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
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
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
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.
• • •
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.
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
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.
IMAGE: David's tasting notes are stored on a Google 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
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
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.
On top of that, I was just very frustrated with the fact that some
basic ideas about the relationships between wine and geography that
seemed so simple to me, after my own tastings, were not actually
expressed simply anywhere. Part of the problem is the way the
geographical description of French wine relies on a very literal
languages of maps. What I mean by that is that if you look at almost any
book on French wine, the maps look like the kind of thing that an
explorer would use. They're extremely literal, cartographic views, so
that all the regions are drawn with very precise jagged-line boundaries,
and you're supposed to understand that this particular terroir stops
just below this particular Autoroute in France, for example, and so on.
My feeling was that you could explain some very basic geographical
ideas and principles about French wine if you used a visual language
that was relational and condensed. To me, that means the language of the
subway map. If you know the history of the Tube map,
you know that this method of drawing abstracted London, and abandoned
certain kinds of complexities of geography, in order to express more
simple ideas about how stations were positioned in relation to each
other and how different places within the system were interconnected.
My own condensed, relational map began with an extremely primitive line drawing. Then I realised that rather than using my Google map,
I was actually starting to refer to my own proto-subway map to decide
what I wanted to taste next. The subway map started informing the way I
I think this published version
just makes some very simple regional and geographical concepts
extremely clear to the beginner. And if you know a lot about wine, you
might -- I think some people have -- appreciate the way that I've
abstracted those concepts.
Edible Geography: Can you give some examples of
the kinds of things you can learn from your map that you can't learn
from other wine maps of France?
Gissen: One thing I only learned through making the
map was that all the "lines," with just a few exceptions, follow rivers
or coastlines. You would not necessarily understand, by looking at a
normal French wine map, the absolute centrality of the rivers, which are
the routes that the Greeks and Romans used as they were moving through
France and planting vines.
Some of the rivers also connect regions. For example, you can see how
the Burgundy and Rhône regions are connected through river systems.
Another thing I didn't know before doing my map, which would be so
obvious to someone who knew a lot about wine, is a lot of the South West
region's most famous wines extend along the river that connect it to
Bordeaux. The map shows that connection, up the Garonne or the Dordogne
into central Bordeaux.
The map also shows all the grape varietals, in dotted boxes -- a key
suggestion from my publisher, Steve De Long. Some of them extend over
from one region to the other, so you realise that there must be a
similar kind of terroir. For example, from Beaujolais into the lower
Loire, which is Cote Roannaise, is all planted in Gamay. Then, of
course, the mountain ranges and topographical features are all
abstracted and those show interesting connections as well.
That said, with typical maps that show the entire territory, you do
get a sense of how big each wine region is. Some wine regions are large --
Entre Deux Mers, for example. This map doesn't show you the difference
in production. But all maps do different things, and no map shows you
everything. This map has annoyed some French wine people because it
makes all the wines equal. Normal wine maps contain subtle cues that
tell you how fine different areas are, but on this map, Muscadet and
Volnay are exactly the same -- yet a benchmark Volnay costs $120 and a
benchmark Muscadet is $15.
Nonetheless, although this map is just sort of fun, you can also
learn a lot about wine from it. But I don't even care if people use it
that way -- what I love about it is that it pulls wine into the language
of cities and urban life.
Edible Geography: Why was it important to you to create an artifact that re-framed wine using an urban aesthetic?
Gissen: My experience of Marcel Lapierre's Morgon
was in an urban restaurant. Almost everybody I've spoken to who is
interested in wine underwent their conversion in an urban wine bar, at
an urban restaurant, or with wine purchased at an urban store. Our
experience of wine is really an urban one -- I think that may well be
historically true as well, back as far as the Greeks and Romans founding
towns and then planting grapes around them. And yet the first thing
that most people who love wine do in order to learn more about wine is
run out into the vineyard.
I'm interested in going the opposite route, and digging deeper into
the urban experience of wine. I feel as though there are so few objects
or visual material that currently express that. Wine is completely
overridden with a pastoral aesthetic -- and by that I also mean images of
the labour of one class for the enjoyment of a generally wealthier
class. That type of pastoral imagery makes up ninety-nine percent of the
visual culture of wine, whether you're talking about the coolest,
hippest importer's website or the cheesiest corporate wine outfit. The
urban sense of wine has yet to receive a visual language.
IMAGE: The pervasive romantic, pastoral imagery associated with French wine (this example via).
Edible Geography: With the idea being
that if you use a different visual language, then you open up the
relationship between wine and its environment for renegotiation...
Gissen: Exactly. What's curious is that beer or
liquor has almost no pastoralist imagery associated with it. It's an
agricultural product, like wine; it's brewed or vinted, like wine; so
why is the visual culture of beer or liquor dominated by the language of
urbanism and the city, while wine imagery is bucolic?
I'm already thinking about my next wine artifact. It's still an idea,
but I'm interested in perhaps making a concrete decanter. Hardcore wine
nerds are really into the effects that concrete vinification
has on wine, and the taste that concrete imparts into wine. There's an
irony here that I'd like people to think about more, which is that
concrete, which is obviously a material of urban origin, is being
embraced by the wine world because it imparts such interesting "natural"
flavours into wine.
Edible Geography: Excuse my ignorance, but what on earth is concrete vinification?
Gissen: A lot of the wines that I'm interested in have typically been fermented in large wooden vats called foudres.
Winemakers are increasingly experimenting with new materials in which
to ferment the grapes in, particularly for the longer fermentations, and
one of those materials is concrete. It's already used in some French
wines, and there's a group of vintners called the Natural Selection Theory in Australia who all make wine in these concrete-structure eggs.
The resulting wines have really interesting flavours -- it's difficult
to describe, but they taste very sharp, and somehow extremely natural.
Edible Geography: Is the concrete made to a special recipe or with local rocks and water, or is it just construction industry standard?
Gissen: I have no idea. What is food-grade concrete? It's bizarre.
The other idea that's behind the concrete decanter concept is to consider the way wine glass design is so dominated by Riedel.
You probably know the glass series I mean -- there's a balloon shape for
Bordeaux or Burgundy, and a more narrow shape for Chardonnay, and so
on. They revolutionised wine drinking and have been widely copied.
I appreciate drinking wine out of them, but I do wonder: Is the wine
glass as a project now over? Because one of the things I think that
Riedel has unintentionally fostered is an idea that wine is just data
-- it's just bouquet and colour and finish and mouthfeel, and the other
data points that professional wine tasters are looking at when they're
evaluating wine. But just because a professional taster is interested in
those things doesn't mean that the other ninety-nine percent of
humanity that drinks wine out of a glass has to have the Riedel
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
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.
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
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?
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?
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.