phenols do in terms condensation or polymerization. Micro-oxygenation, oak chips, you name it, these phenols do not seem to take part in those processes, polymerization or condensation.
So the process of removing the offending elements from wine is not time sensitive? It can be done at any point in the vinification process? Or afterwards, even if its been sitting in tanks?
BK Almost! Not quite. Chemically speaking, from about the third or fourth day of primary fermentation the level of the taint is going to remain at least very similar. I’m not saying that it won’t change at all but that it’s not going to change dramatically. The sensory qualities, though, and no one has a good explanation for this at this point, but the sensory qualities do not seem to stabilize until after malolactic fermentation. There just seems to be this magic number of six weeks after ML completion that just seems to do it. And everybody I’ve talked to, I mean people are just blown away when they start to say ‘Oh, I thought the wine was fine, and then it started to show some character’. And I say ‘Six weeks after ML?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah! How’d you know?’ It just seems to be extremely consistent in that regard.
The reason I’m focussing on ’sensory’ is that you can remove the compounds no matter what stage of the wine’s life it’s in. The only reliable means, at this point, of determining the end point of processing is sensory. So if you were trying to do that before the completion of ML you’re shooting in the dark. You really don’t have anything to go on.
Now, the function of your technology is, of course, to remove the offending molecules, whatever they may be. Smoke is a very complex mixture. But if the analysis in the end is fundamentally sensory, then have you done experiments to determine in fact how much is removed? Are they, the tainting compounds, completely removed? Partially removed? Is your target exclusively sensory level analysis and not a molecular level analysis?
BK The target is sensory at this point. There’s simply no means in existence of making a molecular or chemical determination of the end of processing. Guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol are merely marker compounds. After processing they’re pretty useless. In fact, it’s one of our goals not to remove wholesale quantities of guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol because these are desirable compounds, especially at this stage, a year after harvest. A lot of people have intentionally put them into their wines through barrel aging, chips or whatever. And so, one of our goals in terms of the characteristics of our adsorptive media, is to not remove those compounds in significant quantities.
There is simply no means of determining that [making a molecular or chemical determination of the end of processing]. That said, we have been suppling samples to Davis. So far as I know, I don’t know it they are doing much with them yet. They’ve been looking for funds to get them on the HPLC [high performance liquid chromatography] because that costs them some time. It’s not owned by the department, I don’t believe. They have to essentially rent it from whatever unit of the university owns it. Anyway, we’ve been providing them with samples after processing with no markers as to where they came from; providing them with samples to analyze, to try to determine and identify some of these compounds. That’s an on-going struggle. I know that the various entities in Australia have tried the same thing. It’s not an area I know a lot about. I may know more about it this afternoon after meeting Kristen Kennison! I don’t really know the state of the art at this point.
With respect to your technology, Mavrik’s technology, how was the tricky matter of the molecular weights of the associated chemical compounds resolved? I know many of them are quite close. So it seems the adsorptive technology would remove all kinds of compounds in addition to the targeted compounds.
BK Well, that’s not entirely true. The first thing you said is true; that relatively speaking they are very close in molecular weight. That presents a challenge. But it also presents an opportunity in that we don’t have to take a huge broad sections of the wine for treatment. We can take a very narrow cross-section of the wine for treatment. That said, different compounds adsorb at different rates on different media. Even carbon, which is one of the less discriminating media, just won’t adsorb some things at all. And even when you’re talking about carbon, there are many different kinds of carbon with different sized macro-pores, different surface electrical qualities; there are ways of modifying any kind of absorptive media, chemically, electrically, etc. to make them behave in different ways. And so, is it a perfect process where you can hone in on something excruciatingly specific? No. But there are ways of figuring out what is in this permeate that we want to keep and don’t want to remove, and trying to find ways to leave that relatively unmolested.
About the only thing we’ve never been able to completely exclude is carbon dioxide. We feel pretty fortunate about that because carbon dioxide, of course, in the early age of a wine, removing carbon dioxide can be very desirable; and in the later stages, like now, we can remove too much carbon dioxide. But the beauty of it is that it’s both easy and legal to add back, and is considered to be a completely inert process, adjusting CO2. Almost everybody does it before bottling.
