Ideology and Wine: Why Arguments are Good for the Soul

semiotic_square_wine_lovers

The pop and sizzle of wine’s ideological battles reminds us that wine is not just a beverage. A few weeks ago Robert Parker took a swipe at what he calls the anti-flavor elite—sommeliers who promote obscure varietals and less extracted wines—and the firestorm of outrage still smolders where the singed meet to lick their emotional wounds. More recently In Pursuit of Balance—a group dedicated to promoting “terroir-driven wines—held their seminar on what proper Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should taste like, and were ridiculed by the inimitable Hosemaster of Wine as “likeminded people who understood that Balance in wine is truthfully defined as the interplay of fruit, marketing, self-promotion and faux philosophy.” As you can imagine, his comment threads lit up with praise  from the fallen whose pursuit of imbalance had left them stumbling about in an oaky, alcohol-induced stupor.

Tom Wark has been notably silent of late in his crusade against “natural wine” marketing, but the guru of “natural wines Alice Feiring posted the above breakdown of wine ideologies, entitled the Semotic Square of Wine Lovers, a marketing device commissioned by Bosco Viticulori to, I suppose, help wine producers and distributors identify their target market.

Feiring proudly wears the “radical” label and I suppose this chart captures something about the voices competing for attention in the wine world. But it leaves out one significant group of wine lovers–knowledgeable consumers who are just looking for great quality to price ratio. Most of my friends who drink wine can’t afford to be wine snobs, have trouble finding “natural wines, and find the appellation system unreliable. So they go to tastings and experiment with whatever seems interesting for a good price and thus may fall into any category on any particular day. I suspect this let-a-million-flowers-bloom-as-long-as-I-can-afford-it crowd is a significant portion of the wine market.

Many wine writers express a kind of world-weariness regarding these debates about what wine should taste like. Stephen Elliot writing for the Coinoisseur’s Guide to California Wine writes:

… I cannot but question the so very predictable agendas of the true-believing parties involved. Moreover, I have become increasingly dismayed at the “with us or against us” ethos of the same, and I wonder just who any of this is meant to serve. I am betting that the principals are delighting in the publicity. It sells books and subscriptions, but more than a few of us in the business are getting fed up…We have for some time heard from our readers that they are becoming bored with the whole shtick. There have been several steady and exceptionally angry internet voices whose pique for Parker borders on neurosis, and more than a few who, like myself, are tired of being made to feel the need to chose sides, have been equally disapproving of both….Please, dear people, by all means drink what you like, but we will all be better off when we reach the point that the success of one winemaking style is not dependent upon on another’s failing. Your wine of choice will not taste any better because you look down your nose at what someone else might like.

I don’t quite understand this complaint. Wine producers and their marketers will always seek to encourage people to drink the style of wine they produce. If customers are buying your wine then they are not buying someone else’s—there are winners and losers in any market and so success might entail someone else’s failure. Furthermore, to judge something as admirable or worthy because it has certain characteristics is to implicitly contrast it with something that lacks those characteristics. To prefer everything equally is to have no preference at all. So if you find yourself consistently preferring one style of wine over another what is wrong with expressing that preference, especially if you are a taste maker in the business of persuading others to share your point of view?

To those who insist we should just taste the wine and forget the ideology, I think this attitude misses the point of ideologies. The 19th Century literary critic Walter Pater wrote:

The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end….Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.

We develop ideological frameworks because they help us pay attention to what we, out of habit, might fail to notice. Rajat Parr’s constant advice to seek balance or Robert Parker’s diatribes in support of big flavors are attempts to get us to break old habits and look at wine from a different point of view (or in Parker’s case to return to our forgotten roots). Whether one agrees or disagrees with this, I fail to see what is morally objectionable about such advocacy.

We know from all the empirical evidence that beliefs and context influence what we taste. Theories about what wine should taste like are attempts to reframe our drinking habits; they make wine more interesting not less. If they become wearisome it is not because ideas are irrelevant but because they wear out their welcome after awhile and we need new ideas—we need more ideology not less.

30 comments

  1. That is a hilarious chart. Full of insight into all the foibles in the wine world.

    There is a reason why semiotics is dead and never produced much except academic papers and theses. It happens when scholarship looses its imagination and love of the subject and seeks to invent a future for itself.

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