How Wine Became Metropolitan: An Interview With David Gissen

I guess I'm interested in objects that will enable us to taste wine in a way that enables other experiences besides pastoralism or data.


IMAGE: Riedel's varietal-specific glasses.

Edible Geography: When you are drinking wine, what would you say you are experiencing?

Gissen: It totally depends. When I'm in a restaurant and I'm drinking wine, I actually try not to think about it, because it becomes all-consuming. When I'm at home, I try to taste through a territory. I'll get three bottles from a particular region but perhaps different soil types, I taste them, and I try not to get too pretentious about it. My tasting notes are completely comparative -- they're about differences and similarities to other wines, rather than things such as finish and mouthfeel.

Edible Geography: I know this started as a hobby, but how does thinking about the relational geography of wine fit with your other work re-articulating the relationship between buildings, cities, and overlooked forms of nature?

Gissen: First of all, when I hang out with wine people, the only thing that's critical to them is what kind of wine I'm interested in, and I love that complete lack of professional obligation on my part.

On the other hand, during a lecture I gave this spring in Australia, I was talking about an architect whose work you and I both love, Philippe Rahm. I was discussing his design for underground houses that would bring up the air of the earth, and the way in which he described the house as having a terroir -- a brownish taste of the earth that the people who lived there would be able to sense in their noses and minds.

Afterward, my wife came up to me and said, "Oh my god, your wine thing is not a hobby. It's part of the same thing!" Wine is just an excuse to get all that funky shit in my mouth -- all the dirt I love. My appreciation of wine is so completely subnatural that now when we go out to restaurants, I can never do the ordering. I love these dirty, filthy wines, and my non-wine friends would be completely repulsed.

Philippe Rahm Underground Houses 600.jpg

IMAGE: Underground Houses, Philippe Rahm.

Edible Geography: I wanted to return to the idea of terroir, which is a hotly contested word. I think that you are perhaps on the side of people who think that terroir has a lot to do with a cultural relationship to the land, as opposed to being purely an expression of meteorological or a geological phenomena. 

Gissen: I get into so many arguments with people about this on Twitter, because they say terroir is nature and I find that absurd. After all, someone chose to plant grapes somewhere or chose to brew something somewhere. I think Philippe Rahm's way of thinking about terroir is much more interesting -- it's less rooted in the thing and more rooted in the mind of the person experiencing it. In his underground houses, the idea of terroir involves provoking the ground in some way -- provoking something out it for the experience of the inhabitant of the house. In other words, terroir is not something that's necessarily innately perceptible. It's produced through human -- in that case, architectural -- intervention.

Of course, terroir is still something specific, even if it is produced by humans. I went to a screening and lecture by a guy who is really into wine, and he said two sentences about terroir and beer that completely fascinated me. He said that because of the nature of the brewing process -- the way that the yeast and the hops are mashed and so forth -- it's very hard to have a sense of place in beer, but that the Trappists deliberately use open-vat fermentation so that insects, bacteria, and lady bugs, in particular, can get into the vats and give the beer a sense of where it came from.

In that case, terroir doesn't come from the ground, so it lacks that whole romantic notion. It's produced from spores in the air, which I find fascinating.


IMAGE: Flying Fish Exit 11, an American Wheat ale designed to refresh those leaving the Turnpike at Exit 11 to head to the Jersey Shore,via the Scranton Examiner.

Edible Geography: Speaking of beer, the taste of place, and a lack of land-based sentimentality, there's a brewery called Flying Fish that's creating a beer for each exit on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Gissen: That's awesome.

Edible Geography: It's part gimmick, but it's actually pretty interesting, and the exits I've tried taste great. In this case, I suppose, the Turnpike is like the rivers of France. While we're on the topic of the relationship between terroir and the built environment, I notice that you've included architectural landmarks on your map -- why?

Gissen: The story behind that is that my publisher sent me a link to different subway maps from all over the world. I looked at them all really carefully, and there was one of Prague's subway system that used cartoons of buildings and different landmarks to describe the different areas of the city.

I loved that idea, so I borrowed it. First of all, it changes the view: with the subway map, it always seems as though you're looking down, but with the addition of these elevations, you're now getting two different perspectives blended on the one map.

Then, because all the buildings I chose are from different periods, there's also this great sense of movement and travel and time -- you realize that you're looking at a place that has a history.

And, of course, there's also the urban reference. I only included one château, and I refused to include any farmhouses. The Unité's on there, Richard Rogers' Tribunal de Grand Instance, Carcassonne, a cathedral -- I mean, how many wine maps have a socialist housing project on them?

Prague metro+tram-lines-day 600.jpg

IMAGE: A Prague subway map, via.

Edible Geography: That may well be a first! So, where would you recommend someone to start  their own journey through the wines of France?

Gissen: Start with the Loire, going west to east. The thing about wine is that it's so crazy expensive, and for most regions you need to go in with people to get stuff, but the Loire is cheap. For $10 you can try an interesting Muscadet, and because it's right there next to the ocean there's this intense salinity. I've never had a Muscadet that doesn't have a salty flavour. Move toward the center with the Chenin Blancs, which are very stony. Most of the wines in the centre are made the same grape -- Cabernet Franc -- so you can notice subtle and interesting variations in the taste of wines from different areas. And then if you move all the way over toward Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, the soils return again to prehistoric ocean, so you start getting flinty, salty tastes again. It's amazing.

Meanwhile, if you detour toward the northerly Chenin Blanc appellations, like Jasnières, you can experience altitude too. They're grown at a slightly higher elevation, so they have unusual flavourrs. The Coteaux du Loir is a really bizarre wine: the two that I've had taste like sweetcorn.

And with the exception of Sancerre, you can try a good example of everything in the Loire for $12 or $15.

Edible Geography: What happens after France? Will you explore new wine territories?

Gissen: I don't know. I do feel as though there's something that really interests me in re-contextualising wine as urban. At the end of the day, though, the map is fun. It's something to enjoy visually and to help map out a plan for drinking some interesting stuff. And it helps keep my life weird.

This post also appears on Edible Geography.

Presented by

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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