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The Jon Bonné interview - Part One

I first met Jon in San Francisco, but I don’t recall exactly when. He was at the Chronicle back then, and had come to my attention for his fearlessly iconoclastic columns, which would have been noteworthy for any wine writer but which was unheard-of for someone writing for a daily newspaper. Sure, I thought he might like me, and I was confident he'd like (or already liked) my wines, but I was less interested in groping for PR and more interested in sussing the guy himself.

Jon may have better recall than I do, but my earliest tangible recollection is of a dinner we shared at Michael Mina. Jon was a little wary that evening, which I ascribed to his preference to maintain a certain aloofness, as a writer who could easily have become tired of being “charmed” by wine salespeople seeking accolades. Later I changed my view, as I learned that Jon isn’t a terribly effusive man in general, not to mention I was a relative stranger, not to mention I had an agenda, if I was like the others.

But we got along well enough to be willing to do it again, and through the years we earned a certain ease. The whispers I heard that he was “not well liked” in the local wine community made me like him more. That community had more than enough smoke blown up its collective ass; we needed a voice of challenge and somebody intrepid enough to be that voice.

Jon did write about me at least once. His piece asking if I was getting mellower in my old age is linked from the home page of this site. Later I learned that he was dating a colleague (and friend) of mine, and he lived in SF and she lived in NY and I had, let’s say, a “little experience” with long-distance relationships, and I empathized with the new couple and silently cheered them on. (Not always silently, as it happened…) When they married I participated in the ceremony.

By then Jon had published the first of his three books, The New California Wine, a heretical masterpiece that broke all kinds of new ground. I wasn’t surprised to learn he’d been commissioned to write The New French Wine, as Andrew Jefford’s justly beloved early edition of that work was sporting a few gray hairs. I doubt if anyone – least of all Jon himself – realized how long it would take. In the interim he published a curious little book called The New Wine Rules, curious not for its subject matter nor for the wisdom it contained, but for a misalignment of “voice” that Bonné himself alluded to in the text, saying that the writing had been oddly difficult. I just read the book again. It's highly useful, and Jon was exactly the man to write it, yet for a book that sought to strip away the blather and posing and extranea of the wine world, the text kept springing loose from the writer’s intent.

When The New French Wine arrived at my doorstep my back went nearly kaput just lifting the thing. It is, whatever its many virtues may otherwise be, quite a profound object. I admire the book enormously but will not “review” it here. Others will (and have, among them David Schildknecht’s thorough and judicious piece in the World Of Fine Wines magazine) but what I will say is, as forbidding as it might appear when you look at it (or try to hoist it), it turns out to be a remarkably easy read. Readers may argue with one opinion or another, but I can’t imagine anyone claiming the writing is anything but friendly and welcoming. Which leads me in to my opening question:

TERRY: Something I liked about The New French Wine[1] was that you put the reader in your pocket, to trail along with you on your picaresque adventures. My questions are: Was this intentional from the start, or did it evolve as you proceeded?

JON: First, I love “picaresque,” in that you saw something roguish or swashbuckling in my travels. To me, at least in the moment, they felt … certainly not mundane but perhaps just routine. Or at least a massive pile of logistics I had to sift through. So many calendar reminders! And I guess there was that one cray drive down a dirt road in Cornas, much to the dismay of my rental-car company and the farmer who wondered why the little subcompact was careening down a washed-out road.

I suppose this is the sign of an author sifting out the good parts to share, which is to say, yes, it was very much intentional!

TERRY: I never thought otherwise….

JON: One lesson I learned from The New California Wine was: Perhaps the most resonant part of that book was unfurling the geography, which in the end took the form of a road trip. Fair, it’s one of the less original framing devices in the world, but it’s well worn for a reason — how do you bring a reader along on a journey that unfolds over physical space? (It’s not coincidental that Lord of the Rings included maps of the quite fictional Middle Earth,)

When it came to this particular adventure, there was quite literally so much ground to cover, and so much detail along the way, that travelogue was the best, or perhaps only, possible option. (Here I’m probably cursed by one of my favorite lines in The Year of Living Dangerously. Mel Gibson’s character files a piece to the newsroom in Sydney, and his editor comes back with, “Guy, that wasn’t news. It was travelogue.”)

TERRY: It transformed your book from a “text” into a tale, which is so useful as a narrative framing. My all-time favorite wine book (The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne) made effective use of the technique. I’m sure you know that book.

