How Wine Became Metropolitan: An Interview With David Gissen

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Earlier this year, Gissen the theorist assumed a new identity as Gissen the wine nerd, working his way through 100 appellations

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IMAGE: The Metro Wine Map of France, designed by David Gissen.

David Gissen is usually known as an architectural theorist whose publications (including a blog, and Subnature, a book I highly recommend) explore peripheral, denigrated, or otherwise overlooked aspects of urban nature -- puddles, smog, and weeds -- in order to re-imagine the relationship between buildings, cities, and the environment.

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IMAGE: "Reconstruction of Midtown Manhattan c. 1975," and "Urban Ice Core/Indoor Air Archive," two speculative proposals by David Gissen that reconstruct New York City as the world center for intense indoor air-production and consider how that atmosphere might be archived.

In Gissen's own projects, he proposes a new kind of architectural preservation and reconstruction that engages with the intangibles of the urban environment. For example, his "Reconstruction of Midtown Manhattan c. 1975″ (PDF) removes the architectural shells of individual skyscrapers to show the city as a collective monolith of manufactured atmosphere, and his most recent installation, "Museums of the City" (currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, as part of the Landscape Futures exhibition), visualises the application of a museum's indoor language of display -- vitrines, frames, plinths, and lighting -- to the city itself.

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IMAGE: From "Museums of the City" by David Gissen, project rendered by Victor Hadjikyriacou.

Earlier this year, however, Gissen the architectural theorist assumed a new identity: Gissen the wine nerd. In mid-January, he started to tweet about his adventures in French wine under the handle @100aocs, and quickly gained a following of sommeliers, importers, and winemakers who enjoy his unusual perspective on their field. Last week, he unveiled the first fruit of his months of tasting: The Metro Wine Map of France, which re-draws the country's wine appellations as stops on a regional subway line.

I caught up with David by phone to talk about what this shift in cartographic aesthetic can reveal about the geography of wine. Our conversation, below, ranges from the dominance of Riedel glasses, the use of concrete in wine-making, and the best subway stop from which to embark on your own journey of wine exploration.

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Edible Geography: What originally inspired you to drink your way through one hundred different appellations?

David Gissen: Like a lot of people that get obsessive about wine, I had an experience. It sounds like a religious kind of thing, but it's true. I was at Chez Panisse and our server suggested that we have a particular bottle of wine. I hadn't heard of it, but, as I found out afterward, it was one of the most famous bottles by one of the most famous winemakers in France. It was a 2009 Morgon by Marcel Lapierre, who is considered one of the founding fathers of the natural wine movement in France, and it was his last vintage before he died.

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IMAGE: The 2009 Morgon by Marcel Lapierre, photo via.

I didn't know any of that when I drank this wine, but it tasted like nothing I'd ever had before. As many people have said about their first wine experience, I was tasting ideas.

I'd previously had experiences like that with art, which I became obsessive about, as well as with architecture, the history of cities, and with certain kinds of geographical ideas, and then I had it with wine.

After that bottle, I wanted to learn more about wine, but I didn't want to take a course. Instead, I thought that if I had a methodological framework for exploring wine and I shared it on Twitter, people would begin to be able to suggest things for me to try, and I would begin to assemble a course that responded to what I wanted to know, which was how a wine like that Morgon came about, how it was related to other wines, and what other wines were like it -- in other words, what other wines are concerted expressions of particular philosophies or places.

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IMAGE: David's tasting notes are stored on a Google Map.

Edible Geography: Within this framework of exploration, did you also already know you were going to keep your tasting notes on a map?

David Gissen: Yes -- I thought a map would be the best way to start to understand the way that certain wines taste like they are from certain places. I recently finished Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise, and he says that to learn wine you need a system. What he recommends is trying every Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon you can lay your hands on, from anywhere in the world. I wanted to get a geographic sense of French wine, and I think my system worked well for that.

The Morgon was the initial inspiration, but the other thing is that I was on sabbatical this spring, working on a book and working on my installation for the Landscape Futures exhibition, and I needed a system to relax. I'm something of a workaholic, and I knew I needed a system for my hobby if I was actually going to take time off work to do it. So, every other day -- well, some weeks, every day -- I would get a bottle from a new appellation and try it with my wife or with friends.

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IMAGE: Detail from The Metro Wine Map of France, designed by David Gissen.

Edible Geography: I followed your tasting journey vicariously on Twitter this spring, as you began to understand what "northern" or "southern" in a region might taste like. When did your Google map become a Metro map?

Gissen: I had been learning about French wine for about six or seven months, and it was the most intense, frustrating experience. A lot of people in the industry would tell me that to learn about the wines of France, you have to get to know the people who make them. The thing was, I had to budget carefully just to learn some basic geographic principles in French wine. I certainly don't have the budget to traipse around France and meet with French winemakers for nine months. You can do that if you're an importer, I suppose, but it seemed completely ridiculous for me to do.

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Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography, co-founder of the Foodprint Project, and director of Studio-X NYC, an urban futures network run by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning.

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