Adventures in the New French
by Robert V. Camuto
Nebraska, 212 pp., $24.95
Why Wine Matters
by Jonathan Nossiter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
272 pp., $26
Reflections of a Wine Merchant
by Neal I. Rosenthal
North Point Press,
272 pp., $15
It’s a pity that Henry James did not base one of his encounters between the Old World and New on the subject of wine. Fine wine evokes the classic American reaction of bumptious suspicion that some smooth-talking foreigner is looking down his nose while lifting your wallet. And, what’s more, that we deserve it, too, having been weighed in the balance and found wanting in that arena that historically has raised disdain on one side of the ocean and resentment on the other: the question of taste.
When it comes to wine, Americans epitomize the parvenu; our serious interest is barely a half-century old, rising not so coincidentally with a burgeoning refinement about dining. But as soon as we abandoned the notion that a good meal consisted of steak and a bottle of Sparkling Burgundy, we found ourselves flush with funds but bereft of knowledge. Were we being taken for a ride, played for suckers? Robert Parker, the all-powerful wine critic, began his career as a self-styled Ralph Nader of wine, a consumer advocate determined to deflate hyped-up prices and discover value. Parker has largely transcended this yokel paranoia—as his palate developed, so did his sophistication—but as demonstrated by three recent books under review, his countrymen continue to play the Ugly American in European vineyards.
He can be self-consciously rough-hewn, like the importer Neal I. Rosenthal, who fancies himself “an outlaw wine dealer” who is “changing the face of retailing in New York City,” a merchant so down to earth that a spittoon is “a touch too effete for my sensibility.” If he is the journalist Robert V. Camuto, he indulges in the persistent American rural fantasy that somewhere out there is the virgin land, and signs on to work the harvest in Alsace as “a vacation from . . . modernity . . . the real wine life”—only to awaken to a sore body and the rueful realization that grape-picking is backbreaking toil. If he is Jonathan Nossiter, he keeps flinging the same brickbats he hurled in his snarky attempt at a movie exposé, Mondovino (2004), in which adolescent nose-wagging alternates with equally jejune enthusiasms. Witness his inflation of the notion of terroir—the untranslatable French term denoting the ecological uniqueness of a vineyard—into a grandly holistic principle of culture: “Without terroir—in wine, cinema, life (I’m happiest when the three are confused)—there is no individuality, no dignity, no tolerance, and no shared civilization.” (Note how the conceptual confusion accelerates: What, pray tell, would constitute unshared civilization?)
What these writers share is hostility to critical authority, “the idea,” Camuto writes, “of an ‘expert’ commentator holding forth on a subject as personal as wine.” Nossiter, as usual, ups the ante: He compares winespeak to “Orwell’s vision of the willfully abusive inversion of language in totalitarian regimes.” All three betray a common cultural anxiety, disguised in the classic American confusion of democracy with egalitarianism; they seem fearful that they will be held in disdain for liking what they like and so make pleasure equivalent with quality. Rosenthal presents a classic example: “I remember the impact of the 1962 Chateau Latour shared with friends at a sumptuous meal, but I have an equally vivid memory of the little Rouge de St.-Pierre, a mountain wine from the Valle d’Aosta, that I drank at Maison da Filippo while in the midst of a day of skiing at Courmayeur in the Italian Alps.” This is to compare apples with oranges (for Rosenthal surely does not offer the two wines at the same price).
In his distinguished career as wine critic for the New York Times, Frank Prial worked strenuously to demystify wine, to get his readers to enjoy themselves without self-consciousness. In a piece about “memorable bottles” in his Companion to Wine (1992), Prial emphasized that happy associations make any wine unforgettable. He makes it palpable to me in his final paragraph when he gets down to specific cases, like Château Lynch-Bages 1985, a wine whose consumption ensures my happy recollection. Similarly, Hugh Johnson is passionate about Chablis (inexplicably so, in my opinion) but he knows full well that Les Clos is not the peer of Le Montrachet.
