Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review: Liquid Memory

Jonathon Nossiter's Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, with its treatment of taste, power, and globalization, is a very good cultural anthropology treatise.  Those treatments, plus its treatment of "winespeak", selected wine regions, abdication of wine culture by a number of wine regions, and the psyche and philosophy of some of the leading Burgundian vignerons, makes this one of the best wine books I have ever read.

The author is a filmmaker, probably best known for his film Mondovino, a documentary on the impact of wine globalization.   He has studied Greek language, literature and history; worked as a sommelier; lived in Paris (where his father was stationed as an international correspondent); and is currently living in Brazil, where there is a body of socially conscious, some would say reactionary, literature and film.  All of these influences are reflected in this work.  The author describes the book as an "involuntary guidebook" and a "polemic against all those critics and arbiters who purport to speak with authority and are taking most of the fun and almost all of the culture out of wine these days."  Its purpose, stated in the Introduction, is to "attempt to transmit something of the sensual and intellectual delight that wine has brought me since childhood" and its audience is those who are "skeptical of jargon, defensive snobbery, or any one of power that obstructs the uncovering of one's own taste."

The book is organized along three broad themes.  In the early sections, the author is focused on defining and identifying taste.  For most of its second half, the author is focused on coming up with alternatives to the dreaded winespeak. In the last part of the book, it is Mondovino redux (somewhat) as the author decries the effects of globalization/homgenization on the world's wine regions and the contributions of Michel Rolland and Robert Parker to this "travesty."

In the introductory section of the book, the author engages in a thought-provoking discussion of wine as liquid memory (the title of the book) and as a medium for an evolving transmitter of terroir as it changes in the bottle (In the first chapter the author acknowledges that there are forces arrayed against the notion of terroir. Terroir, he says, is not "a reactionary, unquestioning clinging to tradition."  Instead, it is a "will to progress into the future with a firm rootedness in the past ... a way to counteract the relentless homogenization of certain global forces.").  From this base he continues on to a discussion of taste and power and how important it is for an individual to be the arbiter of his/her own taste. "The moment you abdicate responsibility for your own taste is the moment you voluntarily abdicate your own freedom."

The first two chapters appeared to be as much about film as it was about wine and I found this disconcerting.  The author was liberal in his use of analogies and these analogies were always drawn from the world of film and film making.  Two especially jarring practices were the gratuitous use of "flashback" and imbuing us with the pervasive sense that we were reading "the Making of Mondivino."  At one point the references to Mondovino were so thick and so fast that I wondered whether Mondivino should be a pre-requisite to the book. But he rights the ship and takes us on a journey to some of his favored (and not so favored) restaurants, wine bars, and wine shops in Paris and through gripping, in-depth interactions with Burgundian vignerons Jean-Marc Roulet, Christophe Roumier, and Dominique Lafon.

This is a well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book written with a filmmaker's eye for detail and clearly presents the author as a learned individual possessing excellent breadth as well as depth.  The author is not at all ambivalent about what he thinks is wrong with today's wine culture or who is responsible for the current state of affairs.  He is laudatory of Burgundy, Italy (with the exception of the Super Tuscans), Germany and Austria for not succumbing to the siren song of Parker-influenced, American-market-driven taste and excoriates Spain (especially), Argentina, and Chile for yielding their internal winemaking traditions (in the case of Spain going back centuries) to the Rolland/Parker vision of what taste is.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, this book is a must-read.

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