From a marketing point of view, is it your experience that wineries are reluctant to have their names associated with a smoke taint removal process?
BK Oh, sure! From a marketing standpoint my experience has been that wineries are reluctant to have their name associated with anything that doesn’t seem sexy and natural and hands-off, and so on. That’s a much broader spectrum but, yeah, sure. Wineries don’t have flaws! Wineries make perfect wine, vintage after vintage, and that is all the consumer needs to know!
It’s the nectar of the gods, after all. (laughs)
BK Exactly. Exactly. (laughs)
Just out of curiosity, what would you say (I suppose this is a political question), but what would you say to those who are biodynamically inclined or hardcore organically inclined, those with a spiritual ‘dog in the fight’; how would you characterize your process with respect to ideas of ‘naturalness’?
BK Sure. I would say, all in all, all of our… well, several things. First of all, the process is CCOF approved. Any organic winery can use it. Yes. And in fact, many have. I don’t know how Demeter would look at the process. I really have no clue. But I can tell you that biodynamic wines have been through our process. Those wineries, it did matter to them. When we did the wine, and I think it probably had to do something with lunar cycles and things they map out, certain days for certain things; I don’t know a lot about that so I’m not going to say exactly how that influenced it, but I do know it was important to them when we did the work. So, with that regard, it’s something that’s already pretty straightforward.
The question of ‘naturalness’… there are people that are going to find the notion distasteful no matter what. But when you get right down to it, every material, everything used here is excruciatingly inert. The machines are made out of stainless steel, and I don’t think anybody has issues with stainless steel these days. Or completely natural, like coming from natural materials. At the end of the day people don’t find the process very sexy but there is nothing here that is bizarre or out of this world, or that gets left behind in the wine when the process is finished.
Many of the concerns revolve around the politically charged notion of manipulation, with a capital M.
And that is one of a suite of cultural terms that ‘interferes’ with a number of technologies, for good and for ill.
In your email to me you mentioned that blending is never… rather, it’s a long shot…
BK Let me interrupt. Sorry about that, Ken. I just want to go back and say one thing just to be sure it’s clear, because the CCOF asked me to be very clear about this. The process is CCOF approved. You can’t use the phrase CCOF certified. It means something completely different. I don’t know what it is but they asked me to be clear about that in my language. So if I’m going to get quoted somewhere I’m going to ask you to use the word ‘approved’ and not ‘certified’. Sorry to interrupt! I just wanted to be clear about that.
No worries. It’s quite alright. I’m going to change the subject actually, from blending to something else. The process, is it different for white wines?
BK No, not really, except for the fact that it tends to go more quickly, take much less time with white wines. It generally depends on exactly how the wine is made. It’s generally only heavy press fractions that actually express some smoke character. And generally speaking the levels are much, much lower in white wines. Other than that it is exactly the same process.
What the hell, I’ll ask the question about blending. You had said it was a long shot. A ratio of 50 to 1 would be required to dilute smoke tainted wine. But has it ever occurred over the course of your process that the wine might be too tainted, or that there might be some other wine addition protocol that you observe? In other words, during your process I understand that things are taken away but are things ever added?
BK As far as the work we do, no. I do know that people have looked at various tannin adjuncts and fining agents, things like that to kinda fine tune. But that’s not something we’ve been involved in. In general, I think people, I know people have definitely been disappointed with fining. Our recommendation is if you’re going to fine anyway, do it and see what it gets you. But be careful because what people who have tried it have found they will just fine out all of the character out of the wine except for the smoke taint! (laughs)
As far as covering it up, people have found that they may be able to smooth it out a little bit with out tannin adjuncts and things like that. But in general, I don’t think anybody really found that it’s useful for anything more than fine tuning.
Can you give me some idea of how widespread is this problem of smoke taint? It is not necessarily the core of your business, or is it?
BK No. Not really.
