Jonathan Nossiter, acclaimed filmmaker and former sommelier, had his first taste of wine at the age of three in Paris, from his father’s fingertip. For him, wine is “memory in its most liquid and dynamic form,” as essential an expression of culture as cinema, books, baseball, painting, even sex. With great wit and passion, he celebrates wine and its enthusiasts—and defends both from those who tell us what to drink and how to think about it.
In Liquid Memory, the American expatriate investigates the infinite mysteries of terroir, the historical sense of place that makes wine a living, thrilling expression of cultural identity that can stretch back centuries. The book is a deliriously joyful master class in locating the soul of a wine, and in learning to trust your own palate and desires. Nossiter, who has already created an uproar in the world of wine with his film Mondovino, arms us against the tyranny of snobs, critics, and charlatans who would prevent us from taking part in what should be a gloriously democratic bacchanalia.
From the sacred wine shops and three-star restaurants of Paris to the biodynamic vineyards of Burgundy, from the hipster bistros of New York to film locations in Rio de Janeiro and Athens, this singular journey invites us to consider how power, misused, can sometimes mask an absence of taste—and how our own personal taste can combat power in any sphere. A controversial bestseller in Europe, Liquid Memory is sure to rile the establishment, enlighten the thirsty, and reveal the inner life of the world’s most mysterious, contradictory, and jubilatory drink.
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Jonathan Nossiter is a film director and former sommelier. His feature films include Resident Alien; Sunday, which won the Best Film and Best Screenplay prizes at the Sundance Film Festival; Signs & Wonders, which starred Charlotte Rampling; and Mondovino, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He lives in Rio de Janeiro, the setting of his new film, Rio Sex Comedy, which stars Rampling, Bill Pullman, and Irène Jacob. Liquid Memory is his first book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE LIBERTY OF TASTE
This book is a highly personal journey through the liquid looking glass, an insider-outsider view of the world’s most mysterious, contradictory, and jubilatory drink. It’s an attempt to understand wine in its relation to culture (and even movies) and why that can bring pleasure to people who never even imagined putting a glass of wine to their lips (or for those who do drink but are, rightly, loath to talk). It might be a surprise to those justi.ably wary of winespeak and wine snobbery to imagine that wine could be as powerful an expression of culture as books, paintings, cinema, music, baseball, and sex. Through an intimate examination of the relationship between taste and power as expressed in wine, I’ve hoped to uncover something of how wine expresses that relation in the world at large.
For those who’ve seen a .lm I made about the wine world, Mondovino, please note that this book is not a continuation of Mondovino by other means. While the .lm traces a kind of comic anthropology of the wine world, it barely brushes on the fact of wine itself, its taste, its use, its physical existence, and what has always fascinated me the most: its profound relation to the general culture. I grew up drinking wine by the .nger drop at the age of two, courtesy of my expatriate American parents in Paris and their efforts to pacify four boisterous sons. As an adolescent in London, I spent my allowance on wine, in a quixotic attempt to improve my chances in the dating lottery. By my mid-twenties, I was making wine lists for restaurants in New York and sporadically writing wine articles, which were even more sporadically published. But because .lmmaking has been my primary craft for the last twenty-.ve years I’ve always been an outsider in the clubby, sometimes ma.oso, and always culty world of wine. And this may be my one advantage for the lay reader.
At a dinner in Paris not long ago I was introduced to .lm director and formidable Parisian gadabout Anne Fontaine. Having heard I had some association or other with the wine world, she turned to me as I went to take my seat, sipping blithely from her wineglass: “Men who speak about wine at table are instantly condemned,” she hissed. “Death! The guy is done for. Conversation about wine is anonymous. A man isn’t speaking to me when he speaks about wine. He’s trying to prove something to me, but it has nothing to do with conversation. I think to myself: he’s a little macho shit trying to show off his power. Talking about wine is unbearably mediocre.” While this may be no more than one snob’s preemptive strike against another, I have to admit that I share her fear of the dreaded winespeak. Though it seeks to describe an innocent object of pleasure, I often have the feeling that the language of wine deployed by critics, sommeliers, restaurateurs, and the dreaded self-appointed wine connoisseur has most in common with Orwell’s vision of the willfully abusive inversion of language in totalitarian regimes.
Most winespeak—in any language—is designed not to enlighten or enchant but to exclude, bully, and belittle. What are we to think, for instance, if a critic assures us that we should spend $115 on a Washington state Cabernet because, as Harvey Steiman wrote in the Wine Spectator of July 2008 (the highest in circulation of the world’s rash of wine magazines), it’s “richly aromatic and brims with dark berry and currant aromas and .avors, shaded with espresso and dark chocolate overtones set against somewhat gritty tannins. A meaty note adds extra depth as
Introduction: The Liberty of Taste 5
the .nish lingers on and on against the tannins. Best from 2010 through 2017”? Does he mean to say that our considerable investment will net us a substantial, if not entirely complete meal, beginning with the fruit cocktail, followed by a mystery meat, a chocolate dessert, and a postprandial coffee? And all of this with a mathematically determined shelf life, as scienti.c an exercise as predicting the eventual life-span of a child of two. Another wine writer at the same magazine describes a wine from the venerable Châteauneuf-du-Pape region in France like this: “A very grippy style, with lots of sweet tapenade, tobacco, hot stone and braised chestnut notes weaving through a core of dark currant and .g fruit. There’s a nice twinge of lavender on the structured .nish. Best from 2010 through 2028.” Two thousand twenty-eight? Surely we’ve plunged through a (“dark berrylike”) hole and .nd ourselves, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, trying to comprehend the Mock Turtle’s school curriculum, caught between “reeling and writhing” and “laughing and grief.”
Moreover, like the queens in Through the Looking Glass, there is, contrariwise, a diametrically opposed school of thought: the self-proclaimed populists, determined to dumb down wine at any cost. They urge us to “just say what you like and that’s what’s good,” like those signs in front of tourist mall art galleries that reassure us that “art is what you like.” With one insouciant phrase, they discount several thousand years of cultural and agricultural experimentation that have made wine interesting in the .rst place.
This book is an attempt to transmit something of the sensual and intellectual delight that wine has brought to me since childhood. It is intended for people who prefer not to be condescended to and yet who are rightly skeptical of jargon, defensive snobbery, or any use of power that obstructs the uncovering of one’s own taste. I don’t believe there are either rules or shortcuts to the acquisition of taste in relation to any subject of value and complexity. However, a few well-timed kicks to the rear end of the wine world (the part, alas, that leads us all by the nose) might help us appreciate why wine can in fact be a subject of universal value, whether or not we drink—or even think about it. A reappraisal of wine might also lead us to reconsider how and why we acquire a sense of personal taste (in wine, the arts, politics, anything) and how we might be able to af.rm that crucial liberty without fear of intimidation by those who profess to know all—or, worse, by those who proudly profess to know little or nothing.
Excerpted from Liquid Memory by Jonathan Nossiter.
Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Nossiter.
Published in 2009 by FSG.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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