Why We Are Not Dogs. Jonathan Nossiter’s Liquid Memory

Ξ October 19th, 2009 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, International Terroirs, Wine & Politics |

“I acquired my love for the taste of wine as a small child when it was first dropped into my mouth or mixed in a glass of water”.
This is not how the book begins. Liquid Memory follows no sequential narrative logic, one recollection does not force the next. For that is not how memory works.
Neither does the book begin with reflections on Mondovino, though the popular memory of that ground-breaking film might, too, have made thematic, if not commercial, sense. (Indeed, I suspect the majority of reviews will follow this noisy thread.) And don’t think for a moment we have before us a guidebook of wine tasting notes fetishistically severed from place and time, isolated by a ‘wine professional’ from all worldly contamination. Isolated from memory.
Instead, Part One, The (None)sense Of Place, chapter one, Why We’re Not Dogs begins with this.
“The term globalization is frequently misused. This is particularly disturbing for me, a child of the globe. My father, Bernard Nossiter, an American journalist, moved our family from Washington D.C., to Paris when I was two. I grew up across the cultures of France, Italy, Greece, India, and England, as well as the United States. So, where do I belong?”
Liquid Memory is not an attempt to answer this question by submitting to an easy, marketable nostalgia; you know, a story of the search for a warm hearth before which one might safely curl to sleep. Instead, Mr. Nossiter performs his answer with a very personal journey of recollection, exploring the multiplicity of ‘homes’, ‘heimat’ or terroirs that memory itself calls into being.
We are not dogs because we possess the unique freedom to cross ideological borders, to resist cultural and commercial forces that offer to name us in exchange for a kind of security. (‘Consumer’ is one of many such names.) And wine is the agency of resistance par excellence. This book is an invitation to escape from the kennel of advertisement, to snap the tether of scores; to cultivate an intellectual nomadism of both sapience and of culture, in the company of others.
“Without terroir–in wine, cinema, or life (I’m happiest when the three are confused)–there is no individuality, no dignity, no tolerance, and no shared civilization. Terroir is an act of generosity. The last thing it should be is sectarian or reactionary.”
We are all complex mixtures of the past, the present and the future. There is nothing new in this. What is new is that Mr. Nossiter demonstrates through generous, playful stories that bottles of wine, what he calls liquid madeleines, may quietly, entirely by themselves, stir in us the experience of blended time, so to speak. We have only to learn how to listen.
“Wine bottles to me are not inanimate objects. And not just because the liquid inside them is biochemically alive. The shape of the bottle, the label, with its carefully printed place names, family names, and year of harvest, both evoke deeply human stories that remain vital even once the contents are consumed. When I see a bottle of wine, I travel in space–of course to the place the wine comes from (if its identity and personality have been respected), but also to the place, people, and circumstances where it was consumed.”
Though Liquid Memory makes serious arguments, there is nothing doctrinaire or ideologically rigid about Mr. Nossiter’s approach. Philosophical, yes; but he is too disciplined, too creative an independent film-maker to write sermons. The book’s prose is bright, often lyrical, always entertaining, even when discussing dark topics. He is never pugnacious, but he is willing to push back. How could it be otherwise? This book is a self-avowed “Proustian journey”, after all. But unlike Proust, Mr. Nossiter has not spent years in a cork-lined room endlessly scribbling emendations in the margins of an infinitely unspooling text. And unlike Proust, memory for Mr. Nossiter must be fed with the real-world anticipation of future pleasures. Indeed, his tone is resolutely upbeat, open to new loves.
(As a purely personal aside, rather than Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdue, the text that actually returned to me again and again when reading Liquid Memory was Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques.)
Before beginning his thoroughly original adventures across the Parisian winescape, the greater part of the book, he writes,
“When I enter a wine shop–a magical place for me since adolescence (an arrested adolescent replacement for the childhood delights of a toy shop?)– or when I scan a restaurant wine list, I feel a surge of excitement, like someone arriving at the doorstep of a potential love affair. A tour of places in Paris where wine is critical–wine shops and restautants–becomes for me a kind of triple Proustian journey. I might go back in time with one glance (a bottle last drunk or seen years before), forward with another (there are millions of bottles that are unknown to me that I hope one day to meet), and rooted in the present with a third turn of the head (because the choice of wines is like choice of friends: it instantly reveals character and taste).”
But, push back? Yes, there is plenty. Robert Parker’s work, for example, is discussed with a combination of bemusement and genuine revulsion, as is “modern wine gibberish” generally. But the reason for his hot and cold critique throughout the book has nothing to do with personal animus (despite the unrelieved hostility of Mr. Parker and some of his board members, the wine world’s equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and his excitable ditto heads). Rather, it is the simple proposition that, among other Parker foibles, lugubrious tasting notes and scores do not get at what is most important in wine. Tasting notes and scores dumb down wine, at best rendering each bottle one of an endless series of Warhol-esque Campbell soup cans.
“But Parker is not alone. Modern wine gibberish (and the desperate attempts of winemakers to make wines that correspond to that gibberish) is a global product.”
