“I can die happy now,” Jon Bonné chuckles to me. The writer spent almost a decade as the wine guy at The San Francisco Chronicle, and is now Managing Editor at Resy, having spent time at Punch, writing for Noble Rot, Decanter and many more in between. His latest book, The New French Wine, was released earlier this year and The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov dedicated an entire column to singing its praises – something he almost never does.
The hefty, two-part tome has been a long time in the making – almost a decade, in fact. The idea was a frivolous suggestion, casually agreed to over one too many drinks (“unsulphured Gamay in Oakland – as one does”) with his editor in 2014, soon after the publication of his seminal The New California Wine. But what was conceived as part of his quest for “the next thing”, to build on the momentum of his first book, rapidly spiralled.
“It's very hard to see a bigger picture of French wine because it is so overwhelming,” Bonné tells me over Zoom. Initially he’d envisaged a few trips, a project that would take a couple of years – but it “kept growing and growing and growing”.
“There was this much bigger story that I was sort of stumbling into,” the writer says. He gradually realised that there was an “enormous meta transformation” taking place across France – and this is what the book wrestles with. As he writes in the book’s introduction, “I imagined the new French wine would be about the undiscovered country – the cracks between known places.” But as he soon discovered, the new French wine was everywhere – and it took him nine years to piece it all together.
The work is split into two separate books – The Narrative and The Producers, the former the story behind the reference guide that forms the latter. The Narrative is a deep dive into the face of France and its winegrowing today, broken down by region, with break-out essays on topics such as natural wine, farming and the appellation system. It’s a rich tapestry of stories, interjected with the frank and striking photography of Susannah Ireland and occasional illustrated map by Francesco Bongiorni, reminiscent of Art Deco postcards.
For Bonné, the “new France” is about postmodernism, about “wilful rejections of the b******t of the past”. It’s about a (re)focus on site, about producers seizing their destiny and hunting for a more sustainable approach – in the vineyard, winery and beyond – although it’s far from that simple. “To understand French wine and to love it, you simply have to embrace its messy, self-contradictory, and, yes, complicated postmodern reality,” he writes. He points to Muscadet and Beaujolais as two of the most exciting and representative regions of this movement – both having entirely reinvented themselves within a generation. Producers here, he tells me, are “doing the work and focusing on terroir and technique and farming”, while Champagne “has completely transformed its vision of what its wine should be”.
Change is most importantly, however, “an inclusive force” – and looking at who did (and didn’t) make it into The Producers, Bonné’s definitive gazetteer of the nation’s movers and shakers, shines a light on this. It’s not a list of the vignerons he loves, it’s a pain-staking selection of those he deems significant and meaningful in the context of the movement – encompassing both more traditional names and those on the fringes. Take the Bordeaux chapter; you’ll find Pétrus, Lafleur and Pontet-Canet, as well as many less conventional, smaller and often natural-leaning properties such as Clos 19 Bis or Ch. Julia – with “Benchmarks” and the more up-and-coming “Names to Know” highlighted.
It’s fascinating – and fun – to see these two, seemingly opposing strands of France’s wine scene woven together. When I queried the inclusion of these elder statesmen of French wine, he highlighted how, for him, Pontet-Canet perfectly exemplifies the change in France today, with the forward-thinking Tesseron family handing the keys to previous cellar master Jean-Michel Comme to do “radical, radical s**t”.
Bonné deliberately chooses to champion those who have revved the engine of broader revolution – and those who reflect that revolution’s values. When it comes to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, for example, he describes how they “upheld the moral pillars of Burgundy and winemaking” and “use their power for good”; whereas one top Pauillac estate he vehemently tells me is “perpetuating the worst practices of the Bordeaux trade”. For him, “wine is a consumable” and, as 21st-century consumers, “people have a right to explore the values of producers”.
While Bonné certainly likes natural wine – and many of the movement’s figureheads feature in the book, he is far from an evangelist. When he first started thinking about the book, natural wine was different; “It hadn’t quite catalysed into this very specific cultural beast,” he says, a cultural beast born in Hackney, Bushwick or Paris’s 11th. He talks about the movement’s “sense of tragic fashion” and how, with its clique-y nature, it has “baked in its own expiration date”. There were, he tells me, producers that didn’t make the cut – those who act as a “cautionary tale” for natural wine. “There are wines that can be delicate to being transported. And then there are wines that are just f***ed up at the source,” he says frankly.
His outlook is broadly positive for France, the nation’s ongoing revolution and its vignerons, but the book also acts as a call to arms of sorts, for: “The enforcers of the old ways will be forced to adapt, or they will perish,” he writes.
It’s not a perfect book. With a work of this size (over 860 pages and 600,000 words), it is almost inevitably slightly out of date by the time it is printed – especially with the pace of change today. Lafleur’s entry, for example, talks of Acte but not Les Perrières. I’d also have loved to have captions for each of Susannah Ireland’s images, knowing where – and of whom – they were taken. But these are quibbles.
I can’t pretend to be unbiased. Bonné is one of my favourite wine writers. There’s a lightness to his phrasing, with dry humour and a palate that I tend to identify with – although I’d argue he’s become a little more funk-friendly over the years. His writing is intelligent without being arduous. Perhaps it’s because, like Andrew Jefford, he was and is a journalist first. What really fills his writing is a sense of joy, of almost gluttony – it’s still filled with the excitement that so many wine writers seem to lose, as they tire of bottle after bottle of exceptional wine. He’s still easily absorbed by the stories that make each one different.
For me, he doesn’t fit neatly into the critic box, even though it’s a term he uses to describe himself repeatedly in our conversation. “The notion of a critic has devolved to a place where you are simply handing out numbers,” he explains, but to him his work is about “criticism at a deeper level”. It’s about “being able to dive into the culture and come away with the insights and interpretation, and explain why certain wines really do matter”.
And it is this that makes The New French Wine stand apart. It isn’t just a wine book; wine is the lens through which Bonné observes a broader cultural shift. Whether you agree with everything he says or not, it’s a joy to read, hold and look at. It’s a book that will prompt conversation, prompt you to uncork bottles, prompt you to consider quite how complicated – and endlessly fascinating – France’s wine scene is. And is there anything more French than that?