Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter

Jonathan Nossiter’s candid and passionate travelogue and a book of reflections about authentic wines was published about five years after his famous documentary, Mondovino, polarized the wine world.

An ardent proponent of true and unadulterated, of artisanal and not mass market, of historic terroir and not a rootless invented brand name, Nossiter, who previously brought forward his message via a brilliant documentary (and the series), immortalizing Hubert de Montille, Aubert de Villaine and Aimé Guibert, and mockingly demonizing Robert Parker, Michel Rolland, and the likes, now takes a huge step forward, changes his smiling grin for a displeased smirk of indignation, and braces for a huge spat of poisonous words of wisdom.

A crusader against all he sees as artificial and superfluous, against US and Spanish preudo-artisanals and against the motley crew of international wine critics, he nonetheless recognizes that tradition is not something inmutable, cast in stone and not subject to any change. Nossiter shares a glass of wine and his thoughts with Burgundy’s undisputed wine stars like Christophe Roumier, Dominique Lafon, and Jean-Marc Roulot, vignerons who brought fame and fortune to their domaines well above that of their fathers, but who took it with dignity and humility of those entrusted to behold great historic tradition and modestly innovate but not forsake it.

A brilliant book for those in love with good wines, but it requires a certain foundation, a bias for understanding – as it openly despises quite a number household brand names and commercially ultra successful winemakers, producers of sweet sugary alco-driven fruit bombs. It can be eye opening, but if you haven’t watched Mondovino before, this is where you should start.

P.S. … and it it full of fantastic quotes, I wanted to copy every page here – but then I thought better of it.

Tasting Victory by Gerard Basset

I was long overdue with writing a short summary of my thoughts about Gerard Basset’s posthumous autobiography Tasting Victory, yet watching a part of the Best Sommelier of Russia 2020 yesterday as YouTube live stream reminded me that I owe it to one of the greatest wine professionals. 

Mr. Basset, likely the most known sommelier of all times, holder of both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier titles, the winner of the Best Sommelier of the World and multiple winner of the Best Sommelier in the UK, was a humble but determined Frenchman, who moved to Britain in his youth, accepted his new homeland and embraced his wine profession, and strived to become best in business, in service and in competition. While I initially hoped that the book would have a bit on his wine knowledge and wine travels, like Kermit Lynch or Neil Rosenthal s books are – well, it has none of that. This is a book of determination and achievement, of setting targets and milestones to get there, be it wine or something else. No stories of fraternizing with top Burgundy vignerons, or getting drunk with Gianfranco Soldera. Sadly. 

Yet, the Russian competition yesterday and its panel of top contenders, all three already retired from the actual sommelier work, forced me to put a quote here. Here it goes, from the man himself, and not me. 

Following the test, I talked a lot with Nina, and in her very rational manner she reassured me about my sommelier ability. We came up with the idea that for the last two months I would work “on the floor” at TerraVina and be the sommelier. From the opening of Hotel TerraVina I had always been involved with the wine service, but rarely fully, as I had some talented sommeliers working for me. Indeed, my role was to greet the guests and work with Nina to supervise the overall service. 

Therefore, I told my two sommeliers, Laura and Laurent, that each evening I would do the wine service at Hotel TerraVina and they would be there just to back me up during very busy periods in a reversal of the roles. It turned out to be a great idea, as I put myself under a lot of pressure. Regular guests wanted to talk to me, but I had to find polite ways to keep the conversations with them short and not get behind, in order to accomplish the wine service with minimum help from Laura and Laurent. On the whole I managed well, and in fact I really enjoyed it. 

In addition, I did two very short stints in top restaurants. Diego Masciaga, the managing director of the three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn, the restaurant owned by Michel and Alain Roux in Bray, kindly let me spend two days working as a commis sommelier there. I explained to Diego that it was important that I was treated no differently from any of his employees. Those two days were extremely beneficial as I was serving at the top end of fine dining, which I had not done since working at Chewton Glen. 

Reflections of a Wine Merchant by Neal Rosenthal

img_0401-2Following in tracks of Kermit Lynch’s spectacular Adventures on the Wine Route, probably the best wine book ever written, out almost a decade and a half before Reflections, Neal Rosenthal shares this colorful memoir of his early days as an NYC wine importer and retailer, traveling across France and Italy in times long gone, when no-one knew who, for instance, Hubert Lignier or Paolo Bea were.

A funny read, riddled with anecdotes and full of tales about a handful of cult producers, yet it is also a brilliant discussion on the shortcomings of the modern wine trade, about a battle between quality, tradition and legacy with sales, vogue and technology, putting a wedge between classic and natural wines vs their commercial and rather soulless adversaries.

Be prepared – Neal is not hiding his resentment, he is blunt and straightforward, no words are spared for growers and distributors who favored an additional buck at the expense of filtering, over-sulfuring, raising alcohol level or otherwise diluting true drops of gold. And as all wine is perishable, and renown wine families may also come to an end (a few lamentable examples are described in great detail) – it is also Neal’s tribute and a way of remembrance of some former treasures long surrendered and lost.

Essential reading for passionate wine geeks.

The New Wine Rules by Jon Bonné

img_0022-1A short, funny, rather entertaining book by Jon Bonné, something young wine aficionados should read and enjoy. Actually, I was okay with it as well.

Funny find – the diagram of technical/traditional wines, classified whether they are in or out of fashion now. Hilarious!

Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch

Hey, if there’s only one book you can afford to read on the wine business, wine trade, wine making, wine traditions, commercial versus natural wines, and some of the greatest vintners on this earth, read Kermit Lynch’s 30-year-old travelogue on selecting his French wine portfolio.

