Can the Natural Wine Movement help save the Planet? On a positive note to the ending of his new book, Cultural Insurrection, filmmaker, writer, sommelier, iconoclast, Jonathan Nossiter says yes.
The title is a clue, a pun on the word “culture” and Nossiter delves into the many meanings of the word and how they are interlinked, soil, wine, film, politics. The book is currently available on Amazon for pre-order and goes on sale May 21, 2019. He states quite clearly in the preface, “no environmental question should be considered separately from culture and aesthetics, as well as politics”. This book covers much ground tracing the roots and underpinnings of the natural wine phenomenon as well as giving an autobiographical account of his life from film to wine to advocate for natural wine.
While reading the book for this writeup, I recounted to a colleague how Nossiter outlines the tight grip the chemical companies gained over time of the world economy and world agriculture. She immediately said, “Have you seen Food, Inc or read the Omnivore’s Dilemma ? He sounds like Michael Pollan.” Nossiter could be called the Michael Pollan of the wine world. Having worked with the magazine Edible Chicago for many years which is part of the larger Edible Communities network of 80+ sites, which support locally produced food, advocate for farmers and a better food system, I found Nossiter’s factual account of chemicals and the land had a familiar and disturbing ring.
Nossiter jigs and jags between talk of film, talk of the natural wine movement, talk of politics and a bit of personal history woven in. I watched his acclaimed 2004 documentary, Mondovino, (which I mentioned here, Ten Wine Movies to Watch) which sadly seems not available to stream. The original film covered the issues of the impact of globalization on wine. He describes the movie as a “documentary about the anthropology of the wine world, I saw wine above all as a cultural expression rather than as an urban commodity.” It was filmed in a home movie kind of style. I felt like I was walking the vineyard with the winemakers. Since then a complete series has been released on Amazon, 10 parts of 1 hour each which requires a dedicated commitment to watch them all. The series is more professionally packaged and I am guessing includes tons of footage that Nossiter did not include in the original film. I am in the midst of finishing up watching his most recent movie, Natural Resistance, which focuses on the underpinnings of the natural wine revolution. I was happy to see that Elena Pantaleoni of La Stoppa in Emilia-Romagna was in the film. And happy to know that her wines are on our shelves at the store.
The natural wine movement is a global phenomenon. Here in Chicago, the 3rd Annual Third Coast Soif is taking place on Sunday March 24, “a Chicago collective celebrating real wines grown and made naturally and the people who thirst for them”. We have wine distributors like Lee of Sensus Wines who focuses solely on natural wine and Cream Wines who have Mr. Natural Wine, Zev Rovrine, among other importers in their book. Nossiter has been in the midst of the vanguard of the natural wine movement since the early aughts.
This book is provocative, moves back and forth between philosophical and social concepts to concrete examples of the winemakers in the forefront of the natural wine movement. It is perfect material for bookclub conversation or a class. It captured my attention to read because I was aware of the growth of the natural wine sector but was not clear on its origins. Nossiter weaves in and out between his film thoughts, his wine thoughts and his political thoughts on how it all started.
Nossiter cites in a footnote ” I’ll tend to use “winegrower” an awkward but less invasive term, instead of “winemaker”. In fact, the distance between the American term “winemaker” and the French vigneron and the Italian vignaiolo is telling”. “Vineyard work is not the beginning of a process that ends in wine; rather it is one extension – perhaps in its most refined form – of a much larger engagement with the land…. Agriculture is for the future of humanity.” In terms of bigger brand wines and some of the trophy wines, “These wines suggest how far man is capable of muzzling nature and any territorial expression, just as a film director is confronted with the Scylla and Charybdis of technology in relation to the potential humanity of their actors.” “The self, bottled. A liquid selfie”. In terms of natural wine, “Natural wine being an idea as well as a practicality and livelihood, has no borders”. “I am convinced what distinguishes natural wine is the absence of fixed rules.” In terms of some of the requirements for natural wine, “The more diverse the population of yeasts, the greater the complexity and diversity of flavors will be produced in the finished wine.” In regard to biodynamic farming, “Organic or biodynamic farmers’ have soils that are significantly more active, more alive than those who work conventionally.” “The better ‘conventional’ winegrowers and many organic or biodynamic producers conceive of their wine as a product of terroir. Natural winegrowers see it as a vector for terroir. Instead of imposing themselves on the picked fruit, they seek to efface themselves behind it.”Which leads to the question of smell, which anyone attending a natural wine fair or tasting will acknowledge.
One of my favorites is Chapter Twenty-One, “The Italians Call It ‘Horseshit’ “. “Not everything smells like roses in the natural vinutopia, the stench of manure that critics of natural wine claim to detect in what they consider technically faulty bottles could be interpreted as their own discomfort with the complexity and earthiness of nature’s odors. Or sometimes horseshit might be, well, just horseshit.” And he does concede that “there are natural wines of a spurious radically where the desire to provoke is the end in itself, shock for shock’s sake.” Nossiter also concedes that there are “no-sulfite fanatics out there in a rigid, ideological way. It’s critical to remember that no two vineyards and no two winemakers can or should have a similar need or ability to reduce their wines to zero sulfites. Each terroir, each vintage and each winemaker’s knowledge, experience and personality will require a different response.”
I haven’t watched all of Nossiter’s films but did view his 2010 film , Rio Sex Comedy which includes Charlotte Rampling, Bill Pullman and Fisher Stevens. Nossiter references the opening walking scene of the film in his book. Charlotte Rampling walks to the hospital where she works in the film. I found it an intriguing walk through the city of Rio de Janeiro into this beautiful courtyard where towards the end of her walk Rampling starts to skip and dance. It had an air of spontaneity and authenticity. However, the film itself which made the film festival circuit seems like one of those films that was more the process of making it than the actual watching of it. It had a very experimental feel and I got some of the issues Nossiter was trying to bring focus to but I got lost at times as to what was going on or why. But the film is rather curious in a one of a kind way which is one way to look at some of these natural wines.
Finally, Cultural Insurrection is very much linked to the here and now including the horrible situation we are faced with in the US with Trump as President and the GOP enabling him. Nossiter posits that back in the 60’s the cigarette companies strategy was doubt. “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general population”. Sadly, this use of doubt is the strategy the GOP and the Trump administration are using to maintain power now. But Nossiter’s book is full of facts and what the natural winemakers are doing is with concrete actions.
However, it is from the ground up, literally, cultivating the soil that the earth will be protected. He ends with “natural winegrowers are ecologists in their relationship to nature, but they are equally ecologists in their consideration of culture. And this should give us a fragment of hope for the future of the two sisters, culture and nature. This book is brimming with ideas the way well- cared for soil is brimming with vitality. As a believer in books, once I started reading I was caught up in the spirit of the book and its ideas, the same way a good glass of wine reels you in for another sip.