Jon Bonné

Jon Bonné

For over two decades, wine writer, editor and critic Jon Bonné has been documenting the twists and turns of wine’s fascinating world.

Last July, he joined us to host a workshop inspired by his latest work, the recently released The New French Wine, a book investigating the future of one of the world’s greatest regions.

After the event, we asked him a few things about wine.

Here is the full interview.

Jon Bonné

1.You're handed a wine list, what do you do?

First, I examine its structure. How are the wines organized? What’s the focus? Is there a focus? Is there a point of view? This is an old habit, but I tend to read lists forensically, in part because I used to — sometimes still do — review them professionally. And a wine list is a document that serves two purposes: One, it is a bill of fare, to tell you what you can have and for how much. And two, it’s a way of advancing a taxonomy of the wine world.

So, how does the author see the world? What matters to them? What information do they include?

The next thing I do, candidly, is examine the specific selections on the list. Ideally I’ll recognize a fair amount, but not everything. I want to see who’s done their homework. Are they seeking things out that intrigue them, or are they just putting out the same thing as all their friends? (Yes, we get it, you’ve heard of Château de Béru.) Again, this is about trying to understand the knowledge and viewpoint of whoever’s behind that list. Can I trust them? Should I trust them?

This has become ever more crucial to me because, I think, I’ve been scarred by the list-less ways of east Paris, which seem to have returned. That mode of “Tell me who you are and I'll tell you what to drink.” A sort of reverse Brillat Savarin as engineered by devious elves. I understand it reverses the power of the transaction, but candidly, it’s my wallet and my gullet.

OK, so I realize what you probably meant by that question: You’re handed a list. What do you order? But to be fair, I can’t do that part without first doing the other. If the list I encounter is, say, entirely composed of zero-zero Catalan wine, I’m going to order a cocktail. Again, I’m not here to be the funding mechanism for your personal journey to discover mousy garnacha.

I know I’m being extreme, but often I think what gets lost in this process is how a list is interpreted by its end users. Now, I’m an extreme example of that end user. But a list also needs to fulfill that bill-of-fare element, in the best way. It should be a hospitality document. Similarly, you encounter very good wine lists that are aggro by virtue of their pricing, which is a particular failure of hospitality. I mean, we know that we’re overpaying for wine in order to sit in your pretty space and watch some informal theater and be served in nice glasses. Just don’t abuse that.

So, once I’ve established bona fides and I’m pretty sure there will be something to drink, then the question is: What do I feel like? What am I eating, and will they be happy together? Is the writer of this list truly passionate about something in particular? What will make them joyous if I order it? Or, sometimes, I just find one specific thing that I really want, and that guides me.. Like, if I find a bottle of Jean-Yves Devevey, to pick a totally random example that’s top of mind, I’m going to order it, both because I love the wines but also as a show of respect for the person who did the work to find a vigneron like that, and share it with me.

2. How do you know the wine you're drinking is good?

Well, clearly, because I’ve ordered it! [laughs]

Look, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know more or less immediately if a wine is good. Wines usually aren’t ambiguous. Either one is good or it’s not — and I just don’t have time in life for the latter.

A good wine, to me, has a gestalt. It offers an interpretation of its origins and tries to show me something new and beautiful, amid the myriad forms of beauty. It should intrigue me, positively. It can be complex, and it doesn’t need to hit me over the head with its beauty; I’m fine with subtle charms. But it’s also important not to confuse nuance with failings. I’m thinking of an Italian pét-nat I was poured the other week in Paris, which was dank (not in a good way) and bretty, and kind of a fail. I suppose someone might have found it charming, but I kept thinking, why would someone decide this was their vehicle to spread joy? Is brett their love language? Do they want us all to live in the dank?

The thing with a beautiful wine is that it can come at you from literally anywhere. I would take a gorgeous bottle of Bourgogne Rouge — say, from Arlaud or Domaine Didon or Chanterêves — over a Musigny from de Vogüé. They have, as the French like to say, vibrations.

Where you tend to get into trouble is in that unfortunate cohort of wines that’s neither decisively good nor bad. A lot of industrially made wine falls in this category — less nowadays, but still. I’m not trying to stand up and wave the flag for paysan aesthetics. Or, maybe I am. But life is too short for wine that has nothing to say.

