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The Jon Bonné interview - Part Three

TERRY: Moving away from big-picture theory, what kinds of wines are the nucleus of your appreciation? That is, you have decided they are indispensably beautiful and/or fascinating and comprise the anchoring core around which the rest of your drinking orbits? (This can be identified either literally, e.g., Etna Reds, or generically, e.g., salty low-alcohol reds, or even in terms of feeling tones, e.g., wines that trigger happiness. Or all of these.)

JON: As time goes on, I find myself ever more fond of wines that express themselves as what they are. Perhaps that sounds cryptic, but honestly, it’s not. I like Burgundy that tastes like Burgundy — not oak, or Guy Accad-turned-Kosta Browne style extraction.

TERRY: This sets up an epistemological question, what is Burgundy “supposed” to taste like, but we can leave that unanswered if you like, because everyone will know what you mean.

JON: It's a fair question. There's no instantly obvious answer but what I can say is that Burgundy, when made without overt evidence of human hands tinkering, does express itself in a way that the same grapes simply don't anywhere else in the world — especially pinot noir. That's especially evident today because the evidence of hands on wine has become so much lighter, versus that 1990s style.

It's not just Burgundy, though. I like wines whose origins are quickly evident, and express themselves deliciously. I love Verdicchio and Saar Rieslings that speak clearly. I love Gaillac pét-nat for being unimpeachably itself.

If I’m going to diagnose my tastes, at the risk of dabbling in cliché? Sure, lighter, mineral-intense whites and reds. Rosés with what the French call matière. Orange wines that draw contemplation and curiosity. Honestly, any wine that draws contemplation and curiosity.

TERRY: Contemplation I get. But what makes you curious?

JON:I like iconoclastic wines that ask complex questions and force discussion — while still exuding fruit and savor and beauty and joy.

TERRY: Any “guilty pleasures” in your wine drinking? “I hate myself for liking this but damn it I just do…”

JON: Not to force an ideological quibble, but I’m not sure I know how to interpret “guilty.” I have no guilt about loving the wines I love. A delicious wine should be delicious. Guilt shouldn’t enter into the equation, unless it’s the guilt of drinking something made in finite quantities — and even then, consumption is a really, really important part of wine. If we’re interested in museum pieces, we should collect art. So, sure, pour me some good basic Muscadet, and tempt me on occasion with the Baroqueness of Kongsgaard Chardonnay, or the epic swagger of a great Châteauneuf Blanc, or a great bottle of Bordeaux. I just can’t imagine feeling guilty about drinking a wine; that’s not an emotion I want to introduce into my wine-drinking life.

I suppose you could argue frosé is my guilty pleasure. But again, I just don’t have any guilt attached to it.

TERRY: Concomitantly, are there wines you wouldn’t miss if they disappeared from existence?

JON: Most of them. Yes, we live in the glorious, decentralized, diverse world of postmodern wine. But there’s still so much crap out there.

I do try in general to abide by the “don’t yuck someone else’s yum” aphorism that has become how we’re supposed to do aesthetics now. Less because I’m less judgy — maybe a little less, but let’s not indulge in the fiction that our aesthetic choices aren’t mirrors of us. More because I just don’t have time to be the great wine scourge. If you love Woodbridge or, say, Cavit pinot grigio, well, don’t ask me to have a meaningful wine conversation. But I’m also not going to sit around chastizing you, unless you happen to be someone with a platform who should know better. Like, I think it was fair to beat up on Dave Chang for lionizing shitty beer, mostly because it was a weak, hypocritical argument.

But if you’re a civilian, and so long as you don’t try and assert to me how empirically great a wine is because you happen to like it, I’m certainly not in the business of getting on your case. And, whatever, you want to throw an ice cube into your wine? Want a stemless glass? You do you, my brother.

TERRY: Given the chatter in the wine world, what do you think we’re talking TOO MUCH about? And what aren’t we talking enough about? (If you can, tilt toward the larger “philosophical” issues rather than matters such as climate-change.)

JON: Natural wine. 🤣🤣

I say that because I’ve spent a good decade or more doing the intellectual work to find my own answers on it, and now I just find the whole discussion so boring. It is, and was, a vehicle for pushing some critical questions about the culture of wine. It will evolve to be part of the fabric of the broader wine world. But wearing natural wine as a badge — or, I guess, pointing and laughing at people wearing that badge — is just tiring. It’s a worn trope born out of some very French notions of belonging.

As for what we don’t talk about enough, first and foremost to me would be the economic realities of being a vigneron. There’s so much chatter about decolonizing wine, and the like. And I get it: The wine world, at least as manifested in that late 20th century decadent phase, was exclusive in every sense of that word. But on balance, wine is still largely rooted in western European tradition, not least because vinifera, since Roman times, has largely been grown there.