JON: I do! I admit I didn’t love the technique quite so much there, only in that the “accidental” part made me feel like I wasn’t seeing the full depth of what was there — that this was a fun journey but with perhaps a bit of a dilettante’s view. (That said, the rant from the obscure Mondavi family member about how all red wine tastes like cherries was brilliant!)

But I digress. Poignantly, what became clear along the way was that the transformations I was witness to were not just in French wine but in France itself. And there was no way to present that in some sort of omniscient, didactic way. (Or maybe there is, and I’m not French enough to do it. La France Sous Nos Yeuxpulled this off quite well.) This sort of change requires not just data and statistics, but something impressionistic. In fact, I found I often was working in reverse — taking down my impressions and then discovering the facts and context that explained them. Take the day I rolled into Pauillac and found pretty rough trade, just 500 meters from Lafite. It made a lot more sense when I dug into local politics, and poverty data, and realized that in the heart of the privileged Médoc, the paysans had gotten a raw deal.

This is in no way putting myself next to him, but I should acknowledge that to me one of the great masters of this form — both the Reiseroman, if you will, and the structuralism behind it — is John McPhee. When I was looking for the vehicle to tell this story, his work was always front of mind. You could also tap any number of more wine-focused figures, whether Kermit or Gerald Asher, or you, good sir. Wine best comes to life when we stand in for the reader, bringing them into the journey and not indulging in the false empiricism that wine sometimes encourages..

So, a well-worn format I was happy to copy.

TERRY: Your three books share a common sensibility. TNC told the story of a community of vintners who were bucking the trend for massive over-endowed bruiser-wines. The New Wine Rules suggested by its very title that the prevailing wine rules were outdated, and TNFW was (let’s say) biased against stasis. First, do you agree? Second, insofar as you identify with mavericks, are you one yourself?

JON: If nothing else, all three books share my sensibility that “new” is a good marketing hook!

Do I agree that they have a common thread? Absolutely. With France and California, it was about telling not just the story of change in a particular moment and a particular region. There was a broader meta-narrative, which was the broader, ambient change taking place in the wine world of the ‘90s and early aughts. Those were the years in which I was coming up in wine, and it was a weird time — the late-decadent phase and then [the] full decline of Parkerization, in part, but not just that. The end of the ‘90s, hence the end of the 20th century, brought wine to a place where technical acumen had resolved, or could resolve, most quality issues — not necessarily for the better. And the literalism of the Boomer era of wine criticism (sorry!) that Parker became a symbol of — a world driven by 100-point-scores, and hedonism for hedonism’s sake — had reached an event horizon. I tend to think of this as the end of wine’s modern era and the beginning of its postmodern era. Wine had to evolve, but it hadn’t yet figured out how to engage a next generation. Maybe it still hasn’t.

TERRY: Something I’d like to see more of is a deeper dive into the vacuum left in Parker’s wake. Not just in the sales-and-marketing sphere, but also dialectically. Because what I see is chaotic and often senseless.

JON: I’d like to see that too, and at times I’ve tried to poke at it. Indeed, when I began with PUNCH, my first column set the tenor by defining what I called “the new mainstream,” in which all the weird wines formerly on the fringe were now part of the conversation.

That said, I’ve given a lot of thought to why the Parker-ish era unfolded as it did, and what it means. It’s important to acknowledge that there was a good deal of chaos beforehand — chaos mixed with a good deal of clubbiness. So in their inception, at least, the power anchors of what I call the Big Flavor era were working to fix those things. They just ended up doing it in a way that was kind of reductivist.

These tensions revealed themselves more explicitly in The New Wine Rules. I wasn’t trying to tell a story about a specific place or specific people, but to capture this weird new postmodern wine world, to show how the very taxonomy of wine and our language for it, had evolved.

Does that make me a maverick? I guess so, with all respect to John McCain. An alternate interpretation would be that I was primed to be able to tell a different narrative about wine at the moment that different narrative became necessary.

TERRY: If you accept the moniker “maverick,” then would you take the next step to “contrarian?” Or are you merely a frustrated classicist?

JON: To answer two questions with another question: Is there a difference between being a contrarian against a world of pure relativism, one with no evolution of culture, and being a frustrated classicist?

