The world has been going to the dogs ever since, back at the dawn of time, people began looking askance at the loutish offspring of their neighbors. It’s still going to the dogs as I write and, I sincerely trust, will be going to the dogs for a long time to come. One of today’s proponents of the going-to-hell-in-a-handcart school is Aimé Guibert, owner of the Mas de Daumas Gassac vineyard, whose non-appellation vin de pays (country wine) is lauded to the skies by the foremost wine critics and retails at up to $50 dollars a bottle. In Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary on the wine business, Mondovino, Guibert proclaims that “Wine is dead,” and cheese and fruit along with it, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi to powerful American wine critic Robert Parker’s Darth Vader in this film on the wine wars.
The theory behind Mondovino and Le Goût et le Pouvoir (Taste and Power), Nossiter’s new book on wine in France, is that Big Wine has a leveling impact on the wines consumers drink. We are being deprived of the ambrosial Petruses and Romanée Contis and Hermitage La Chapelles we have been drinking since time immemorial and are instead being fed on pap that all tastes the same, whether it comes from California, France or Australia.
Nossiter describes this book of essays and interviews as an “involuntary guide,” written to give readers the benefit of his 40 years’ experience and as an attack on all critics and arbiters of taste. Because he is revealing his own tastes and judgments, he invites us to challenge his “authority.” Which, given his unrealistically pessimistic world-view, one has a duty to do.
The villains of Mondovino werebasically those who were influential in globalizing the wine business: the Mondavi family, who owned vast swathes of wine country in California and elsewhere; Robert Parker, he of the eponymous wine guide; and Michel Rolland, a wine consultant with a finger in the tipples of hundreds of winemakers around the world. None of this gang of three is shown to advantage in Mondovino, to put it mildly.
In the heroes corner are those who are not influential, among them such “small operators” as the aforementioned Aimé Guibert and Hubert de Montille, whose family owns vineyards in Burgundy and whose Volnay 1er Cru Taillepieds 2003 is currently being sold by the Wine Society in the UK at the knock-down price of £54 a bottle (over $100 at current exchange rates). Small operators indeed.
You may have gathered that I don’t personally subscribe to such a Manichean vision of the world. Yet Nossiter, who systematically comes down on the “glass half-empty” side of the equation, does make some interesting points about wine in France. He expresses grudging admiration for Lavinia, for example, an upscale wine supermarket near the Place de la Madeleine in Paris, noting that it is perhaps the only place in Paris where there is a real choice, not just of French wines, but of world wines. He points out that you can’t fully appreciate a terroir of one country if you don’t know those of other countries and that France’s relative blindness to non-French terroirs is one reason why it’s losing market share in international markets. A good point, and one that could be applied to areas other than wine.
In Le Goût et le Pouvoir, the intercut chapter (moving from digression to digression until, 60 pages later, he gets to the punch line of the story) and verbatim interview are used as the literary equivalents to the handheld camera in Mondovino. They can both be irritating, just as the fidgety camera in Mondovino soon palls. The verbatim interview, though, does have the merit of suggesting the authentic bouquet of the interviewee, as in an extended interview with André Robert, the owner of La Cagouille (www.la-cagouille.fr), a fish restaurant in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, and Jacques Dupont, the wine critic of the weekly current affairs magazine Le Point, who, according to Nossiter, is considered France’s greatest contemporary wine journalist. Dupont’s racy, provocative banter is the equivalent of a grapey wine on the palate.
Dupont mentions that he once did a blind tasting of 231 Beaujolais nouveaux in a single day. Blind tasting is the perfect opportunity to forget about labels and ignore the potential clout of the big names, he says. He never swallows the wine, and claims that his tasting abilities improve the more wines there are. Understandably, Nossiter expresses some surprise at this, but Dupont makes the excellent point that tasting and drinking (which he loves), are two completely different things.
This is reassuring news for those of us who feel a little inadequate about out inability to isolate a note of unwashed sock from among the various fruits and other personal evocations described by wine columnists when tasting Château Whatever. But let us not let such subjective scribblings get in the way of our pleasure. Most people probably choose wine by first deciding how much they want to spend, then what they are going to eat with it, trading that off against their preferred region/grape variety and what the store has to offer. We cannot all have a cellar, buy wines as primeurs and lay them down for drinking at our new baby’s wedding.
What Nossiter’s villains are actually doing is trying to give a decent wine-drinking experience to people who will probably never have the chance to sip Chateau d’Yquem or La Tâche. It will not be the same as that granted to the truly privileged drinkers of the world’s great wines, but by making wines with big noses that are easy to drink without aging, they provide a worthwhile service. Clearly, Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon with a screw-on metal cap at a dollar a bottle is never going to come near a good Burgundy in quality, but you do know what you are going to get with your easy-quaffing cab sav, and you certainly know that it’s not going to be corked when you get it home.
I must confess to feeling a certain schadenfreude when I read Nossiter’s venomous description of a visit to L’Atelier Joël Robuchon or his damning verbatim interview with Alain Senderens (chef/owner of Le Senderens and formerly of the three-starred Lucas Carton, in Paris). But Nossiter’s sententious pronouncements about how we are collectively and voluntarily abandoning our freedoms in everything from cinema to politics to wine and the intellectual domain (if nobody reads any more, as he claims, why is he writing a book?), are generally unsupported by solid argument, although they will no doubt have the unthinking nodding in automatic approval.
Despite its irritating aspects, Le Goût et le Pouvoir, like Mondovino, has qualities that make it readable and instructive. Within days of its publication in October 2007, the Web ether had warmed up noticeably with vitriolic reactions, and any airing of different opinions is to be welcomed. An English-language version is planned and will, we hope, have an index.Favorite