And as a global product,
“Consumers all over the world have now become accustomed to seek out ‘Parker 95 wines’ or ‘ Wine Spectator 90’s,’ no longer sure of, or necessarily interested in, the wines’ origins, makers, or contexts. [....] To assign numbers to a wine, given that a wine is fully living and infinitely mutable, is almost as repugnant to me as assigning numerical worth to humans.”
Memory is aborted; our fundamental distinction from dogs is no longer necessary or even minimally required. Consumers, like dogs, run in packs. This is the great insight of modern business psychology. And we, as dogs, are left obediently waiting permission to feast from the bowl of the one who eats first.
Setting aside the ridiculous theater of modern wine gibberish for a moment, the finest section of Liquid Memory in my view is Part lll, All Roads Lead To Burgundy. Here Mr. Nossiter steps away from driving the narrative; he largely subtracts himself in order to let others speak. He then lovingly devotes 35 pages to the voices of some of the finest vignerons of Burgundy’s new generation. Can they find “a means of communication as limpid as their wines”?
“We are in the home Jean-Marc Roulot and his wife Alix de Montille to find out. They’ve been joined by their friends Dominique Lafon and Christophe Roumier, creating a quartet of inspired vignerons, all of whom are themselves children of talented vigneron fathers. Though anchored in a sense of tradition, they have each one of them acquired international reputations as modernist pioneers. Indeed, because the opposition between tradition and modernity is as absurd in wine as it is in cinema, it’s not surprising that the tradition within the Roulot, Montille, Lafon, and Roumier families is to assert a new ideal of progress in the expression of terroir with each generation.”
The next four chapters are quite simply a tour de force in contemporary wine writing. Mr. Nossiter has done brilliant work here. I cannot review the chapters without repeating them. But I will say there may be found detailed discussions of biodynamics and organic viticulture, the burden of tradition, the fragility of familial relations, of fathers and sons, with respect to the preservation and transmission of historical experience and memory. How does one persevere, how does one make durable a vision, a terroir, while all around is compromise and accommodation? The many strengths and pleasures of Liquid Memory notwithstanding, ‘All Roads Lead To Burgundy’ will be read for many years to come.
The section ends with this reflection.
“It must be said that the current practitioners of marketing are often congenial figures with no wish at all to subsume us in any evil design. But those who preach the cult of the individual nonetheless are contributing to the erasure of our collective culture and therefore, ironically, of our individual identities. The (historically mutable) delineation of Burgundian terroirs and their highly idiosyncratic interpretation by people like Jean-Marc, Dominique, and Christophe seems to me a very graceful (if infinitesimally miniscule) response to this threat.”
Part lV, The Taste of Authenticity, the last part of the book, reads a bit like a compilation of essays; of related pieces, to be sure, but with a free-standing quality. Each may be read independently of the book as a whole. All chapters will be welcomed, deepening, as they do, our understanding of the politics and culture of wine.
Finally, I can only imagine that Mr. Nossiter is pleased to finally set Liquid Memory on its way, to give it a life of its own. My interview with the gentleman was sprinkled with new ideas, new departures for thought, new terroirs. Thoroughly future-oriented, with children to raise, movies yet to make, should he have met Marcel Proust I suspect he would have slapped him on the back and spirited him off to Caves Legrand for a cheering-up. Yet Mr. Nossiter’s relation to Literature remains a mystery to me. He writes on pg. 14,
“In fact, nothing so complex, so dynamic, and so specific, nothing that links both nature and civilization, can be said in relation to memory in literature, painting, cinema, music, architecture: and any of the other records of human civilization. However, precisely because neither terroir, nor nature, nor men are fixed, and because a wine itelf is destined to be consumed–to vanish–a wine of terroir is by its nature, an ultimately undefinable, unquantifiable agent of memory. This is a curse for relentless rationalists, unrepentant pragmatists, and all the busy codifiers of this world, anxious for absolutes. And a blessing for the rest of us.”
But it is equally true people are destined to be consumed; they vanish. They, too, are records of human civilization. Yes, it is true that men are not fixed. But a man is, when he vanishes. As does all that he knew.
From Borges’ Dreamtigers.
“In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for [sic] sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, little by little shifts and mingles the shadows in the humble nook. Outside are the plowed fields and a deep ditch clogged with dead leaves and an occasional wolf track in the black earth at the edge of the forest. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The angelus awakens him. By now the sound of the bells is one of the habits of evening in the kingdoms of England. But this man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.
Events far-reaching enough to people all space, whose end is nonetheless tolled when one man dies, may cause us wonder. But something, or an infinite number of things, dies in every death, unless the universe is possessed of a memory, as the theosophists have supposed.
In the course of time there was a day that closed the last eyes to see Christ. The battle of Junin and the love of Helen each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what pitiful or perishable form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez? The image of a roan horse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas? A bar of sulpher in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”

