It was a simple wine menu, four whites and four reds. But Jonathan Nossiter, a former sommelier sitting in the bar of the Sixty Thompson Street Hotel in Soho, couldn’t make up his mind. He’d been staring quizzically at the red plastic card for some time. “I don’t know what to say about this list,” he said, as if contemplating a slow Ouija board. “Big Moose Red is a brand wine,” he explained, pointing to one of the choices. “A brand wine is antithetical to what wine is. It doesn’t even have a grape. It’s like saying, ‘Would you like to go out on a date with a brand woman?’”
Mr. Nossiter, whose charm and good looks are sometimes held against him, is on a crusade to save wine from its own success. He was in town to promote his new film, Mondovino, a globe-trotting documentary about the wine world which has soured grape-industry powerhouses like Robert Mondavi, Baroness Philippe de Rothschild, the Frescobaldi and Antinori families in Italy, as well as Robert Parker and magazines like the Wine Spectator.
The film caused an oenophilist tizzy-drawing full houses-when it opened in France last fall. It pays particular attention to one Michel Rolland, a millionaire wine consultant-second only to Mr. Parker in wine-world influence-who is mostly seen in the film in his limousine, on his cell phone, barking technical recipes for making wine more palatable to the masses. Mr. Rolland’s strategies, Mr. Nossiter implies in the film, are typical of the way the vintner elite abuse power to further their profit-driven ambition to homogenize and globalize the taste of wine at the expense of the consumer’s palate.
“There are thousands of new wines,” Mr. Nossiter, 43, explained. “But whether it is a Chilean cabernet or Napa cabernet or a Bordeaux, disturbingly, more and more of them are beginning to taste the same.”
The ratings-obsessed public, Mr. Nossiter believes, is being hoodwinked.
“The wine world has been shrouded in a Mafia-like code of silence, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “This film, good or bad, offers a little glimpse of it.”
Mr. Nossiter’s vision has been contentious. Many cheer his exposé, saying he has invited a healthy debate; others have threatened lawsuits. Mr. Rolland called the film dishonest and biased. “Nossiter is a trash reporter who is only interested in scandals,” said another incensed wine consultant, Stephane Derenoncourt, in a wine journal.
The documentary begins, oddly enough, in Brazil with men shimmying up coconut trees on a beach. It goes on to hopscotch to France, Sardinia, Italy, California, Argentina and finally back to Brazil. Along the way, Mr. Nossiter’s hand-held camera provides cutting portraits of feuding Florentine dynasties, a French vintner’s family disputes, turf battles between small wineries and international conglomerates, and languid afternoon lunches in Napa. Dogs are ubiquitous. They wander in and out of the frame-one with a hunk of Roquefort cheese in its mouth-belching and farting. But this eclectic, rambling tour de force is held together by a more serious notion: that our generation may be presiding over the death of wine’s soul.
“If wine is interesting,” Mr. Nossiter began one of his breathless sentences, hunched over the black lacquer table at the Thompson bar with Perrier and a plastic bottle of Odwalla Mango Tango nearby, “if wine has held our imagination and been a vessel of exchange and friendship and love between people and man and the earth for thousands of years, it is because it is a reflection of civilization and culture. To rip that out of context and say, ‘No, it’s only the numerical rating based on my personal pleasure factor and is consumer-driven,’ that is a scandal; that is a betrayal to me.”
Mr. Nossiter has been called arrogant and pugnacious, but few question his passion or his qualifications to make this film. As a sommelier, he made the wine list at Balthazar, Rice, Il Buco and Pravda. He went on to make the critically admired feature films Sunday (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, 1997) and Signs and Wonders, a psychological thriller starring Charlotte Rampling. He seems the well-connected cosmopolitan, but Mr. Nossiter demurs. “I’m out of the circuit wherever I am,” he said. “I’m the son of a reporter and a deracinated Jew.” His late father, Bernard, was a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Times, where he later became the U.N. bureau chief. Mr. Nossiter was born in Washington, D.C., and went on to live in France, Italy, India and the States. He recently moved from Paris to Brazil, where his wife is expecting twins.