3. What is something fascinating you’ve been told over lunch?

I suspect most of them would put me in peril to repeat!

I did have some great, fascinating lunches with vignerons when I was reporting The New French Wine. I’m thinking specifically of one with Antoine Arena, who’d asked me to return the following day so we could continue our conversation. He drove us up to the top of Hauts de Carco, and broke out a ploughman’s lunch, if you will — wild boar salumi, some cheese, a bit of bread. And we dived deep into conversation about the roots of Corsican wine, and Corsica itself, and why its traditions are so distinct from the rest of France. That was a good lunch.

And now I’m thinking as well about a decadent lunch with Josh Jensen of Calera, in the final days of the Four Seasons in New York. Tartare made from the cart, and Cristal and Benoît Ente drunk by the Pool. Lots of gossip about Californian winemakers, and a good debate about the virtues of white Burgundy.

4. In whose company do you most enjoy drinking wine?

I consider myself fortunate to have a lot wine friends who are not those wine friends. Yes, they love wine deeply, but we’ve all played the game long enough to not sit around sounding like a message board. “I mean, the S bottling of Lapierre in 2014 was far superior.” Right? So it’s fun to drink wine with them. We get to put wine slightly in the background, which usually feels like the right place for it.

There’s also something truly wonderful about drinking wine with the new, postmodern cohort of Burgundians. The level of curiosity and intrigue that’s there today is so remarkable, and it unfolds in a very earnest, thoughtful way. Not that you don’t have that vibe with other wine-interested people. But the difference here is: These people are the ones literally toiling on the ageless dirt we all revere. When you see the relative lack of ego, the fascination with small wines, the desire to comprehend how place reveals itself, that’s magical. Going out to dinner in Beaune these days is a lot of fun.

5. Can you describe your ideal combination of wine, music, and setting?

These sorts of things tend to be very situational for me — all of it, not just the wine. Like, sometimes I need an hour of contemplation and low light, and a bit of, say, Lana Del Rey, or Nina Simone or Bowerbirds. Or God help me, maybe Górecki. I used to listen to Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 a lot when I was younger and was stoned and depressed most of the time. And nowadays, something like a bottle of Bea’s Arboreus will be the thing for that. Or some macerated thing from Alsace.

Or maybe I’m feeling buzzy, and so it’s mid-’90s Stereolab and brut zero Champagne, just to speak to my own weird little aesthetic twinges. Or maybe Mingus and gamay? Or NTM and one of those twangy bottles of Bourgogne Rouge while I’m cooking. Or I’m cooking in winter, and I want some cru Muscadet to go with Beirut or Foster the People.

I suspect I’m not being very helpful, but my synapses finding sublime little connections that I can’t explain in a Cartesian way. I just like what I like.

Setting is also pretty situational, although I will say, with the irony of someone who spends most of his life in big cities, that I find ever more pleasure to drinking wine out in the countryside. Somewhere tranquil and lovely, maybe an equinoctial evening outside with a bit of chill. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to be. I think about the fondness for Chassignolles, off in the middle of nowhere in the Auvergne. There is bliss to that being your endpoint.

6. What sort of food would you add to the equation?

Again, so so situational. I will say, I err either toward beautiful simplicity, or else a sort of complexity that, to be blunt, is often hard to find in Western cuisines. So, roast chicken and a great pinot noir, say, Littorai. That used to be my craving at Zuni Cafe, in San Francisco. Old Barolo and simply dressed tajarín. A great burger with many, many different wines.

But I also bristle at what can be a bias toward leaning on the cooking of the places where wine traditionally has come from. So right now, I’m drinking a bit of Haut-Médoc (Moulin de Tricot, since you asked) with Sichuan braised lotus root. I will always be a sucker for the Cabernet family and certain modes of northern Chinese cooking — the málà of SIchuan, Shaanxi, wherever spice and smoke and capsaicin come into play. And then there’s the bonkers interplay of, say, Deiss’ field blends with Punjabi cooking. Or take that bottle of pinot and put it with a great falafel and hummus.

