Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters
by Jonathan Nossiter
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 262 pages)
I is a book you will either love or hate – possibly both. Jonathan Nossiter, filmmaker, former sommelier, and oenological maverick, stirred up no end of controversy with his Mondovino, an incendiary (some would say subversive) documentary about the wine world… And now, with the publication of LIQUID MEMORY, he’s stirring up the pot once again.
Mr. Nossiter is a staunch defender of the concept of terroir, a French word for which there is no exact English translation. In the parlance of the vineyard, however, it generally refers to the way in which soil, climate, grape variety, and a number of other factors combine to endow a wine with its own unique character; which, in turn, bestows a distinctly discernable taste (and sense of place) upon the palate. This idea is much revered among Old World winemakers of, most notably, France, Italy, and Germany.
Obversely, to New World winemakers – namely in the Americas and Australia – terroir is considered little more than a marketing ploy; in other words, a colossal flimflam. And this opinion, interesting enough, is also held by a number of wine critics.
There is a great deal going on in LIQUID MEMORY; but the crux of the matter boils down to Mr. Nossiter’s contention that, since the latter part of the 1970s, the wonderful world of wine has been systematically hoodwinked away from terroir-based vintages toward over-oaked, lethally alcoholic “fruit bombs” that are completely devoid of character and local identity.
And one of the chief villains in this devolutionary global homogenization of taste is American critic Robert Parker. To wit: “In my opinion, Robert Parker, working with… importers, has turned a wine world of independent winemakers making terroir-based wines that were identifiable by their origins, into a consultants’, importers’ and reps’ game, where wines are literally tailored just for one palate.”
It doesn’t take the reader long to realize that Mr. Nossiter has a penchant for hyperbole, as well as being given to spirited bouts of pomposity upon occasion… To say that he is opinionated – especially when he has a burr under his saddle, which is quite often – would, of course, be an incredible understatement… On the other hand, I tend to agree with him on just about all counts.
Who, for example, has not sipped and savored a local wine at a prepossessing little outdoor café in France, Germany, or Italy – perhaps just a few yards from where the grapes were grown – and failed to marvel at a vintage that was truly sui generis to this “particular place.” The grape variety may be produced elsewhere – perhaps even under similar circumstances – but it will never taste quite the same as “this” wine. And why…? Because “this” wine is inextricably married to “this” soil… “this” climate… and “these” people, whose labors and collective cultural legacy have brought it to ultimate fruition. It is like no other wine. It is unique. It is a product of this particular terroir and no other.
All that being said, however, it is Mr. Nossiter’s scathingly comprehensive criticism of wine guru Robert Parker that is, in my opinion, worth the price of the book. From a personal perspective, I subscribed to Parker’s Wine Advocate for a number of years, much preferring its unadorned, unadvertised pages to the glitzy commercialism and blatant appeal to the rich & shameless propagated by the Wine Spectator. However, as time went on, I became more and more disenchanted with Parker’s recommendations, finding them – especially the red wines – exceedingly ponderous, lethargically alcoholic, and lacking in finesse. I freely confess that my own predilection is for subtlety and elegance rather than brute force.
When it comes to predilection, however, as Mr. Nossiter notes, it is Parker’s that has prevailed. And his fetish for big, bold, highly alcoholic fruit bombs has initiated a rather vicious circle in which winemakers around the world, coveting his numerical ratings (and subsequent increase in sales), have rushed to please his palate, thus aiding and abetting the global homogenization of taste.
Nothing, of course, is quite that simple – it rarely is. And Robert Parker certainly isn’t the only culprit in this oenological drama…. Be that as it may, however, Jonathan Nossiter’s LIQUID MEMORY is a book that should be at the top of every serious wine lover’s reading list.
Available at your local bookstore or from amazon.com in either hardcover or paperback.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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