by Dariusz Galasiński

Neither New, Nor A World

I live in Poland, which means my home is in Eastern Europe. Most of us would take this as a simple statement of fact, hardly giving it another thought. Many are surprised to learn therefore that Austria, a country firmly placed in Western Europe, is slightly more to the east than the undeniably Eastern European Chechia. Prague is further to the west than Vienna. Slovenia and Croatia are way more Eastern European than western Greece, which lies due east from them.

Words and phrases describing places are never simply about facts, rather they are a manifestation how we see the world and our neighbours. Indeed, we need Eastern Europe because, as Edward Said teaches us, the opposition between west and east is a crucial fault line in how the world (and Europe) is constructed. Needless to say, west is good and modern, east is backward and undesirable. And we need Eastern Europe close to its western counterpart, so that we can be reminded of the West’s greatness. Incidentally, in Poland, we still ‘go to the West’ when we cross our western border.

This longish introduction takes me to how the world is represented in the wine industry. Today’s hotly debated opposition is the one dividing wine into the New and the Old Worlds. Below I offer my comment on the two phrases, bracketing off the issue of whether the distinction makes viticultural or oenological sense (see the reference to Banks and Overton’s article below).

The idea of the opposition between the two worlds is attributed to Amerigo Vespucci (after whom America is named), who ‘discovered’ a world beyond the known one (at the time: Europe, Africa and Asia). Both Vespucci’s phrase and the subsequent use of it referred to the Western Hemisphere and particularly to the Americas. In the world of wine, however, the phrase means something else. It also refers to Australia, New Zealand, and, try to imagine it, South Africa and China.

What is the problem, then? The phrase ‘New World’, one adjective, one noun, is barely anything to speak of. Consider, however, that the adjective ‘new’ is relational. It means that something is new only for someone. If I learn something I didn’t know about, it’s new to me; if you already know it, it’s old news. And here we have the first significant issue with the phrase ‘New World’.

By using the phrase, we perpetuate the initial Eurocentric perspective imposed on the Americas. What’s outside Europe continues to be new because it was new to us. We see the world from our perspective, forgetting that the land reached by Vespucci and others was only new to them. To those who already lived there, the region was old news. So much so that they ‘discovered’ us at the same time as we ‘discovered’ them. It is worth adding perhaps that the two discoveries were not a blessing at all; the diseases we brought combined with our violence killed most of them.

The Mexican scientist, Fernanda Adame, makes the point more forcefully, objecting to her country being called ‘new’ because of the colonisation that took place five centuries ago, finding the term offensive. It reminds her, she continues, of being of considered lazy and of the wrong skin colour, as compared to the right-coloured Spaniards.

And here we come to the word ‘world’ in the phrase. ‘New World’ reminds me of another phrase: ‘different world’. When we talk about living in a ‘different world’, we set up a stark opposition between us and them. We position us and them as living in different realities. And this is indeed the function of the term ‘New World’. We use it as a permanent reminder of how different we, in Europe, are. We and them? Different worlds.

If you wonder whether my interpretation goes too far, consider that Africa and China are subsumed under the phrase. Does it not take your breath away that the cradle of civilisation, Africa, can be represented as a new world? Is it not mind boggling that China, one of the world’s oldest civilisations, is considered new? Do you not find it simply offensive that the civilisations of Australia or New Zealand, which are counted in millennia, are referred to as new? The phrase ‘New World’ is not about newness.

The wine industry has an answer though. We mean something different when we use the phrase ‘New World’. We only speak of wine and how it is made. Indeed, Sara Neish is very explicit in talking about wine traditions, as is Fintan Kerr in his recent plea to retain the phrase. Such an argument poses a significant question: can ‘New World’ refer only to wine? Can the wine world have their own language outside how the rest of us speak and write? The answer is simple: no.

Did you know that words such as ‘cretin’ or ‘idiot’ used to be medical terms? Medicine gave up on them because the rest of us found them offensive. And today we cannot imagine medics using the wine world’s argument. Hey, they would say, we mean no harm when we say ‘moron’ or ‘imbecile’ (also ex-medical terms); we do not want to offend anyone. They are just practical terms. Thankfully, medics now talk about intellectual disability; they found a different way to describe reality.

And so should the wine world. Wine does not have its own language. You do not set the rules of speaking (or writing); you use the language that belongs to all of us. Indeed, I think that if there is a wine language, it is how we, wine dilettantes, speak, not you, wine professionals. And you cannot bracket off the connotations, the associations that come with a phrase.

One of the key aspects of human communication is that whatever can be said (or written) can be said differently. The way we speak, some linguists call it discourse, is a system of infinite options we can use for a variety of communicative and social goals. So, if some of you want to continue stressing the difference between what is now referred to as ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ wine, well, find a different way.

You could perhaps start with questioning the assumption that the criterion must be geographical. Must it? If so, then perhaps it’s more about north and south, west and east (yes, yes, Europe would be east, which would be hilarious!). But perhaps there are other criteria too.

Whatever you choose, remember that every phrase, every classification will partly reflect the world, but first and foremost it will reflect your assumptions about it. There is no escape: that’s the very nature of discourse. So, as you read this piece, reflect on the assumptions you make and the extent you can live with them. Then ask yourselves the question whether others can or should.

Bibliography

Adame F (2023) Dear scientist: stop calling America the ‘New World.’ Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00992-4
Banks, G. & Overton, J. (2010) Old World, New World, Third World? Reconceptualising the Worlds of Wine, Journal of Wine Research, 21 (1), 57-75.
Kerr, F. (2024).: A plea to retain the Old World-New World distinction in wine. https://winemag.co.za/wine/opinion/fintan-kerr-a-plea-to-retain-the-old-world-new-world-distinction-in-wine/.
Neish, S. (2023) Court of Master Sommeliers ditches outdated wine term. Drinks Business, 14 December 2023. https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2023/12/court-of-master-sommeliers-ditches-outdated-wine-terms/#.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Pantheon Books.


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