In Vino Veritas
Keeping up with the connoisseurs
May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By MICHAEL ANDERSON
Adventures in the New French
Why Wine Matters
Reflections of a Wine Merchant
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.
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