Wine Book Review: Jonathan Nossiter’s Natural Wine Manifesto

insurrectionJonathan Nossiter, Cultural Insurrection: A Manifesto for Arts, Agriculture, and Natural Wine. Other Press, 2019 (previously published in French as Insurrections Culturelle by Éditions Stock, Paris, 2015).

I learned about Jonathan Nossiter’s new book just as I was writing about wine’s tribes and the group that I have dubbed the Naturalists and the Natural Wine movement they represent.

A few clicks and a few days later, Cultural Insurrection arrived and I want to review it here not so much as representative of the views of Naturalists in general, but as a personal “manifesto” of a noteworthy figure in the world of wine.

Its a Wine World After All

I know Nossiter’s previous wine works pretty well. He is the director of the 2004 film Mondovino, which I wrote about in Wine Wars and used to good effect in my university class on “The Idea of Wine.” Mondovino was a manifesto of sorts, too. It opposed commercialization and globalization and cleverly used wine to engage emotionally an audience that might not otherwise want to think about these big things.  Nossiter is also the author of a 2009 wine book titled Liquid Memories. You can ready my review here.

Cultural Insurrection is at its core a celebration of the natural wine movement and a critique of commercialization and globalization, but that fact isn’t always obvious. Early chapters analyze ancient Greek theater (Nossiter majored in Ancient Greek, he tells us), film directors and their films, the power and abuses of finance, and the power and abuses of agricultural chemical businesses. We are teased by promises of natural wine while these varied and weighty packages are unwrapped.

Puzzled, I jumped to the back of the book where I found appendices that list the films cited in the text and the directors cited in the text, but not the natural wines and their makers. So it is perhaps natural to wonder what the book is really about?

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Natural Wine?

The key, which I initially overlooked, is in the Preface where Nossiter asks us to consider natural wine as a radical metaphor for culture, art, and politics.  Culture, art, and politics are all corrupted by money and greed, a fact that he tells us is shockingly apparently in agriculture (the original culture, we are reminded). So what we are talking about when we talk about wine is not just wine. It is, well, everything. Or at least everything that really matters.

Natural wine in this context is a reaction to the social, cultural, and economic issues just cited. It is, Nossiter says several times a concrete action in opposition to a corrupt system. This statement made me think how how the natural wine movement compares with the Slow Food movement, which I wrote about in my book Globaloney 2.0. Both movements are global and oppose commercialization and commodification by presenting attractive and viable alternatives.  Wine is part of the Slow Food universe, of course — there is such a thing as Slow Wine — but not all Slow Wines would make the natural wine cut.

An important similarity is that both Slow Food and natural wine rely upon global networks to cultivate local products. The Slow Food movement aims actively to harness a global market network to oppose the abuses of global markets, which is clever indeed. Nosssiter’s idea of natural wine relies upon global networks, too, but he is uncomfortable with the role of markets despite their power to spread both natural wines and the manifesto globally.

What Makes Wine Natural?

What does it take for a wine to be natural in Nossiter’s manifesto? At one point he seems to give us a production checklist. Natural yeast — check. Left to ferment naturally — check. With no chemical additives such as sulfur — check. Winegrowing should be natural, too, of course, but exactly how is complicated. Check.

These criteria are necessary but not sufficient, however. Nossiter eventually rejects the idea that there is any sort of checklist that determines that a wine natural.  Natural wine is cultural more than technical, produced by families, in relatively small quantities, with little concern for profits. Natural wine, in other words, is what natural wine producers make. This might sound circular, but in fact I think it applies pretty well in this case. Natural wine, like terroir, may be vague in the details, at least in Nossiter’s analysis, but you will know it when you see it or meet the producer.

Tribal Rivalry

I bought Nossiter’s book looking for a personal perspective on natural wine and I got that and a lot more. I was also looking for an understanding about why the tensions between natural wine’s tribe and the rest of the wine world are so intense.  I don’t claim to have found this just because I’m not sure every natural wine proponent would endorse all of Nossiter’s manifesto.

But there is this. Clearly Nossiter rejects wine that isn’t natural by his standards, and so he dismisses the work of a lot of people who might not like to see themselves thrown in a pile that includes the worst capitalist and agrichemical abuses. He is, in a way, like some critics who dismiss natural wines generally on the basis of one or two badly flawed examples that seem to use philosophy was an excuse for poor winemaking. Easy to see how terroirists and naturalists could back each other into corners. Too bad.

More Interesting Than Delicious

So what about the book? I’d say it is more interesting than delicious, which is the way I have described some wines. The mixture of the cinema, global finance, argi-chemicals, and wine doesn’t always work for me. And I still don’t understand the relevance Nossiter’s longish digression on the difficulty of “dolly shots” in film-making. Maybe I need to read that part again.

But I think it may be wrong to read Cultural Insurrection as a book like I did. Try to experience it as a film instead — which will require some imagination and maybe a dolly shot or two. Nossiter’s famous film  Mondovino shifted around in the same way as this book. Some of my students found Mondo to be disorienting, but others went along for the ride, picking out the messages that resonated with them.

Experience the book in this way and you will certainly feel Nossiter’s anger and his yearning. And you’ll appreciate his cautiously optimistic conclusion. Glass half full? I’ll drink to that.

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