Jonathan Nossiter pt 2, On Wine’s New Global Dialogue

Ξ September 23rd, 2009 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine News, Winemakers |

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.
 
Part 3.
 
Admin
 
Very special thanks to Patrick Petruccello of Kahuna’s Food and Wine for his invaluable technical assistance.

 

3 Responses to ' Jonathan Nossiter pt 2, On Wine’s New Global Dialogue '

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  1. 1WineDude said,

    on September 26th, 2009 at 5:53 am

    GREAT and thought-provoking interview!

    It’s interesting to get this perspective on the wine industry in EU especially, because I think many American and AsiaPac wine geeks tend to think of Europe as the land of terroir-driven wines, which is clearly *not* how the majority of EU wine is produced.

  2. Joe Dressner said,

    on October 5th, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Great interview. I’m looking forward to the book!

  3. Administrator said,

    on October 5th, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Thank you, Joe. A great pleasure to have you drop by!

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