Mondovino’s book sequel

Jonathan Nossiter is a film-maker who first came to the attention of wine lovers when he released his epic hand-made documentary Mondovino about five years ago. Mondovino irritated many winemakers and merchants because of its blatant bias against big companies, modern wines, the New World, and ‘industrial’ or mass-produced wine. But others, like me, enjoyed its colorful, thoughtful, occasionally whimsical, opinionated but above-all heartfelt look at wine. And its highlighting of some great wine producers. By all accounts Mondovino was a massive box-office failure, but it sure got people talking.

Now Nossiter has ventured into print for the first time. His book, ‘Liquid Memory – Why Wine Matters’ (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, hardback $49.95) will be received by Mondovino haters with a yawn and a “more of the same” dismissal.

I found this book compelling, almost unputdownable. Yes, Nossiter name-drops and self-aggrandises something shocking. He disses a lot of significant wine and food people, including Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker (yes, both of them!), Steven Spurrier, high-profile Spanish writer and wine producer Victor de la Serna, restaurateurs Joel Robuchon and Alain Senderens, and many others. But mostly he gives good reasons for so doing. Whatever you think of him, Nossiter cares deeply about wine, food and many things besides. The constant theme is a desire for a return to naturalness and a detest of manipulation. He mounts a strong argument for wine in its most natural guise as a kind of historical and cultural artefact, as important as painting, literature, music and, yes, cinema. Throughout the book he employs, with varying degrees of success, a technique of drawing parallels between wine and cinema, and between winemakers and actors or directors. If you’re as interested in cinema as wine, you’ll find this kind of fun.

The people he praises are, fortunately, the ones he expends the most words on – the heroes of the book. They include Burgundy winemakers Christophe Roumier, Jean-Marc Roulot, Dominique Lafon and Hubert de Montille. Ungenerous reviewers have pointed out that these people all make very expensive wines – hardly democratic wines, to use a word Nossiter is fond of (he slams Robuchon for pretending to be democratic when his Atelier is anything but in terms of pricing). It’s in his discussion of the work of his heroes that Nossiter is most convincing. You cannot fail to be touched by his enthusiasm and his passion for these people, their skill, morality, modesty and commitment.

There’s also generous praise for the places he likes: Parisian wine shops Caves Legrand, Lavinia and Chez Pantagruel, restaurants Tan Dinh, El Fogon and La Cagouille. He writes about these places and their food in a way that makes you want to down tools and head to Paris immediately.

The most important reason I enjoyed this book is that it is thought-provoking. I read this kind of writing like a parched man reaches for water in a desert. There is precious little written about wine of this depth and complexity.

No publisher would expect to make money out of publishing it (in wine, publishers are interested in precious little aside from guide-books full of tasting notes), and this probably means Liquid Memory will be as big a flop as Mondovino. But no-one in their right mind would expect it to be popular: it’s far too esoteric. But Nossiter thinks this stuff matters, and I agree with him.

The bottom line with Nossiter is that the wines that matter are wines of terroir – wines that speak clearly of where they were grown. These are wines with soul. He abhors modern wines which are produced with the over-use of new oak, or additives, or processes that likewise disfigure and homogenise wine. He detests fruity, saccharine modern wines and loves traditional, old-fashioned wines. High-acid whites (Chablis), savoury old-wood reds (Chateau Rayas (tastings); Vina Tondonia) rate highly with him. His worst enemies are globalisation, and the people he sees as promoting it (Parker; French consultant winemaker Michel Rolland, et al). But Nossiter overlooks – as he did in Mondovino – the fact that not everyone wants or can afford to drink fine wine, and for the majority of drinkers, advances in winemaking have vastly improved the quality of the wines they drink. The reader is left with an inescapable suspicion that Nossiter would prefer us all to be drinking natural wine, however faulty. From a few of the wines he mentions enjoying, I suspect he quite likes oxidised, fruitless and microbially spoilt wine. He also seems unable to acknowledge that the majority of wine drinkers are merely interested in a beverage that tastes good; they don’t care about the finer points of terroir, nor do they seek a ‘soul’ in their wine.

Nossiter is a terrible name-dropper and if I read of him lunching with Charlotte Rampling once more I would probably retch. He self-aggrandises by repeatedly placing himself, physically or otherwise, in the company of the famous. He can’t help himself. He comes across as insufferable, and I’m not sure I’d want to meet him. At least when you’re reading a book, you can regulate your intake.

On balance, he’s worth putting up with.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 6 July 2010.

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