Is it in the tens of thousands of gallons? Can you give me a ballpark figure of how much tainted wine is out there requiring treatment? This would involve not only you’re company but others associated with this technology.
BK I’m sure that the volume of wine at this point runs into the millions of gallons.
This would include Australia, of course.
BK I’m just talking about California in 2008.
Millions of gallons?
BK Oh, definitely. What I know that has definitely been treated. That’s safe to say. How many millions? I wouldn’t want to venture a guess. But it is safe to say millions.
And this would all be related to smoke taint?
Now, there are other companies out there. Do they use similar technology?
BK Well, it depends on what you mean by similar. When you boil it down to its simplest form which is making a separation, to separate the offensive compounds from the desirable compounds, and then doing something to try and remove those offensive compounds from the permeate essentially, then, yeah, they’re pretty similar. That said, the devil is in the details when it comes to this, most definitely. Because we’re right on the threshold here of passing and not passing the offensive compounds, and then removing the offensive compounds but not the desirable compounds. Broadly speaking, yes, and no, not in the details.
Thank you, professor. Thank you for your time. You’ve certainly done me a great service, and that of my readers.
BK Any time, Ken. I look forward to meeting you some day.
Take care and enjoy the UC Davis meeting.
Corbières, Fitou, Minervois & Cabardès; Most readers will recognise two or three of these names but I suspect Cabardès may be less familiar – it certainly was for me when I attended a recent tasting. These four French AOCs (together with the tiny Côtes de Malepère) cover the area between the cities of Carcassone and Narbonne in the southern Aude département, also known as “Cathar Country”. They are the main red wine regions of the western Languedoc (the Aude’s other red AOC, La Clape, is usually considered part of the eastern Coteaux du Languedoc) with Syrah and Grenache common to all. Of the other grapes used Mourvèdre and Carignan dominate in some but there’s a surprise appearance by the Bordeaux varieties as well – visit the Wine Doctor’s Languedoc Wine Guide for more substantial background to all these AOCs.
I came to these regions by way of NEWTS (North East Wine Tasting Society) which I attended as a guest member. The tasting was presented by one of the societies founding members, Harry Rose, and the bottles were all bought by him on a recent trip to the region. Harry gave a running commentary as we tasted the wines with stories of his trips to the wineries and some good descriptions of the local geography and terroir. Although the tasting order was influenced by price I’ve grouped the notes by AOC for easier reading.
Corbières is an enormous 15000 hectare area south-west of Narbonne and became an AOC in 1985. The region was represented here by one producer, Château Grand Moulin, and although most production is red it was a white that was poured as a prelude to the main tasting, the Château Grand Moulin Blanc 2004.
- Although a deep golden colour with a creamy, floral nose this felt light and showed a touch of oxidation. A full mid-palate was its saving grace but with little flavour, some bitterness at the end and a lot of heat on the finish it was agreed that this was not a white wine region.
We moved onto the Château reds with the Château Grand Moulin “Boutenac” 2005.
- Boutenac is one of the 11 sub-zones of Corbières and this had a soft, warm nose, with some toffee coming through. In the mouth there was little flavour at the front but a strong vanilla fudge taste from mid-palate to finish and good length. After a few minutes in the glass the toffee aroma became stronger. At the equivalent of £12 pounds this was one of the better wines of the night.
The Vieilles Vignes Château Grand Moulin 1998, 40% Grenache and 60% Syrah & Carignan was last.
- This had a sweaty, vegetable nose with a little smoky spice that turned a little sweet after a few minutes in the glass and which I found quite pleasant. In the mouth it was soft and a little flabby – easy to drink with some thin acidity and a few remnant tannins but no fruit or overall complexity, this was showing its age a bit too much for the £15 charged.
Cabardès is North West of Carcassone and was granted AOC status in 1999. At 550ha it is one of the smaller of the Languedoc regions with the local Mediterranean climate moderated by the cooling “Cers” wind funnelled in from the Atlantic. It is this that makes Cabardès (and the nearby Côtes de la Malepère) suited for “Atlantic” varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Côt (Malbec) which make up a 40% minimum of the blend with Syrah and Grenache contributing most of the rest.
