by Tom Hewson

Cultural Elevation

I couldn’t find the right polish for my tan suede shoes that morning, so they’re looking a bit unloved as they sink into the expensive taupe carpet. Nobody is sitting on the gaudy furniture, all tumbling scrolls and lion’s feet, although there’s not really enough space for everyone to stand, either. Someone flicks a rock-hard fake nail against a glass.

“We’d like to invite you to view the exhibition before lunch is served.”

I’m the first to take up the invitation. Surrounding the long table set for lunch is a series of 20 easels, each mounted with black-and-white photographs. My place is on the other side of the table, meaning I will have to go around the whole room, drawing on the siphon of guests to get everybody seated.

I reach the first easel. It’s harvest time, shot in black and white, and grape shears are being carefully manoeuvred through wires as what looks like evening sun ripples through the autumn canopy. The harvesters are quietly contemplative.

The harvesters are also, notably, topless models. The bunch of grapes in question looks like it may have been awaiting its fate for some time, like Goya’s resistance fighters being asked to wait against the wall until the light is just right. I take a quick scan of the room, looking at the 19 easels standing between me and my seat.

The next photograph confirms what seemed overwhelmingly likely. This time our underdressed workers are tackling a tractor load of grapes. I worry about wasps. I also worry about what to do: should I just stroll around the room to my seat, and risk shocking the winery staff with my philistinism? Or stop and look at each, and risk feeling like the sort of man who has a subscription to the Pirelli calendar?

At least, though, these young women are actually doing something related to winemaking. The photographer seems to have hit more of a snag when they reach the winery; the models aren’t actually equipped to use any of the equipment. The best thing to do, they decide, is simply to model – let’s recline on a barrel and make a riff on overflowing airlocks, pointing up to the ceiling. Let’s cool down by a nice stroll in the cellars, shot from behind. How about a spot of riddling?

This happened in 2023. OK, so it wasn’t Champagne – and readers might like to guess which country was responsible – but it scratched at an awkward mole we all know is there; wine producers are not usually very good at art, and sparkling wine producers, many with marketing budgets straining on the leash for high-minded flights of fancy, have both motive and opportunity for the grandest crimes.

At another recent launch the assembled press had to stand around for almost 45 minutes – without any wine – looking at an ‘exhibition’ which included sealed vials of the wine we were there to taste. At another, the producer had commissioned an artist to make a painting. It was good; there was a recognisable visual language, referencing a sort of hyper-real colourism, fauvism…someone that could really paint. The subject, unfortunately, was the actual bottle of wine we were tasting. It was like a musician commissioning album cover art of the disc inside; literalism ad absurdum.

The pièce de resistance, this year, came via a ludicrously-ambitious light-show, projected onto the side of an historic mansion in a small Champenois village and accompanied, long past midnight, by a booming, festival-volume electronic soundtrack. The laptop crashed during the first run, the house suddenly covered with a blue screen of death and an apologetic computer manufacturer’s logo. Swearing was heard from behind an evergreen. After a reboot, the soundtrack started again – but the villagers, as I feared, were not happy, and a full-blown fracas was soon underway behind the treeline, with French being bellowed that tested the limits of my colloquial vocabulary. Children were sleeping. Dogs were petrified. The blue screen returned.

When wineries get big, and rich, art-yness becomes a form of internal massage. The end result is so often what Susan Sontag would call high camp; something that is not art, but believes itself to be art with absolute seriousness. Something to ease the dysphoric unease, in the boardrooms and halls of stainless steel, at the thought that what is being made is a product, not a concept.

Perhaps we should be thankful, though, for a few doomed attempts at cultural elevation. In the end, their jarring awkwardness reminds us that even the most highbrow wine doesn’t make sense without a dose of frivolity. Sod the wasps; perhaps our frolicking harvesters had the right idea, after all.

Photo by Miriam Rodergas on Unsplash