But that doesn’t mean wine is aristocratic, or even bourgeois. Even today, in 2023, look at the reality of the average French vigneron — to say nothing of Italy or Spain or so on. (Germany and Austria get partial exceptions, but only because their wine industries are largely post-industrial, if you will.) The typical winemaker is not a person of great means. If they’re lucky, they pay their note to the bank, maybe they buy a new harvest van or tractor every few years. If they’re in Champagne or Burgundy, their land is expensive enough that they can get a nice equity loan. But we’re still talking about farmers — or, as I described it to a French journalist not long ago, a néo-paysan. These are women and men still deeply attached to the land, not to great profit or success.

This goes even for the people we lionize as heroes — I’m talking about people like Thierry Allemand in Cornas or Dominique Hauvette in Provence — who are basically making ends meet. We sit in our fancy corners of New York or Paris, and build our myths around them. But they’re mostly just getting by. There is no implied glory or lavishness. In fact, the economics of so-called Old World winemaking are still dramatically different than, say, California or Australia. I deeply love a lot of California winemakers, but I couldn’t call too many of them paysans, neo or otherwise.

In any case, economic decolonization is perhaps not what people are talking about when they talk about decolonizing wine. But it should be a big part of that conversation.

TERRY: When you taste, what happens first: does your mind leap to engage with flavor AS-SUCH (and its structures and contours) or are you grabbing gestalt in a way more imagistic or even emotional?

JON: It’s funny: I don’t think as much as I used to about the process of tasting. Probably because I’ve done it long enough, so that these days it all feels very organic. Yes, sometimes flavors come first — a wine will exude one particular thing or another. But usually, I start with gestalt. Do I like this wine? Does it speak to me in a particular way? Can I place it, in terms of it exuding the somewhere-ness that was Matt Kramer’s definition of terroir? Does it feel integral, and clear (if not unambiguous) in its expression?

That isn’t to say I don’t have moments of falling into a sort of robotic torpor, just reeling off flavors and aromas. But I try and stop myself when I catch myself doing that. It’s part of the way that we were led astray in a previous era, by nabobs who wanted us to believe that the mystery of wine could be reduced to a flavor chart.

TERRY: (leaps to his feet and applauds…)

JON: Now, I know today that everything is a vibe, because TikTok. But truly, a great wine is a vibe. It brings pleasure in ways that aren’t reductively tangible. The French talk a lot about “vibrations” for a reason when it comes to wine. Great wine should impact you emotionally, and if you’re fortunate, you have the ability to express that to others.

TERRY: Wine/food pairing: art, instinct, or “junk science?”

Meh. I used to spend a lot more time worrying about this, and then being fascinated by it. Like blind tasting, it’s a fun parlor game, and a bit of a refuge for the literal-minded. But telling people that one thing is empirically right or wrong falls into that yucking-the-yum territory I try and avoid nowadays.

That said, I know some things deliver me a certain gestalt and joy, to my point above. Lighter red Burgundies — say, Saint-Aubin or Santenay — alongside meatier nigiri, or matsutake mushrooms in October. Beaujolais and falafel. Chianti and jjim. Orange wine and fra diavolo. But those are resonances that speak to me. I could probably give you lots of reasons that go to academic questions of texture and acidity. But I wouldn’t invoke the word “science,” junk or otherwise.

TERRY: Many wine growers I know have said something along the lines of - “I arrived certain I would make all kinds of changes, and over the years I watched as my experiments didn’t give the results I wanted, and I had to conclude that my old man actually knew what he was doing…” Can you respond with a sort of “Bonne Doctrine” in which you identify what sorts of innovations are likely to succeed and which are likely to be wastes of time? Can this even be done in general terms a priori?

JON: Sorry, Terry, you won’t get me to front your quest for shadow conservatism!

TERRY: Classicist, Jon, not (always) conservative. Do continue!

JON: Here’s what I can say, to go back to Peynaud: Innovations that succeed tend to succeed because they’re addressing a specific thing. The Burgundians stopped stirring lees on their whites and went back to browning their juice because the market was ready to keelhaul them for premox, and because they realized how they’d erred by trying to make Puligny into Napa Chardonnay. They went back and found improvements on the practices that allowed white Burgundy to be its timeless self. But did Jean-Marc Roulot run a mental calculation and decide that his extra six months of tank aging would become the new textural default for the region? Not hardly. He was just trying to solve a practical issue.

Will amphorae become a new default for winemaking in the Médoc? Probably not, but the winemakers there who use them do so because they find it solves some issues for them — a matter of reducing oak presence while still building texture. It’s probably not wildly different from how many of them eagerly embraced new oak when that was the fashion — even if, you have to wonder which winemaker ever sat around thinking that more oak was going to provide a clearer expression of their wine. For that matter, at times I wonder who in the Mosel or Sauternes looked at a bunch of moldy, shriveled grapes and decided, “That is going to taste delicious and we should definitely make wine from it!”

TERRY: Legend has it that it was a happy accident.

JON: And one that probably seemed a lot more appealing in an era when ripeness was elusive!

I guess what I’m saying is that innovations are often fads, except for the ones that turn out to be enduring. And I think we can often forget how quickly, in relative terms, the wine world evolves. Like, sorting tables really didn’t appear in Bordeaux or Burgundy until the end of the 1970s. So we’re talking about a lot of innovation in maybe 40 years.