OK, I’m being glib. But seriously, I’d argue that in a world — IN A WORLD! — where there are few real signposts for beauty and progress, those are two sides of the same coin. I used a slightly different term in The New French Wine: a neotraditionalist, which is what a lot of the vignerons in Burgundy and the Rhône and elsewhere have become. Their response to the end of modernism has been to see how a lot of the best traditions in wine were already discovered in the past, if perhaps imperfectly. So there’s a part of me that sees, through the momentary static, that the places and wines we love don’t exist in a vacuum. They are the product of a long history that was often warped and reinterpreted in those last few decades of the last century — the final gift, if you will, of wine’s modernist era.

All that said, I am surely a contrarian, and was born to it. My father prided himself on being one, and I absolutely picked that up as a kid. And there was a lot to put oneself in opposition to. In his case, it was the tension between being a rational capitalist, and what in New York was called a Ham Fish Republican, at a moment when the runaway greed of the 1980s and then the era of irrational exuberance basically upended the very notions of inherent value. And when I say contrarian, I mean, the man opened a stock brokerage literally a week before the October 1987 crash! So my upbringing was filled with a lot of discussion of how the free market, and so many American ideals, were being corrupted and destroyed by venal interests. And, yes, that again puts me in the category of both contrarian and frustrated classicist.

You could say the same thing about my college advisor, Ted Tayler, who taught me many things, including the value of inductive reasoning, and also how to be a general pain in the ass. So, this stance is not one I came by haphazardly.

And then, to go back to your prior question, I try to remember that I came of age in my writing career during that end of modernism — the late-decadent tumble of Parkerism, Spectatorism, and everything else. I wrote about weird little wines when the money was against them, when there were one or two voices of record, with the rest of us just pissing around on the fringes. Like, I know it’s ancient history but remember the battle over 2003 Pavie?

TERRY: I do. Pavie in that case was just a placeholder for a meta-debate over how much was too much, wouldn’t you say? And perhaps a smaller but equally important debate on just what this being called “Claret” was supposed to be.

JON: Well, the thing to remember about claret is that it’s the wine that effectively made Bordeaux! And when we’re talking about claret, it was a wine that was barely red — literally there’s an AOC today called Bordeaux Clairet that’s the color of poulsard. I love it. But exactly as you say: Pavie was perhaps the pinnacle for a broader debate over how big and maximalist wine could be. When in fact, the desire for that has not been dominant through the history of wine.

In any case, I came up at a moment when maximalism was staging its last stand. And candidly I felt like an outsider for a long time — even when I was literally The Man — capital T, capital M — at the San Francisco Chronicle, It took me a long time to resolve the tension between the wines I thought were important, and what the Mainstream believed I should endorse. My hate mail in those days was prodigious. So many Californians who felt I was betraying their manifest destiny. I guess my fortune was to have nurtured the arrogance to pursue what aesthetically and morally felt right to me, Napa potentates be damned.

In other words, it’s easy for me to feel justified today, when so many of the old institutions have crumbled. But I spent most of my career feeling like I was all the way out on a limb, with someone brandishing a saw.

TERRY: you were of course a threat. You had a platform, and the things you were saying endangered the established order, and all the money that flowed through it. Plus – and this I always loved – you were don’t give-a shit about it, which made them think you were merely smug, so they could flay you for that instead of considering the truths you were speaking. Take a bow, why don’t you.

JON: At the risk of wearing out my elbow from patting myself on the back, sure, I’ll take a bow! But look, there were a handful of voices out there at the time, pushing back. Eric Asimov chose to use his platform in a similar way, several years before I did. Alice Feiring built her career on pushing back. And let’s not forget how your catalogs and other writing were cult objects — I mean that in a good way! — in that particular era.

That said, I think it’s hard today to find a platform with the magnitude to effect real change … and, perhaps more importantly, that can keep a writer or critic gainfully employed enough to retain that dont-give-a-shitness. Even my time at the Chronicle was financially tough on me, and that was with one of like two or three unicorn jobs in the country. And towards the end, I found myself having to justify even criticism that was profitable, like the Top 100 Wines.

And today? Even now, even with the new book, I’m still struggling to envision a path that allows me to write the things I want to write, and share the wines I love to discover, in a way that’s sustainable. To do the good work, if you will. I guess I’m saying that being a maverick doesn’t really have a good business model attached. Although, if anyone out there with deep pockets wants to support my ambient stubbornness, my DMs are open!


Continues Next Week with Part Two.

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