by Peter Pharos

Postmodern Wine

If you are wondering why Threads has not caught up with Twitter yet, the answer is Direct Messages. A lot is made of the performative nature of social media posts, but the real action is in the hushed comments in the stalls. The wine world is particularly good at creating opportunities for those. Wine news tends to be unexciting and formulaic (a land purchase here, a new label there), but wine people’s pronouncements flirt with the vaudeville with wonderful frequency. Life is such that in all its walks everyone is a fraud to an extent. Yet, in wine the decoupling of words and actions is now almost entirely complete. I think of it as living in wine’s Postmodern period.

The Classical period is easy to recognise. It had a fixed set of rules, which were generally shared, easily understood, and occasionally observed. It was big on stories, usually stories of eccentricity and charm. It had a uniform aesthetic and a rigid hierarchy, drawing in equal parts from tradition and mysticism. It also had a finite corpus and a bounded canon; you could learn anything worth knowing in a few weeks, and drink everything worth drinking in little less than a year. Developments were few and easy to follow, and so were the gatekeepers. This is also the period, by the way, that still informs almost everything the layperson thinks they know about wine.

Then, somewhere in the early 1970s, the first Modernist tendencies appear. Wine modernism was techno-optimist: it believed technology and, on a good day, science, were the answer. It too had a set of rules, indeed more than before, but it claimed to strive for consistency and rationality in those. The aesthetic framework and the accompanying hierarchy were also largely agreed, but they were more diverse and more amenable to change. That was partly because wine modernism was inquisitive and open to the new. But it was also because it was more businesslike and money driven. The economic aspect of its rationality considered that the customer is always right, and the one that proves right the maximum number of customers while making the most profit wins.

A revolution of wine modernism was its internationalism. It didn’t quite achieve knocking the old aristocracy off its perch. (That wouldn’t be easy to do; they understood capitalism since the days of the original laissez-faire.) But it did lead to a multi-polar world of sorts. It also expected wine producers to sing for their supper. Old mythologies worked only up to the point they could be attractively repackaged. Market success required attention, attention required excitement, excitement required winners and losers, winning and losing required someone to keep score. In the new rationalism, your wine was exactly a 93 out of a 100. (Market solutions soon followed. For a modest sum you could sign up to a competition where wine Oprahs would make sure that you get a gold, and you get a gold, and you get a gold.) The same mechanism brought a democratisation, if of the consumerist variety. The accoutrements of haute wine culture were now the everyday: your Pizza Express Montepulciano came with lashings of cherries and a hint of spice.

Modernism’s progress was inexorable; its conclusion was deterministic. Technology and technique bring economies, which bring massification. Internationalisation breeds uniformity, which breeds conformity. Never before were you able to select a wine from so many different places, from so many different grapes, which felt in so many ways the same. This wasn’t solely a winemaking outcome. Wine drinking is a multi-factor experience, but wine modernism inevitably ensured that all multiple factors aligned. There was the same intent, the same ambition, the same narrative, the same thing.

The last great wine movement, natural wine, was modernism’s reductio ad absurdum. Natural wine was simultaneously technical (you need a very solid understanding of winemaking and viticulture to make decent natural wine) and anti-technological. Simultaneously fiercely local, and unnervingly globalised. (For all the talk of tradition and terroir, its central nervous system seemed to consist of a few postcodes in a handful of the usual trendsetting metropolises.) It was ostensibly a rebuke to marketing, while having the strongest, cleverest marketing strategy of the 21st century – and partially inherently, unconsciously so. But natural wine’s real revolution was its uprooting of the conventions of wine aesthetics. This attack was not singular, but across a spectrum. On the most accessible end, there was a welcome counterweight to two decades of unbridled celebration of strawberry jam. In the middle, there was a no man’s land between fermented grape, apple, and grain. And, on the most risqué end, there was an inexpressive winemaker, handing you a glass of clearly faulty wine, insisting, Magritte-like, that ceci n’est pas une altération.

And since then…nothing. The past 15 years can be summarised as everything that happened before, but more so. Parkerised wines with improbable narratives have found their conclusion in 19 Crimes. Elite wines have gone from selling to the 1%, to selling to the 0.1%. There is still an attempt to pitch natural wine, now fully incorporated into the mainstream, as some sort of perpetual revolution, but it has all the authenticity of a Civil War reenactment. If there has been a development, it is the mimicry of the old hierarchies at a regional level. More impressive than Burgundy going for €1,000 a bottle is the number of relative upstarts selling for €100. Fine wine now operates on two levels: besides the international league, you have all the national ones.

Wine then, has turned fully postmodernist. There is no canon, and no real rules. Traditions and hierarchies are everywhere, as a pastiche. Narratives are simultaneously historical and ahistorical. Critics have never felt more irrelevant and more ubiquitous. The discourse feels superficial and concocted. This week’s bane of influencers is next week’s promoter of big brands. Last season’s diligent scholar is this season’s ardent salesperson. There is a prevalent feeling that, as long as some money is still being made, everyone is in on the joke.

The purest expression of wine postmodernism is its response to the twin challenges of the era, climate collapse and social justice. You can say what you want to say about the great estates and commentators of old; they never used their pulpit to tell us how Syrah will stop the rise of fascism in Europe. The simulacra of action that are so prevalent in wine today, have something weirdly commendable about them, if only for their performative merits and impeccable poker faces. One keenly wants to hope that the perpetrators are at least conscious of the artistic effect and not drinking their own vinous Kool Aid. Maybe it feels like the only available route when people are caught between the drink’s cultural omnipotence and its real-world total impotence. The main thing is that the machine keeps on keeping on.

Reader! If you are unfamiliar with the blabbering of the wine chatterati and waded into this by accident, if you stuck to the end because you were wondering where this is going, and now things feel unbearably bleak, despair not! For all the intellectual cul-de-sac we find ourselves in, there has never been a better time to drink wine. But that’s a story for another day.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

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