Le Suc de Brau 2005 Cabardès.
- This started off with an intriguing nose; a complex mix of smoke, herbs, oak and tar which was a little extreme but I warmed to it. In the mouth things went downhill, this was a very flat wine with tannins but no fruit and an ash component throughout. After a few minutes in the glass the nose turned a little medicinal and any flavour died completely. At £7 pounds this was the least expensive red on the table but couldn’t live up to even this modest price tag.
La Sauvage Font Juvenal 2003 was the last wine poured and possibly the most powerful, living up to its savage name and in stark contrast to the first Cabardès. Harry’s commentary was equally rugged as he described a risky drive to the winery down a treacherous valley road!
- At 14% this mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Grenache had a dark colour, younger looking than the 2003 vintage on the label. The herb & tar/garrigue nose that had become the trademark for the evening was in evidence with a good dose of fruit behind it and in the mouth there was a touch of menthol with a full, balanced mouthfeel. Tannins were noticeable but relatively smooth and, of all the wines over the night, this was perhaps the only one that was too young, with another 2-5 years likely to see improvement. This didn’t stop me from rating it second best on the night and, with those extra years in the bottle, this one had the potential to be the best wine of them all, although some may say it sacrifices regional typicity for a more international style.
Minervois became AOC in 1985 and the area has 5000 hectares North East of Carcassone with producers often using Carbonic Maceration (whole cluster fermentation, as in Beaujolais) for the reds – useful for taming the tannins in the Carignan grape which is the staple of the region. In 1999 the all red cru of Minervois La Livinière was also recognised as a distinct Appellation.
Le Chai Chartrou “Signature” Minervois was the opener, a strange wine whose label pronounced AOC but had no vintage visible and a small code on the front (Syr66Gre34) suggested a purely Syrah/Grenache blend.
- This had a deep colour and a garrigue/tarry nose as many of the others did that night. It was a smooth, full wine with some signs of age (I would guess earlier than 2003) and some sweetness coming on the finish – pleasant enough.
Château Laville Bertrou Cuvée Limitée 2003 represented Minervois-la-Livinière with 65% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 15% Carignan.
- This had a warmer nose than most the others, slightly spicier and showing much better integration in the mouth with gripping tannins at the sides of the tongue and a full, smooth mid-palate. I sensed a little plum and some mocha on the finish – a complex and very well drinking wine.
Fitou is the oldest of the Languedoc AOCs dating back to 1948 and with a blend minimum of 30% Carignan these often tannic wines are supposed to be the most ageworthy of the region. Its 2,565 hectares are separated into 2 distinct zones; Fitou-Maritime on the Mediterranean coast around the village of Fitou itself and Fitou de Hautes-Corbières inland around the village of Tuchan. Tuchan is home to the large Mont Tauch cooperative and it was from this producer’s 2001 vintage that the final notes come.
- The nose was uninspiring with some subtle garrique and smoky spice aromas. A few others around the table detected liquorice (a classic Fitou aroma) but I struggled to find it. This was very drinkable but rather simplistic; smooth, few tannins to note and a soft mellow taste but a little dull with no overt characteristics. Sitting in the glass it gained a little sweetness but needed more tannin and was overpriced at £16.
In Extremis Durban 2001 is a blend of 40% Syrah with 60% Carignan and Grenache. A few of the other tasters said it was almost identical to L’Essentiel but, while I could see the similarities, for me everything was accentuated to make a far superior product.
- A tarry nose but this time with strong liquorice and a floral twist (maybe violets?) with a touch of raisins. It was very smooth in the mouth with gentle tannins showing moderate length and a touch of sweetness. For me this was the best wine of the night and a good place to bring the notes to an end.
This was my first NEWTS meeting but I suspect not my last. I was pleased that it expanded my knowledge of an area I didn’t have a lot of experience with and I’m sure this won’t be the last set of tasting notes from this group to make it onto these pages.