No matter how right you are that is no excuse to be irritating

41dpHE-94lL._SL500_AA240_1_3 Book review: Liquid Memory – why wine matters by Jonathan Nossiter

We were given this book as a christmas present. Written by the director of the film Mondovino, it promised to have an opinionated look at the world of wine. Whilst we largely agreed with what he had to say, it is an extremely irritating and pretentious book.

His main thesis is a well-rehearsed one: wine styles across the world are becoming homogenised thanks to the efforts of wine critics and consultant oenologists. He abhors international-style wines and praises those who make locality-specific wines, calling these more ‘authentic’. We pretty much agree with that, although we don’t subscribe to his somewhat narcissistic view that it is this authenticity that matters even if the winemaking (and ultimately the wine) is awful.

The whacked-out theory as to why wines are developing in this style blames Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as well as the more usual suspects like Robert Parker and Michel Rolland. Even Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy get ticked off. There is a lot of this woolly-headed political tripe: for example, Rudy Giuliani gets a thorough roasting for all the hideous things he has supposedly done to New York City. Most of this political stuff is unsophisticated, petty and extremely resentful.

He develops other themes. There is much waffling about how dreadful ‘wine speak’ is but he is perfectly happy to drop into it when describing wines he likes. When he approves of descriptions of wine his pretentiousness is nauseating: a descriptor such as ‘smells of lemons’ would make him look down his nose, but he is delighted to use the word sauvage (the italics are apparently important).

The constant name-dropping is vastly annoying. It does not seem to be the wines he wants to talk about when reminiscing about a meal or drinking experience, more to make sure he establishes that everyone knows he is such an important person that he is always dining with influential academics, famous actors/actresses or other terribly thrusting film people. By name dropping all of the time he seems like a snivelling social-climber.

Since Nossiter is a film director he could be forgiven for making references to his main job. However, he has lists of obscure art-house directors from novelty countries so frequently that it just becomes dull and you realise, much as with the name-dropping, that he is just trying to show off and stoke his own ego. He clearly feels totally confident in pronouncing on literally any subject, which he is unqualified to do.

There is a chapter of petulance about how Mondovino was received by the wine world. I think he probably was somewhat unfairly savaged, as it was a mild, loosely-structured film which did not really go for its targets’ throats with that much venom. One critic of it characterised Nossiter as part of the ‘wine Gestapo’, he is not that. I think he should have been more pleased that his film provoked a reaction from the international-style wine crowd, rather than having this whining chapter about how dreadfully he has been treated.

Not sounding so good so far, is it? However, there are some good bits. When he goes to Burgundy to visit Roulot, Lafon and Roumier there are plenty of insightful comments from these winemakers. Indeed there should be; these are serious, thoughtful producers. They talk about their wines, winemaking and terroir in enlightened terms, demonstrating that their thoughts on these subjects are much more refined, and worth reading, than Nossiter’s.

The book is much like the film: self-indulgent, poorly-structured, with an incoherency about its main message. This is a bit of a pity as we think the message is a good one. If you feel that individualistic wines should be celebrated then you might get something out of this, but the staggering egomania and general pretentiousness are really large obstacles to this being an enjoyable book. At least he does not like Claret.


Edit: There are a couple of other reviews on t’interwebs of this book which caught my eye. The one on The Slate is rather funny, ruder than mine amazingly. The New York Times review almost managed to grasp the vastly irritating and self-centred character of it, but the reviewer seemed too swayed by the romance of wine to be sufficiently critical of what is not a great book. The Wine Economist’s review is pithy and points out Nossiter’s strange attitude to money. Finally, there is Reign of Terroir’s glowingly positive review, clearly being so seduced by the idea of terroir that even if someone makes an odious defence of it, like Nossiter, they’ll kiss their arses. They have an interview with the man himself on their site which is one of the least analytical and most generally fawning interviews I have ever read. It would pain me if people really thought that Liquid Memory was one of the best recent defences of proper wine. It is drivel.


4 Comments

  • Jeremy wrote:

    I dipped into the book over several days recently and found it hard to get past a few pages without feeling intensely irratated at such pompousness blended to self-indulgence. Your review strikes me as wholly accurate and I admire you for sticking with it all the way.

  • David Strange wrote:

    Sticking with it was hard for both of us at times. You could tell when either of us were reading it somewhere in the flat as cries of “Bloody hell!”, “Oh dear” and “By arse!” would frequently be heard as we encountered another piece of Nossiter smuggery. He fetishises the idea of good, authentic wine to the extent that any he’ll even defend what is poor wine making and dodgy vineyard practises in regions that actually would benefit from a bit of modernisation. You are clearly on questionable ground when you are defending old-style Rioja, which I dislike probably as much as I hate the ‘arriviste’ Priorat producers. At least the modern Priorats are not technically flawed wines that have been ruined by poor wine making as with most old Rioja I’ve tried.

    Most certainly we should stand up for individual wines that express something more than ripe fruit. The qualities of history and place that show in a fine wine enhance the experience and such wines should be celebrated. Alas, Nossiter is too busy stroking his ego to give the coherent support these wines deserve.

  • ed tully wrote:

    A major problem with “Tossiter” is that he seems to lack anything approaching a sense of humour and, therefore, a reasonable appreciation of his own place in the universe. As you have noted the tragedy is that he does have pretty good taste. Even when it comes to promoting “terroir” above “good” at least he is on the side of interest, but what a self-cngratulating way of doing so. Ah well! Perhaps he will grow up at some point and lose the urge to impress. I love the fact he thinks he is part of the wine gestapo. Surely wishful thinking! And what would the uniform look like?

  • David Strange wrote:

    Well said Edward! A sense of humour is very important, especially when talking about the most important things in life. Being too convinced of your own correctness and importance makes one a less rounded, and more irritating, person.

    Here is a picture of a member of the wine Gestapo:
    http://elitistreview.com/images/highlighter.jpg