First published in 1988, this is a story of candor, love of the vine, and decades-long incessant battle for the true and sincere fermented juice that brings together the sense of the place it was born in and the passion that old rustic village men put into it on their slopes and in their damp cellars.

Lynch, a renown US wine importer, discusses his views on the natural wines well before Marcel Lapierre and his buddies made it into a huge trend. He meets and talks to people like Aubert de Villaine, Henri Jayer, Hubert de Montille, François Raveneau, Aimé Guibert and the Peyraud family of Domaine Tempier. Hell, he even talks to Jules Chauvet before Jules Chauvet changed the mentality of the ravaged Beaujolais region and sowed the seeds of the natural wine movement.

He praises wines of elegance, finesse, nuance, balance, light alcohol, no filtration, low or no sulfur at all, over soul-less broad-shouldered bold oaky wines of 15% and above still in favor with the world press. Yet, in his epilogue to the 25th anniversary edition, published in 2013, he spares no harsh words towards badly made ultra purist natural wines, as you cannot sell defects for effects just for the sake of it being natural and raw.

A true visionary before his time.

Naked Wine: Letting grapes do what comes naturally by Alice Feiring

Both energetic and erratic story by a prominent New York natural wine freak / journalist Alice Feiring was a quick read.

Flipping between her own winemaking experience with Sagrantino in Napa (good lord!), the story and ideology behind natural wines and key figures in the movement, and her own incessant tours of the Old World vignerons most of the folks probably never heard of, it’s a frank, non-linear story of passion, a labyrinth of cul-de-sac’s, and an ode to stomping and adding no sulfur.


Biodynamic Wine, Demystified by Nicolas Joly

A visionary and a keen defender of nature’s purity, Nicolas Joly’s second book on biodynamic wine (no, I haven’t read his first Wine from Sky to Earth) is aimed at true believers, but not only at them. Published in 2008, before RAW movement struck both minds and senses of somms and wine drinkers alike, gaining more popularity by the day due to constant efforts of jolly natural winemakers and able journalists (see earlier review of Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine), Joly, who has been making biodynamic wines since the 80s, it not earlier, is a revered patriarch of the movement.

While I am but a mere aspiring wine enthusiast and a hardcore materialistic atheist at the same time, this book on earth energies transmitted from the soil, dynamised with herbs and dung fertilizers, moon phases and star constellations left me thinking and rather perplexed.

On one hand, it would require a force unknown to me to make yours truly believe in the macrocosmic forces and their direct impact on wine the way Monsieur Joly preaches it, yet a shadow of doubt polluted my soul.

On top of that, some parts of this book, written in plain understandable language and offering a rather gloomy perspective of our own way too materialistic world, I think have a proper merit of being taught in school. Like Chapter 2: Errors in Agriculture, which paints a horrible picture of how conventional commercial winemakers approach their terroirs and their vines.

All in all, one thing remains an unquestionable truth – Joly’s very own unique and exceptional white wines from the Loire valley speak louder than any words and any inappropriate funny jokes on lunatics who bury cow horns at the solstice.

Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally by Isabelle Legeron

A short yet quite comprehensive and colorful New Testament of real authentic and natural wine by Isabelle Legeron, MW – truly, one of the leading voices on the subject worldwide.

In bare 200 pages Ms. Legeron explains the idea, the practice and, in a way, relatively recently coinoted and already almost religious following of RAW, affiliation to which yours truly hereby discloses without slightest degree of shame or timidity.

You find it all here – agriculture approach (just let it grow, don't mess it up), vinification (just let it ferment, don't mess it up), wild yeasts and sulfites, classification (none, really), interviews with top world producers, and Isabelle's own recommendations of her favorite cuvees and vintners.

A brilliant read. Upon getting though with it, I'm increasing my stock of raw wines at home.

А для тех, кто хочет на русском – Владимир Басов и RAW выпускают российский перевод в январе. Ждите во всех неглавных магазинах страны – или не ждите, я куплю коробку на подарки.

The 24-hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson

I somehow placed it in my amazon shopping cart, and then my wife bought it by accident – just clicked proceed to checkout, paid and got it delivered to our apartment together with all of her stuff – so I decided, now that I own it, hell, why not give it a shot.

Good, light-hearted and very instructive reading for novel wine enthusiasts, much much better than the widely available Wine Folly book by Madeline Puckette, which some mistakenly buy and believe to be a good reference guide. Less colorful charts and hellava more sense here.

Jancis Robinson, a revered wine expert and a very harsh wine critic, explains it all in short, punchy, and self-explanatory language. The bare minimum of what everyone should know about wine, its production, bottling, how to taste it, common grape varieties, major wine regions, stemware, corkscrews, Coravin, decanting, aging, useful lingo, shop and restaurant tips, all in a hundred tiny A5-like pages.

Not a bad book to recommend if you're interested in the subject, yet feel intimidated by all those long words on expensive Burgundy bottles. On the other hand, if you can name the 30+ Côte d'Or Grand Crus by heart and even name the lieux-dits they're comprised of, well, you can safely skip it.


Barolo by Matthew Gavin Frank

Man, I don't get it.

Seems like a great book, and on a most intriguing and lovely topic – yet somehow, Matthew Gavin Frank's gastronomic adventures in Barolo, stories of illegal grape picking for the venerable Luciano Sandrone, standing a shift as apprentice chef at Locanda I Cannubi, walking the same hills that I like so much – all of it made me sleepy every frigging time after just a few para's. Spent months plowing through those barely 200+ pages.

Yet, to make sure – if you're somehow into Barolo, Monforte d'Alba, Serralunga, Castiglione Falleto, la Morra, Verdunho, all this special Piemontese wine, air and culinary delights, read the book.