Wines of Humility has produced an outstanding interview with Jonathon Nossiter (you can listen to it at the winefairy website), director of the controversial film Mondovino and chief propagandist for Romance.

In the interview, conducted by Wine Fairy Lynn Chamberlain, Nossiter makes a statement that should be understood by anyone who believes wine is best when it reflects the terroir where it was made. Nossiter suggests that the meaning of terroir should be amended to mean the culture and traditions of a wine’s region that have developed over the centuries.

Terror is not just the influence of the soil, climate and terrain where the grapes were grown. No. In Nossiter’s world, a wine will reflect the way of life that has developed around the vineyard and in the region where the vineyard sits.

Fortunately for Nossiter, he doesn’t try to describe how culture influences the taste or structure of a village Burgundy. He’s a smart man. You simple can’t do that because in large part this notion of his is fanciful romanticism. But it’s a notion that has implications that explain why he’s so biased against new world wineries.

If "Terroir" is, as Nossiter says, as much made up by hundreds of years of tradition and culture as it is by soils and climates, then clearly any country that does not have centuries of winemaking under its belt can’t make "artisan," terroir-driven wines. Leave that to the Old World countries.

In the interview with the Wine Fairy, Nossiter puts an exclamation point on this notion by referring specifically to wines of Mendocino. He explains that this is one region that does make wonderful wines that don’t necessarily conform to the global taste. Yet, he implies they simply have not been around long enough to really offer wines of terroir. But wait. That’s OK. You see, these wines from Mendocino that he likes…well, according to Nossiter you can "Taste the Humility" in them.

"Taste their Humility". He likes these wines because in his mind they don’t ape the big, juicy, fruit forward wines that in his mind are what the global tastemasters are pushing and which will kill wine. Clearly he hasn’t tasted many Mendocino wines. There are any number of BIG pinots coming from Anderson Valley.  But the point that irks me is this notion that even though Mendocino is a region too young to offer any real terroir, they still make charming wines with great "humility. Those Mendocino winemakers know their place.

What Nossiter is doing with Mondovino I don’t think he realizes. He is stripping away all meaning from the idea of Terroir for the sake of making a romantic, anti-marketing, farce of a film.

This is bad for wine, bad for consumers who drink up this notion and probably bad for the film maker’s conscience.

Posted In: Culture and Wine


3 Responses

  1. Al - April 7, 2005

    Yeah, the ‘humility’ taste receptors are located right next to the ‘bitter’ receptors…though in his (Nossiter’s) case I’m tempted to make a suggestion about where his are located which might not be too charitable. I’m also tempted to suggest that most of the French wine industry has lost it’s sweet receptors and is now disproportionately bitter.
    And if anyone’s interested in seeing the film, I’d say wait for the dvd/video to come out. Don’t bother spending your hard earned cash at the theater. Just my opinion.

  2. putnam - May 18, 2005

    I love your blog.
    Are you commenting on Nossiter’s interview and inaccurate usage of the word “terroir” or the movie itself? I can’t access the link to the interview, but it seems obvious to me that “humility” is part of any great wine, especially ones with terroir. Are you SURE he meant to say Mendocino wines were humble in relationship to “superior” European wine? I’ve seen the movie and read yards of text written by Mr. Nossiter. I can’t imagine he was making the point you suggest he was. Please show how he was if I’m wrong.
    It takes humility for a producer not to impose his or her will on a wine, to let terroir show. Humility in wine is as easy to taste as it is in a plate of food that isn’t over-worked by a chef, one with a humble respect for the ingredients.
    I thought Mondovino was great, and I’m dismayed by the shameful lynching of it in the wine opinionsphere. We need more amateur commentators with fresh insights, not more copycat soundalikes. Cheers to you for playing your part in that.

  3. putnam - May 18, 2005

    I agree 100% about the piece. What a well-written and thoughtful review!
    And just to add to the comment posted above, I think Nossiter was stuck in a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Humility, taste and judgment, collective and individual, are absolutely required to allow terroir to be benignly expressed in wine. It takes practice, even generations to “perfect” this balance. After interviewing dozens upon dozens of producers, and not having any special knowledge of geology or climate, the human cultural debate became his allegory for all things human AND terrestrial. It may not be strictly accurate here in the wine academy to bring human culture under the umbrella of terroir, but the fact that all specific qualities of wine pass through the filter of the human mind makes this “mistake” part of his interesting way of looking at it. By the same logic I overlook any spelling errors you may commit (and please overlook mine!) Your thoughts are interesting enough even with them.
    We agree that human culture does not belong in the definition of terroir. What about yeast culture, especially wild-yeast fermented wine? Humans select yeasts by choosing ever better wines from tanks the bioactive solids from which are spread around the vineyard to compete with ambient yeasts. Are the qualities associated with the “bloom” on a berry part of Terroir? It seems logical to concede so. Does human culture, expressed through taste and economics, have an influence on which wild yeasts will thrive? Again, this would seem hardly controversial. So, granting these two premises, does human culture contribute in a material way to terroir (as opposed to merely interfering more or less)?

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