I find a lot of would-be pairing wisdom to be just a parlor game. And complexity on complexity seems to confound people. But really, we all get out of this alive.

7. What is the most memorable bottle of wine you’ve drank?

OK, c’mon. Not my first rodeo! I have played this game too many times, never successfully. Again, I am a big proponent of situationality. And not to deny anyone their grand moment with a grand wine, but I find this line of thinking leads to disappointment. You end up with two types of answers. Either, someone brags about the Very Important Bottles they’ve drunk, or they delivery a maudlin little homily about this glass of rosé they once had on the Mediterranean coast, and how wine is really about the simple pleasures.

Now, look, I’ve had my share of both. They are almost inevitably about the people I’m with and the situation, and especially with the former, I’ve been insanely fortunate to have had more than my fair share of definitional moments.

8. Where did you drink it?

Like what? Like being handed a magnum of Jayer Cros Parantoux at Thanksgiving one year by Martine Saunier, his U.S. importer. She asked me to open it, which is clearly no pressure whatsoever. And, yes, it was pretty epic with turkey and stuffing, even if Jayer’s style is pretty much philosophically opposed to what I like. There was tasting the 1972 Mondavi Cabernet, with Carissa and Tim Mondavi, one of the only wines from my birth vintage to not suck. (One of the others was the 1972 Musar, with Serge Hochar, so I should probably quit while I’m ahead.) Or tasting Rayas in the cellar with Emmanuel Reynaud, marveling that he hadn’t kicked me out. Or trying, unsuccessfully, to share a bottle of 1976 Dom Rosé with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, two tables over late one night at Lucali.

But there’s also the bottle of Chablis I found in a random restaurant in Vientiane, which made dinner just that much more pleasant. Or the bottle of Joguet Chinon I shared with my dad a few weeks before his death, the last time I saw him alive.

Point being, I guess, that I don’t want to feed the myth of the miraculous bottle. I don’t save special bottles as much as I used to. It’s wine. They will almost certainly make more.

9. Is there a characteristic you look for in a wine and in a friend?

Is it too trite to say complexity, again? I like complicated wines, and I like complicated people.

I don’t make friends —like, real friends — very easily. I’m an esoteric guy and I take a while to share my emotions. And I’m choosy about who gets to see them. Is it the same with wines that I make a connection to? It might be. I know that people who’ve watched me taste find me pretty stoic during the process. But when I find a connection, on either front, I like to think I do stick by it.

10. What is your approach to drinking?

These days, my approach is ever more to let it be a part of moments when it can bring me joy. That’s likely a holdover lesson from the pandemic, when drinking was a means of coping, for a lot of people. Martinis at 4:30 p.m. and straight on ‘til morning. I’m not making apologies for that, because if you didn’t happen to go through the hell of COVID in New York — and maybe London, or another city where you were surrounded by suffering and largely stuck indoors — you might not have felt the specific, crazy mix of isolation and claustrophobia.

So these days, when I switch off the analytic part of my beverage brain, I just want to find little moments of pleasure and respite in wine, or any other drink. I no longer feel the need to finish a bottle that’s meh. There’s always more wine to open.

11. Do you apply this approach in other aspects of life?

I try to. One thing I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older is that I have a high tolerance for unhappiness; this especially can be the case when you don the guise of being a Person of Influence. You think part of your role is to deprive yourself of your own pleasure in order to have clarity in tastemaking. You become suspicious of other peoples’ motives.

Now I just don’t feel like burning many more days on things that don’t spark joy, as they say.

That’s not to say I’m not willing to do hard things when I need to. I mean, eight fucking years to get The New French Wine done! I think I demonstrated I’ll stay the course, even when it’s lonely and overwhelming. I always knew it was meaningful work to do. But I also don’t have to model my life around that grind.

So that’s kind of the barometer I work with these days.

12. What shall we open next?

Right this moment? My magic 8-ball says meunier-based Champagne, like maybe some Mignon or Moussé, or maybe Adrien Renoir’s Les Vignes Goisses. But hey, ask me again in a sec, and you might get Bordeaux Clairet from Massereau. Or some Nicolas Carmarans. Or Patrimonio Blanc.

I mean, no one ever called me constant.

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