Liquid Memory by Jonathan Nossiter – reviews

liquid_memoryJonathan Nossiter’s new book, Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, has gotten two major reviews in the first two weeks since publication. One was lukewarm. The other was a kick in the solar plexus.

Even though its themes were widely discussed in the wine world, audiences did not flock to see Nossiter’s 2004 documentary, Mondovino, which racked up only $200,000 in box office gross according to IMDB. (Sideways was north of $100 million, by contrast.) I found Mondovino to be shaky, not stirring.

The first review of Liquid Memory came in the NYT Book Review, written by Jim Holt (who is credited as “writing a book about the puzzle of existence”). He offered this warm beer as criticism: “Nossiter didn’t completely win me over.” Despite this, the book soared on Amazon’s sales rankings.

Now get a hold of Mike Steinberger’s review, just published on He writes that the ”solipsism, self-regard, and preening” on display in the book would make the subtitle “Why I Matter” more apt. He also catches Nossiter displaying faux populism both in Nossiter’s lexicon for talking about wine that (literature) as well as the high prices of the wines that Nossiter recommends (Roumier, Roulot, and Dominique Lafon). And he accuses Nossiter of fighting yesterday’s battles.

A great line line from the review summarizes Nossiter’s regrettable tendency to paint his villains with a partisan brush: “The wine world is certainly no Eden, but at least among the grape nuts I know, there seems to be a tacit understanding that politics should end at the rim of the glass—that arguments over wine are spirited enough without injecting politics into the discussion.”

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14 Responses to “Liquid Memory by Jonathan Nossiter – reviews”

  1. I was surprised, at first, to see you approving a sentence suggesting that wine is not political. On reading Mike Steinberger’s review completely, I see that what he meant is politics of an electoral/ideological nature. In that sense, I agree. There is certainly no cause and effect between, say, voting Obama and making terroir-driven organic wine. That would be a silly equation.

    However, wine IS political, in the larger sense of the word. Your own exchanges with Parker and Squires, and the stupid statements made by Parker about the “blobbers” were highly political, and had to do with a form of power struggle – one that Steinberger alludes to, when he talks about the democratisation of wine.

    There is, as well, a political struggle surrounding the vision of what wine should be, and how it should be made. The spoofulating of wine through high-tech manipulation is ideological, not just technical. A certain form of politics does make its way into the glass, whether we want it or not.

  2. Mondovino was slanted journalism at its finest. Some of the things he did to frame his subjects in a bad light was shameless.

  3. Hi Remy,

    Yes, if you read the paragraph that sentence in the review comes from it’s clear that Steinberger is talking about partisan politics. There definitely is a politics of wine, as you point out, and I wrote whole book about it. But in my book, although some of the battles are heated, there’s rarely a party-political overlay to them. (One exception would be the Prohibition Party in the late 19th/early 20th century but we’re over that political cleavage now, pace Earl Dodge.) When Nossiter adds partisan overtones, it further detracts from any serious points he might be making.

  4. I read both of the reviews you mentioned with interest. I have to say as both a lifelong fan of literature and wine that the NYT Book Review is a gold standard – something Slate clearly is not. That being said I’m not sure I’ll read Nossiter’s book. My guess is that it will have the same effect Kermit Lynch’s book had on me – mild annoyance and exasperation. What both of these non winemakers seem to be doing is taking on the winemakers mantle in their approach to wine. This is something difficult enough for a practicing winemaker – I have concluded that it is impossible for someone not long experienced in the craft of winemaking to speak with any intelligence about the actual decisions involved in winemaking. Nossiter in his movie, and it seems in his book as well is making political battles out of what in reality are quality and style decisions of the producers of the wine.

  5. Geez Larry, lighten up! I completely loved Kermit Lynch’s book and Jonathan Nossiter’s ,Mondovino. I am not a winemaker but I feel I have the right to enjoy a good story and a great glass of wine. Kermit Lynch’s book was written 25 years ago yet it still reflects his enthusiastic approach to enjoying wine. I do think one can learn and have an opinion about winemaking without being a vintner. Kermit Lynch’s passion for drinking and importing French wine to the USA has changed the way I drink my Cotes du Rhone and Burgundy. Vivre les bon vivants!!!

  6. Did these two guys read the same book?

    The one thing I can conclude about these reviews is that wine is HIGHLY political. And Steinberger and Payton are from different parties.

  7. I read the book. I saw the movie.

    Jonathon is stating one man’s opinion.

    Funny though, how his discussion about terroir, which he suggests can be extended to may facets of life, somehow illicit the very response he anticipates.

    People are diversified, wines are aplenty, but history and tradition matter, and what is deleterious when one form supplants another under the guise of superiority, proven by metrics. Your metrics.

    Just think about that for a minute.

    Funny how that happens !!

    ciao !!

  8. What I meant to say was “what is deleteriouus is when one form supplants another…..”

    I also read both reviews. All three went to the same school, were in the same englishh and history classes, and heard three different lectures all semester, in each class.

    Funny how that happens !!!

  9. Comment deleted at the author’s request

  10. Now Ken, you really need to lighten up. You should not even be reading these comments. My husband is a film director and if he read everything film blog out there he would be in pieces.
    I look forward to reading your interview with Jonathan Nossiter!

    Relax, have a glass of red….

    Paris, France

  11. Our friend Payton seems to be all over the web, castigating those who have the temerity to criticize Nossiter’s book (and, apparently, those who fail to pay sufficient homage to the importance of Payton, The Critic). Enough already. Many people who care deeply about wine — and who are proponents of “terroir wines” just as Nossiter seems to be — found the book self-indulgent and mildly offensive. Based on his review, it seems plain Payton found the book transcendently wondrous — and simply cannot tolerate those who decline to share his view. Chacun a son gout. But please, try to refrain from the verbal single finger salutes you seem to be scattering around the internet. You certainly aren’t enhancing your credibility (or gathering an army for your “Reign of Terroir”) by doing this.

  12. I have to agree with Chambolle. I like Ken’s Reign of Terroir – though it could use a little editing from full transcripts, sometimes. But the attitude is getting deplorable. Please, Ken, don’t drop the “i” from your blog title, it’s unbecoming.

  13. Here’s my contribution to the Liquid Memory collection, Dr.V.

  14. I find it surprising and disappointing that people will offer opinions about a book they have not read. That’s like hiring tasters whose evaluations show up under one’s own names.

    Admonishment aside, I DID read the book. And I am better off for it – more knowledgeable (as a sommelier and avid wine buff for over 30 years I am already well-versed on the subject of wine), and more appreciative of the whole canvas of wine as art.

    Nossiter urges us to embrace and be informed about stylistic differences, to break from the stranglehold of a globalized new world-heavy opinion about what good wine is supposed to be about. Indeed, he demands we appreciate a wine’s unique terroir as place, people, climate, and culture, et un je ne sais quoi.

    I enjoyed Liquid Memories. A lot. So much so that Nossiter is the person with whom I would most like to sit down and imbibe.


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