by Peter Pharos

The Revolution Won’t Be Vinified

There is something vaguely onanistic in two contributors to the same website taking opposing views in back-to-back columns. As a reader, you are left with the sensation that instead of reading opinions, you are eavesdropping on an argument in the staff canteen. So, I was reluctant at first to put together a rebuttal to Guy Woodward’s latest piece on the Politics of Wine. But it was such a strong expression of a common category error, that I thought I ought to give it a shot. You can blame Tim for not having a staff canteen for us to sort it out.

The central thesis appears to be that politics influences wine drinking choices, the type of statement that “feels” right, mostly because we would like it to be, as it would make the world a simpler place. But when Guy tries to marshal evidence for his argument, what steps up are non-sequiturs.

Let’s take it from the start. The old Decanter troika of Steven Spurrier, Hugh Johnson, and Michael Brodbent MW is put together as evidence of conservative views begetting conservative drinking. By contrast, Andrew Jefford and Jon Bonné are presented as “liberal” (in the American sense, one can only assume), and their books an expression of this.

Which makes me wonder if we are talking about the same people. Spurrier pretty much singlehandedly put California, and, by extension, the whole of the New World, on the fine wine map, by setting up the most important wine tasting of the 20th century. Johnson’s magnum opus is the World Atlas of Wine, an exploration of any conceivable vinous corner of the planet, first issued at a time where most English readers weren’t even be aware that wine was made in more than a couple of countries. No disrespect to J&B, but compared to those revolutions, shining a spotlight on a few more producers in California and France isn’t exactly barricade storming. (As for Broadbent, can we at least acknowledge his support for minorities.  Has there been anyone that did so much to establish Indonesians in the world of fine wine?) The difference here isn’t between left- and right-leaning politics. It’s between people looking for the new and iconoclastic when young, and then slowly setting on their ways when old.

The muddle is similar when it comes to natural wine. I can see why it appears reasonable to think that natural wine has Green party overtones. It is, after all, a core part of the marketing associated with it. There is the start of a loose political narrative in saying that you want to make wine with no additives, and no modern methods, like they did in Piedmont three generations ago – see, you even use grandpa’s old concrete tank. But then that narrative makes a very tight turn when you say that, unlike grandpa, you won’t sell it for 2 euros at the bettola down the road to your fellow farmers, but for 200 dollars, in a concept bar restaurant in Dumbo, to a Cooper Union reject with a trust fund back west. The truth is that natural wine has left-leaning politically-conscious drinkers, like it has anti-vaxx and eco-fascist drinkers, collectors with more money than sense, and all the other accoutrements of the rest of the wine world. You can very well be a prominent natural wine commentator and have the politics of a Church of England parish priest.

The non-sequiturs keep raining on. Rioja is the province of centrist suburbanites (why? nobody knows!). Rhône, the drink of the liberal metropolitan elite (doubtless a surprise to many a bore of an uncle, with a fondness for Nigel Farage and a taste for Châteauneuf-du-Pape). But where it all really goes belly up, is when it comes nearer to home. Like many well-meaning English wine commentators, Guy is alarmed by the one trend in the wine world that is visibly, and often loudly, political: English wine. Always amusing to seeing people getting into contortions for a good cause. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to find someone to convincingly explain away all the flags and lions, staring at me from the labels with all the pacifism of a foot-wide poppy on the front of an 18-ton HGV. (My handy rule of the thumb for brand managers: unless you’re selling girl-band knickers, symbols associated with former colonial superpowers send mixed messages.)

Here is the category error that is the source of all woe: it is easy to mistake aesthetics for ethics, particularly for universal experiences. It is the reason one of the first associations we make about nations is with their food. It is also why xenophobes always allege lack of cleanliness as a trait of whichever group they are trying to exclude. (I can see the attraction: it is difficult to come from, say, a Greek or Middle Eastern background and perceive the infrequency and methods of English bathing as anything other than an expression of pure evil.) But, in the end, you are arguing about matters of taste. No wine choice will save your soul. What you eat and drink, like what music you listen to, or what car you drive, is primarily an aesthetic expression and, as such, has only the most superficial connection to your politics, in any meaningful sense of the word at least. Pretending otherwise, is just patting yourself on the back.

But maybe it is not quite like that anymore. Maybe in this late capitalism stage of what used to be called the Western world, all meaningful politics has been eroded away, and the only thing that remains is the facsimile of aesthetics. Maybe all we are left with, as we shop from Amazon and internalise TINA, is arguing about sulphites and bottle weights. At which point, I guess I was wrong all along.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

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