September 2009

Chelsey Philpot

nonfiction

Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter

Jonathan Nossiter, filmmaker of the 2004 wine documentary Mondovino, has some harsh criticism for Spanish reds. He does not think much of many thick California cabernets or Australian shirazes. In fact, in Liquid Memory he has some brutal observations about the state of wine making across the globe. Already published in France, this controversial reflection mingles Nossiter’s personal history with a professional diatribe. 

Certain to cause bruised egos from the fields of Napa to the small villages of Bordeaux, this passionate tome is not written for the wine ignorant, but it offers much for those with more to learn. Given my basic knowledge of wine before I began reading -- I had seen Sideways and learned to never order a merlot -- I approached Liquid Memory as I would any memoir/history/travel book. Though Nossiter tries to claim an everyman status, he is far from it. He uses erudite wine terms, vineyard names, and vintage years like a starlet trying to name-drop her way into a club. Nonetheless, as his story progresses, the depth of Nossiter’s knowledge and the power of his descriptions become as intoxicating as the wines he praises.

Nossiter opens Liquid Memory by stating that he wants to avoid “winespeak” as much as he doesn’t want to be a “self-proclaimed populist” and “dumb down wine at any cost.” His mission is to impart knowledge and reclaim authority from the superpowers of the wine world -- critics, merchants, etc. “Under any circumstances, wine has been historically charged with a power that is unique in the alimentary world. But it has also engendered a fear that is equally singular because of association with a connoisseurship and power.”

As the son of an American journalist, Nossiter grew up all over the world, and spent many formative years in France. He thus assigns an almost religious importance to the concept of terroir. He means it in a far larger sense than the land where a wine is created. In Liquid Memory, terroir comes to represent the essence of a wine, the history of a place, and even the soul of a person. Nossiter uses terroir to explain being a teenager in Paris and a sommelier at Balthazar’s in New York City. The many terroirs that have impacted his life account both for his lack of roots and why he loves the wines he does.

Liberally employing allusions to films and literature, Nossiter both attacks and praises people and wine alike. He compares a subtle wine to a “classical ballerina,” while a high-alcohol one has a body like “an eighties porn star’s.” However, his most brutal words are reserved for critics and wines that cater to popular demand. He derides famous critic Robert Parker -- even going so far as to describe Parker’s “blandly kitschy suburban home in rural Maryland” -- and condemns wines with no sense of terroir. 

At times the writing descends into hyperbole: “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.” Nossiter’s palpable joy in wine is interchangeable with a defensive anger. However, in insulting not only critics but also readers who enjoy “sweet, overripe wines…in an infantilized world,” Nossiter veers dangerously close to alienating the very people he wishes to reach.

Ultimately, if you do not own a large vineyard, have never written for Wine Spectator, and have some understanding of French wine laws, Liquid Memory will not offend you. Read it the first time for basic knowledge. Read it again for the humor and descriptions (On delicate wines: “In a world so completely dominated by the otherwise unobjectionable AC/DC, it’s hard for aficionados to hear a Bach piano partita.”) And read it a final time, preferably with a good bottle in hand, to ponder how globalization has changed how contemporary wines are made. There are more wine consumers than ever worldwide, but do we know what we’re drinking?

Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374272573
272 pages

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