Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2009, 262 pp.
Reviewer: Peter Musolf
A reworking of his 2007 Le goût et le pouvoir, Mondovino director Jonathan Nossiter’s book Liquid Memory is a rambling combination of travelogue, memoir, and politico-philosophical analysis of wine and its place in our consumer society. Nossiter offers his book as a fresh take on the subject of his memorable and provocative film. For me the content and approach are about the same, and produce roughly the same reactions: an occasional nod of agreement, the suspicion the documentary tone is a cover for a one-sided, convenient agenda, and a good deal of head-scratching over what his theoretical ideas mean. As reality-bound as the books I’ve just discussed but not nearly as carefully expressed, by the end Liquid Memory had me on the run back to the hardheaded world of the scientists.
Nossiter once more casts himself in the lead, in the familiar, creaking guise of Don Quixote. Again he wanders a fragile, threatened world of wine (Paris, New York, Rio, Madrid), talking to greater and lesser of its denizens, seeking affirmation for his unpersuasively literal view that wine is a form of human memory and for the drastically phrased thesis that it is “our only safeguard against the devastating lies of marketing and the cynical exploitation of global markets, culture, and politics.” An additional defense, one he urges every wine drinker to forge, is taste, “the coherent relation of … preference to one’s own conduct, to an ethical relation to oneself and to the world.” What he means in plain language is learn not to drink cheap, overly sweet, mass-produced wine because you are cheating yourself, screwing the small producer, damaging the environment, ruining the chances of your children to drink good wine, and generally messing up society. If that strikes you as news so stale even a Miami Beach retiree with her Yellow Tail on an intravenous drip knows it (and it’s not stopping her), that’s because it is. Nevertheless: “The moment you abdicate responsibility for your own taste is the moment you voluntarily abdicate your freedom.” High-minded, patronizing, optimistic, embattled, nostalgic: Nossiter has a style all his own. (As you can see, his book is also a fine example of how badly expressed leftist ideas morph instantly into righteous-sounding Tea Party talk.)
Crucial to Nossiter’s ideas is terroir, like wine itself, a slippery subject. Wine is not just chemicals, of course, and terroir is not just rocks and weather. Yet trying to take the definitions past this point gets tricky. Nossiter is undeterred, and predictably terroir is many things to him: “where you come from and where you are going”; “this notion of claiming a heimat [homeland], without the heimat claiming you”; “the beauty of a specific identity, a specific culture”; an expression of “individuality”; “identity”; “diversity”; “an act of generosity.” At the same time, “terroir has never been fixed, in taste or in perception”; and “because neither terroir, nor nature, nor men are fixed … a wine of terroir is by its nature an ultimately indefinable, unquantifiable agent of memory.” And yet: “Bearing witness and preserving memory [of cultural terroirs] is the bedrock of civilization.”
I am happy to agree that terroir is open to definition. But if it is, then it can’t have an intrinsic identity, right? Nossiter hems and haws, finally abandoning his reader in this loop, forcing us to have our Zind-Humbrecht and drink it too. His bothi-ness of reasoning is the book’s most confounding element, muddling his discussion of taste, which must somehow be democratic and nonjudgmental, as well as his definition of wine. On one page he celebrates the likeable idea that wine “is a curse for relentless rationalists, unrepentant pragmatists, and all the busy codifiers of this world, anxious for absolutes.” Yet on another he goes the opposite direction(s): “The specific subjectivity of the wine-drinking experience became clear to me, though it didn’t mean that taste and perception were infinitely relative. That’s a postmodern position as fatuous as the eternal adolescent notion of applying definitive judgments.” Hand-wringing and cage-circling like this are characteristic of the book and tiring reading.
Other topics include wine words, fancy restaurants, wine retail in Paris, the rape of Spanish wine, interviews with leaders of the younger generation in Burgundy. Of these the interviews have the most value. Nossiter on wine words is a study in smirking selfcontradiction. He ridicules those who use them, uses them himself, and offers no plausible alternative. He also disregards the brain science pointing toward verbalization as an inevitable mode of understanding (summarized by Jamie Goode in Questions of Taste). If you enjoyed Nossiter’s treatment of Michel Rolland in Mondovino, you will approve of his drive-by on eminent chef Alain Senderens. Elsewhere Robert Parker, Jr., reprises the purple punching bag. He’s been an easy target for myopic sarcasm and the acidity police for too long. When is someone going to give the Parker phenomenon the nuanced attention its complexity and significance deserve?
Liquid Memory? Redolent of barnyard.
Goode, Jamie. (2007). “Wine and the Brain.” Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. Edited by Barry C. Smith. New York: Oxford University Press.