Last week I published a highly critical response to Oliver Style’s post on Wine Searcher entitled “The Noble Art of Wine Pretension”. He was generous to continue the conversation in the comment section of my post. His comment provides important insight into the thought behind his post and flags several issues that are worth thinking about. The first has to do with the question of wine’s cultural status.
My point was that – as you rightly point out above – if one accepts the “wine as cultural product” position, this means all wine. The French are mirroring the approach the Spanish took to this issue. But that, necessarily, means one has to lump Grands Chais de France with Ganevat or Gruaud Larose. To state that all wine is deserving of this high cultural status is contentious, but I’d say this position is snobbish because, by inference, all other alcoholic beverages are undeserving of this protection. Why should wine be special? What about the farmhouse brewers, cidermakers, cider distillers (and thus beer, cider, spirits)? There is a whiff of elitism here if we want to protect wine as a cultural product, but not admit that one cannot do that without denigrating every other alcoholic artisanal endeavour. And it is a position accepted and advocated by a lot of people.
This raises a question I don’t think we devote sufficient attention to and I agree with Oliver that an answer to it is often just assumed. Most wine lovers think there is something special about wine. That is why we’re wine lovers. But is this just personal preference or are there some justifiable reasons why wine has this status? I’m working on a book on just this question but I won’t burden you (or me) with the twists and turns of that argument in a short blog post. But I do want to look at the question using the conceptual framework that Oliver is using.
I haven’t lived in France or Spain so I have no deep understanding of their culture. But if they do think that all wine is a superior cultural product compared to other alcoholic beverages, I suspect it’s because wine has been so deeply woven into their history and has long been a source of international prestige. It’s part of their identity as French. But that of course would not give those of us who are not French a reason to give wine that exalted status.
I think one factor that makes wine an important cultural product is that it expresses something distinctive about the particular culture in which it is made. It’s the distinctive combination of geography and unique historical choices on the part of the people of Burgundy (or Barolo or the Mosel) that produce those wines. They cannot be made any place else. The same can be said of the peat bogs of Scotland for Scotch or the agave fields of Oaxaca for Mezcal. The same may be true of apples for cider although I’m not sure that apples are particularly sensitive to terroir. Maybe they are I simply don’t know enough about cider. The same cannot be said about beer although some hops growers are doggedly trying to make the case.
All artisan beverages are a product of culture in a general sense. They are made by people who live within cultures. The question is whether they express something distinctive about the culture they come from. I live in San Diego which is ground zero for the hoppy style of IPA that has become the hot item in the craft beer world. Is there something distinctive about San Diego that makes it prime territory for hoppy IPA’s? I doubt it. Most likely the early successful brewers of this style just happened to be in San Diego and attracted lots of local mimics who created a critical mass of brewers making that style of beer. And in fact good IPA’s are made throughout the U.S.
That said, it is nevertheless the case that artisanal products, wine, beer, spirits or ciders, can express the distinctive point of view of the people making them (if they have a distinctive point of view). That is why they can be interesting. So despite my love of wine I’m very reluctant to claim artisanal wines are somehow inherently superior to other artisanal products. (Industrial wine seldom counts in this discussion)
The issue really comes down to distinctiveness. What is distinctive (as long as it is of sufficient quality) is worthy of special treatment and I don’t think it snobbish to say so. (The question of what counts as snobbish will have to wait for another day).