He was drawn to make the film-a two-year-long endeavor-in part because of his love of wine and the wine world’s convivial company. But his recent attempts to engage the wine world in open, public debate have mostly met with stony silence. The Mondavis, the Frescobaldis and the Wine Spectator have all turned him down.
“All the major power brokers tried to muzzle me as best they could,” he said. “Michel Rolland would like to kill me. He has gone on record saying I’m a liar, a swindler and a thief.”
Hyperbole? Yes, but at a recent wine tasting at the Altman Building in Chelsea, the former sommelier of a well-frequented New York restaurant, who now owns his own wine business, became alarmed at the mention of Mr. Rolland’s name. “I will not say anything about Rolland!” he exclaimed in a heavy French accent. He insisted on remaining anonymous, his eyes darting across the room.
Others were more sanguine about the issues raised in the film. Frédérick Blanck, a winemaker from Alsace, felt that though the pressures to conform wine’s taste to the global market were real, many local vineyards, like his own, would continue to be defined by their terroir and prosper making their own specialized wines. “In Alsace, we cannot make chardonnay or Shiraz, even if it is popular. So we will continue to make Riesling and Gewürztraminer,” he said. Mr. Blanck said he believed consumers were just beginning to become educated about wine. “They don’t have to listen to Robert Parker, but they think it’s the bible.”
Mr. Nossiter is quick to praise Mr. Parker’s good intentions and integrity-they are still on speaking terms-but he raises questions about the effect of Mr. Parker’s ratings power. “What happens,” he asked, “when you set out to be a consumer advocate and you become the person who determines what the consumer can and can’t drink?” Francis Schott, a New Jersey restaurateur whose wine list is selected without regard to ratings, put it this way: “What if there were only one critic in the art world?”
Later, at a Tribeca Film Center screening of Mondovino, Mr. Nossiter lounged on the floor of the stage taking questions afterward. The audience seemed a bit stunned by the complexity of it all. Matt Dillon sat in a front row listening attentively, scratching his chin. A young, dark-haired woman in the back, Pia Loavenbruck, who represents a number of small vineyards, was concerned. America, she said, would soon become the largest consumer of wine in the world, and what kind of wine did Americans want to buy? Almost any kind, as long as it had labels with cute little animals on them. What was a wine merchant to do?
Mr. Nossiter never did order Big Moose Red or any other wine at the Thompson Hotel bar, saying if he had to order something, it would have been a beer. But later he had the opportunity to pick out a wine for dinner at the Tribeca Grill, an establishment that offers over 200 wines. Mr. Nossiter, accompanied by a half-dozen friends, carefully selected a Chianti, Il Palazzino, La Pieve 2001. “It turned out to be a bit flat,” Mr. Nossiter admitted unhappily. Fortunately, the second bottle of the evening-a 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Telegraphe, La Crau, picked by his friend Daniel Lerner-was delicious. “There’s no such thing as a wine expert,” Mr. Nossiter said. “The more you drink and learn about wine, the less sure you are about almost any aspect of it.”
Poems and Sandwiches
A poem is like a sandwich. A sandwich is composed of layers of foods, stacked one atop the other. A poem has one line laid upon the next. A sandwich is bookended by pieces of bread. A poem has a title at the top and the author’s name at the bottom.
Poetry, however, is read from top to bottom. Sandwiches may be “read” in
Actually, however, you can read a poem backwards, too. I’ve discovered that those poems in The New Yorker that are so insufferable when read from top to bottom are quite lovely in the opposite direction. For example, below is a poem from the Jan. 19, 2004 New Yorker, which I found under my bathtub. I turned the poem upside down.
and a white shirt, clean boxers, clean socks, a handkerchief.
with one grass-stained knee,
I am passing his light blue seersucker suit
his keys and the bells to his heart,
his voice tucked deep in his name,
the shape of him locked in his burial clothes,
his smell like a kiss blown through hallways of cedar,
and moths that fly up from the black woolen remnants,
belt buckles ringing and coins in coat pockets
Through the racks and the riggings,
O the great ghost ships of his shoes.
and trousers, full sail the walnut hangers of shirts,
to the next room from this closet of trousers
To the curator of the museum, to the exhibition of fathers,