Liquid Memory is a valuable contribution to the conversation about wine, of course. But it is a rare book. It makes the strongest case that I have ever read that wine matters; it matters to culture, to history, to our self-understanding of what makes us human. I highly recommend adding it to your library.
For my three part interview with Mr. Nossiter please see this and follow the links.


5 Responses to ' Why We Are Not Dogs. Jonathan Nossiter’s Liquid Memory '

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  1. bill adams said,

    on October 21st, 2009 at 7:00 am

    A fine distillation of Mr. Nossiter’s sensibility in an economical format. Thanks, as well, for the interview series with Jon, as I have forwarded links to many friends in the trade.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on October 21st, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Thank you, Mr. Adams. It has been quite a pleasure speaking with him. Quite an educational experience as well.

  3. michael said,

    on October 27th, 2009 at 2:07 am

    Your exceptional review matches the quality of the book. Rare event these days.

  4. Not a Payton Fan said,

    on November 18th, 2009 at 10:56 am

    No wonder Dr Vino didn’t link up to your review. Terribly boring from start to finish. Complete waste of my time. You and Nossiter both simply contribute to making wine lovers seem like snobby assholes. Stop giving the rest of us a bad name.

  5. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 18th, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you for the anonymous comment. Dr. Vino may not have linked my review for the simple reason that he did not consider mine a ‘major review’. What bothered me about Dr. Vino’s post, living on in your comment, is that I enjoyed a very good interview with Mr. Nossiter posted just days before about which Dr. Vino made no mention. I believe it provides important insight to how Mr. Nossiter currently understands the wine world. This was the basis of my complaint. I do not understand why the book, written some years ago, has been the only source informing the book reviews that have appeared. It is simply lazy at best and studied indifference at worst.
    Now, if you read Dr. Vino’s work, especially his fine historical efforts, you will understand how important for him is the careful reading of all relevant documentation for making a proper judgement. So, perhaps you might better understand why I remain perplexed that neither he nor any reviewer, with the notable exception of Alice Feiring, has seen fit to refer to my interview!
    About being boring and a complete waste of time, that to me is unfortunate. I wish your reading experience had been more enjoyable. But as for being a wine snob and ‘ruining it for the rest of us’, I encourage you to explore my site. Read my recent pieces from Portugal, if nothing else. Then write back and let me know in what way ‘wine snob’ could possibly describe my relation to the wine world. Salud.

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