Rosenthal laments, “There is little being done in the way of wine writing, in the literary sense.” Actually there is, and by the very people these authors subject to scorn: professionals in the wine trade. If Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar-book (1920) remains alone at the pinnacle, the lower tiers are well represented in volumes as delightful as they are informative. Despite honorable contributions by the likes of A.J. Liebling and Alexis Lichine, most of the authors are English—no surprise, as Britain has long dominated trade in fine wine—and they are concerned precisely with what Camuto, Nossiter, and Rosenthal avoid: how wine tastes.
Hugh Johnson, that encyclopedic enthusiast, points out in his autobiography, A Life Uncorked (2006), that the correct response to the announcement, “I drank a First Growth last night,” is not an expression of awe but a simple question: “How did it taste?” Learning to taste wine rather than just drinking it is to bring a disciplined self-consciousness that can seem frightening to many. But why? Just as one must learn to hear music, to see a painting, to read a book, one has to learn to taste: “You need not be an expert, or even particularly interested in wine, in order to enjoy drinking it,” Michael Broadbent writes in his Pocket Guide to Winetasting (original year), probably the most experienced taster alive. “But tasting is not the same as drinking.”
Broadbent goes on, “Although wine can be consumed with enjoyment without a lot of fuss and nonsense, reasoned judgment of the finer wines must be based on knowledge.” When Johnson says one wants to know how a wine, no matter how exalted its pedigree, actually tasted, the implicit query is, “How good was it?” That is why an expression of personal opinion—“I liked it, I didn’t like it”—is of as little value about wine as it is about art, literature, theater, or film. It is about you, not the wine (or book or painting or play or film). Only at the level of judgment—“It was good or bad because”—is discussion possible. (Particularly true with a sensory pleasure like wine. That is why with food and drink, the more the merrier.)
Judgment is the distillation of experience. A student once asked me if it was necessary to read a lot of books in order to be well read. In the same spirit, friends often have looked disconcerted when I told them that the way to learn about wine is to drink it. Here is where the wine critic has the same utility as a critic in any other field: as a yardstick for one’s own response. In effect, wine commentary is like another guest at the table, someone else to bounce off a reaction, except that the reliable critic really does know more than you do. Criticism in any of the arts (and yes, making fine wine is an art) makes us more aware, reveals what we may have overlooked or misunderstood, offers us fresh pathways to pleasure. Despite trendy assertions to the contrary, the critic is servant to the work. When Broadbent conducts a tasting, he makes a point of saying “that the wine is doing all the talking and I am merely trying to translate.”
It is in the same vein that good
critics urge you to make tasting notes: not only to capture the most fleeting of sensations, but also to increase pleasure through exercise of the mind. To quote Broadbent again: “It is a tragic waste not to notice, and note, the beautiful appearance, fragrant nose, and lovely taste of something really special.”
Of course, all critics are not created equal. Nossiter is more than justified in decrying “modern wine gibberish,” though the problem is nothing new: In 1863 the English wine merchant T. G. Shaw was writing, “I was convinced forty years ago—and the conviction remains to this day—that in wine tasting and wine-talk there is an enormous amount of humbug.” More than ever, we live in an age of critical gobbledygook, though wine commentary is hardly the worst offender: The language may be pretentious and overheated, but unlike “critical theory,” at least makes an attempt at intelligibility.
One of the joys of wine education is learning how one’s taste aligns with an expert’s—when one learns why he agrees or disagrees. Some critics are valuable because one knows their taste is not yours. (In film, Pauline Kael performed this useful function; one learned to avoid movies she liked.) The better the critic, the clearer the personality expressed; their very prose often mirrors their palate. Parker’s brusque, overstated (and clumsy) prose fits his devotion to tannic bruisers; no wonder he is excellent on Rhône wines and Bordeaux, hopeless on Burgundy. Serena Sutcliffe’s elegance gives a lilt to even the most severe judgment, while Jancis Robinson’s hale-fellow-well-met heartiness suits her wide range of reference; both are equally “feminine,” if you will, but in different keys. Broadbent is a classic Bordeaux and Champagne man. Hugh Johnson, Oz Clarke, and Steve Spurrier are eager for you to lift a glass, and why not try something new?
What they all have in common is the authority based on deep experience and engagement with their subject; that is, they are true critics, not sniffy gatekeepers. What they do is impart not only knowledge but also the passion of pleasure, so that you do not merely bend an elbow but satisfy your soul.
Michael Anderson is finishing a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.