Does the New World/Old World Distinction Marginalize Non-Europeans?

new-world-old-world-wine-mapIssues about social justice have become a hot topic in wine media as the wine industry grapples with charges of sexism and racism. James Sligh’s article in Punch is the latest in the genre.

His thesis is that the canonical distinction between new world and old world wines betrays a misunderstanding of the real history of winemaking that marginalizes the contribution of non-Europeans to that history. The view that fine wine is a European invention is a colonial myth, he writes, “braided tightly into wine’s history, perpetuating the concept of its heritage as exclusively European, European culture as exclusively white and history itself as immutable.”

To support his thesis he points to the discontinuities between modern winemaking and traditional winemaking using Burgundy as one example. Some wines emerging out of Burgundy today bear little relation to what is commonly accepted as Burgundian in the wine canon, which itself is radically dissimilar from anything the Ancient Romans, 13th Century monks, or 19th Century vignerons might have produced. The appellation system which governs regional winemaking in France was not put in place until the 1930’s, and it radically changed winemaking in those regions. Thus, the claim that modern winemaking is continuous with old world traditions is a myth. Furthermore, before the modern appellation system was put in place, it was common practice to use wine from Spain, Southern France, or even Algeria to fill bottles labeled as Burgundy.

In summary, he argues that the old world/new world distinction ignores the winemaking traditions in the new world that date back to the 1500’s in the U.S. It ignores the non-European regions that have made wine for millennia, and “enables a hierarchy that places European wines before everything else, effectively dividing the people who make and drink the wine into those to whom it belongs and those who are trespassing.” [To reinforce Sligh’s point, notice how misleading the map I posted is. A quick perusal shows it is missing Mexico, Canada, Uruguay, Lebanon, India, Scandinavia, and Great Britain.]

Sligh is right to point to our questionable use of the idea of tradition in the wine world. We think of wine as deeply informed by tradition. But traditions are highly selective, “just so” stories—speculative histories of doubtful validity. Today, when we talk about traditions, we’re really only referring to “traditions” that are less than 100 years old, because there is so little continuity between modern winemaking and winemaking prior to the 20th Century. The “old world” anticipates the “new world” by only a few decades.

However, I think Sligh loses the thread of his argument in being less than clear about causal influences in the wine world. If these historical stories we tell ourselves identify real lines of causal influence, they are more than just mythologies. There is a difference between, on the one hand, arguing that wine has a complex history that is edited out of the stories about traditions we tell and, on the other hand, arguing that a particular causal thread in that story is false. It is correct that wine has been made in non-European regions including the Americas for centuries. But how much influence did they have on European winemaking in what we now call Western Europe? He mentions the use of American rootstock in combating the 19th Century phylloxera epidemic. But the rest of this broader story he wants to tell is missing from his account.

More importantly, if you want to understand the development of the modern wine industry in the U.S. (and I assume the rest of the “new world” although I am less familiar with those histories) you can’t edit out the contribution of France (and to a lesser extent, Italy and Germany). As I explain in some detail in Beauty and the Yeast, when the U.S. emerged from Prohibition, we largely adopted the French model of winemaking and wine appreciation. There is a reason why, out of the thousands of available grape varieties used for winemaking in some part of the world, the most popular are French varietals. It may or may not be because they  make the best wine. But it surely is because the French deeply and pervasively influenced winemaking in what we call the “new world.”

As winemaking proliferates throughout the world, a warming planet emerges as a force driving change, and wine regions engage in rampant experimentation, that French model is under threat. Sligh is right when he  claims “The framework we use as a cornerstone of classical wine education doesn’t map onto a globe so nuanced as ours.” But for purposes of understanding how we have arrived at our current moment in time, we can’t ignore the influence of mid-20th Century French, Italian, and German winemaking and wine appreciation. Calling them “old world” may be misguided but those distinctive terroirs and winemaking styles nevertheless mark a difference from the warmer regions that constitute the so-called “new world.”

Sligh’s argument is unsuccessful if he is arguing we can understand wine in the so called “new world” without reference to Western Europe. But he is right that the wine world that is now emerging, and that has existed in the past, is much wider and deeper than that story that focuses on Europe. Our wine education is not wrong; it’s just too narrow. The old world/new world distinction doesn’t apply outside that nexus of Western European influence in mid 20th Century. That doesn’t make the new world/old world distinction irrelevant; it does make it less useful than it was even a few years ago.

As to the social justice implications, when marginalized people seek recognition, it is necessary to retell the stories that marginalize them. We should welcome these re-tellings because they invariably lead to new discoveries and make our world richer. But they need to be held to the proper standard of good history—getting the causal influences right.

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