One thing I have found over time: The truly great winemakers don’t have easily definable formulas. They are more responsive than dogmatic. Take Littorai, in California. I think it’s telling that you can’t explain Ted Lemon’s “formula” for making a wine. Trust me, I’ve tried! Ted’s genius is in responding in precise ways to the specific conditions of vintage and place.

That said, you do find that even genius winemakers land on templates they like. Take the Reynauds at Château Rayas. On the one hand, their ways are unique and mysterious. On the other, they’ve found a set of things they like — including long aging in bottle — that deliver a relatively consistent interpretation of Grenache as a vehicle for the divine.

TERRY: For your most sentimental occasions, do you have correspondingly sentimental wines, or do you just reach for anything “special” at hand?

JON: At the risk of being a basic bitch: Champagne. A lot of Champagne.

Over time, I’ve developed little habits I like to maintain. The Fourth of July without a good California Cabernet and a hamburger feels like a missed moment. Winter feels incomplete without at least one opportunity for fondue and either Chasselas — sorry, Herr Theise, I mean Gutedel — or a similarly textural white wine.

But either I’m less sentimental these days, or I’m more into situational aesthetics. I prefer to have moments where an epic wine reveals itself to me, perhaps in an expected way but often as a total surprise. I think we can frontload a lot of unfair expectations onto a bottle of wine — expecting it to carry a psychic weight that it can’t possibly hold. This isn’t to discourage people from saving a special bottle to enjoy in that one moment of glee. But there are for sure too many people who hope that wine will deliver them the satisfaction that is lacking in other parts of their lives.

TERRY: Do you hold a view wherein you feel yourself to be in a very small minority?

JON: Aside from my clearly correct stance that Stereolab and Midnight Oil are the two greatest bands ever? And my general belief that everyone needs to go back and re-read John Stuart Mill? Probably not.

I used to think my generally dismissive view of Gut Oggau was in the minority, but turns out I have lots of company there. That said, it’s a view that has gotten me, and friends of mine, in trouble at times, for not giving myself to the zeitgeist. I’m ok with that. You and I have dined at Taubenkobel, so it’s safe to say we’re relatively well informed on the true backstory of those wines. And one reason I’ve spoken out about my view on them is that, again to my don’t-yuck-the-yum stance, I think a lot of their fans are fans because of a creation story that contains a certain dose of myth. And I’d rather see that devotion directed toward some of those talented, earnest winemakers trying to make ends meet.

TERRY: Might you feel uneasy if you held a view in line with conventionality, even if you came by that view honestly?

JON: Not at all. I love Bordeaux — not so much the crus classés but the broader region. Now, is that a conventional view, or a contrarian one, in the topsy-turvy aesthetics of the 2020s?

What troubles me these days is how so-called unconventional thinking has become hegemonic, and often closed-minded. To float one of my favorite examples: Is Domaine Weinbach not natural enough to be capital-N, capital-W Natural Wine? They’re fully biodynamic, they use no additives besides what other naturalistas do, they are downright archaic (in a good way) in the cellar. They even make an orange wine! So what’s the damage? Are their labels not ironic enough?

Now, I love the postmodern wine world. But I also — and this was a surprise to me as much as anyone — have become a proponent for inclusion, and I think it’s important to stand up and defend wines that sit outside the postmodern canon. I’m not talking about looking the other way when, say, when a vigneron is spraying Roundup, or raises the kind of concerns we saw with, say, Fulvio Bressan or Valentina Passalacqua or Sebastien Riffault. But one of my conclusions in my chapter on natural wine was that it can’t evolve, conceptually or practically, until it finds a way to also embrace the notion formerly known as typicity, or what I call “traditionally beautiful examples from familiar places.”

That notion is truly important to me, in part because of the analogy I use in the book, which is the rise of modern art. Just as conventionality can be closed-minded, as it was with the academy view of the salon des réfusés in the late Second Empire, the alt view of the wine world can be equally closed off when it comes to accepting otherness. That isn’t to say, as a critic, that I don’t have the right to endorse the aesthetic paths that I think are valid, and to call out the ones I think are frivolous, or the work of dilettantes. But wine progresses because we’re constantly pressure-testing aesthetics, embracing what’s good and letting the mediocre and the bad float down the river into the distance.

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Before starting in on the samples, I had a quick look at a few 2023’s last week, not enough to offer a judgment but enough to offer a speculation. In Germany, based on samples from Dönnhoff and Selbac

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I am pretty sure Jon's way off date-wise as regards sorting tables in Burgundy. While some estates may have had them in the 1980s, I only began hearing them discussed in the early '90s (at a time when I was spending at least one week a year tasting there and with my ear to the ground). I can press Allen Meadows on the subject. But he was my source for a great story from Jean-François Coche about how J-F’s dad freaked out when J-F introduced a sorting table for the 1993 vintage.

Even the notion of selective harvest didn't catch on in Burgundy much before that, which is why the 1983 reds soon revealed themselves to be with few exceptions…

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