Several weeks ago I summarized a very interesting and thoughtful article by MW John Atkinson entitled “Marketing Redux”. Here is the original article and here is my summary. John’s thesis was that, despite calls from modern marketing types who want to see change in how we talk and think about wine, we will not see significant changes in wine going forward. This is because inertia in the wine industry is structural—it takes decades to produce wine, realize a profit and gain expertise . It thus doesn’t lend itself to sharp changes in fashion. Stylistic changes in modern winemaking that occur periodically are minor compared to radical innovations in the past such as Champagne, Sherry and Madeira. Moreover, we are locked into the French model of what wine should taste like and this is unlikely to change except in minor ways as we discover new regions and varietals.
John’s argument was well made and I found it persuasive. However, for me, skepticism and critique are occupational hazards; we philosophers are a contentious tribe. And so the more I thought about it, the more I think there are alternative ways of thinking about this question of change in the wine business.
First, it is important to note that the examples of radical change in the past that John lists, the development of Sherry, Madeira, and Champagne, were initiated by accidents. The development of flor on the surface of post-ferment wine was a happy accident thanks to the native yeasts and specific climate of Andalucia, Spain. The estufa method of making Madeira was developed after a ship had returned to Madeira from a long trip—the owner of the wine discovered he liked the taste of wine that had been cooked in the high heat of the ship’s hold. The Champenois had plenty of experience with unwanted,explosive bottle ferments as their cellars warmed up in the spring. The key to the development of Champagne was the fact that the English and some French aristocrats decided they liked the bubbles.
The central component in the development of each new production method was its origin in happenstance and, importantly, the judgment of consumers that the accident was worth repeating intentionally. Thus, it wasn’t the flexibility, speed or responsiveness of the production process that encouraged development of alternative wine styles—it was accidents and people seeking new taste sensations. John is right that the slow pace of wine production limits rapid changes in fashion. But I’m not sure that tells us much about the possibility of future innovation which seems to be tangential to the normal course of production.
Accidents, of course, by their nature are impossible to predict.
John’s argument amounts to the claim that winemaking and winetasting have become so normalized ( or as Deleuze would say territorialized) that forces of change (Deleuzian lines of flight) cannot emerge. Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. I see three difference engines that generate potential for significant change: nature is unpredictable, many winemakers, especially artisan producers not beholden to accounting departments, love to tinker and experiment, and among wine lovers there is a significant, influential coterie devoted to finding new taste sensations. These three difference engines are destabilizing and embody significant potential for change.
I agree with John that we are still under the sway of the French winetasting model where the best of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Northern Rhone set a standard for what wine should be, a standard which the new world tries to emulate and surpass without substantial modification. But perhaps the natural wine movement represents an alternative. As John notes, simply doing without sulfur is not in itself a radical change in the image of wine. But as the examples of change noted above indicate, the potential for change resides more in consumer response than in production processes. As consumers become more enamored with off beat aromas and funky flavors we may find the image of wine changing toward a more adventurous cast where the taking of risks is its own reward.
Or taking a different angle, imagine a world in which the microbiome turns out to be the main input to terroir and can be manipulated to dial up organoleptic properties. The biodyanamic folks turn out to be right that flora and fauna in the vineyard have a profound influence on the grapes. And germ line modification becomes so precise that fine tuning flavor output becomes a fine art. Surely under those scenarios the current image of wine might shift with new possibilities that we cannot today imagine. (That marketing departments might be making these decisions is a terrible thought.)
None of this speculation is more plausible than the claim that the structural inertia of winemaking will prevent radical change. But betting on stasis throughout history has never been a reliable wager either.
For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives at Three Quarks Daily