Wine is Iconic Because it is a Symbol System

vineyard rowWine tastes good and contains alcohol. But lots of beverages taste good and contain alcohol. None have the deep cultural meaning and resonance that wine enjoys. Why?

I suggest it has to do with wine’s power as a artistic symbol.  To be an artistic symbol, an object must refer to what it symbolizes and also exemplify—show or highlight—what it refers to. Picasso’s Guernica is a symbol of the horrors of war–it refers to the horrors of war and also shows and highlights them in its colors and lines.

What does wine symbolize?

It, first of all, symbolizes a form of excellence achieved by a type of fruit. This is peculiar when you think about it. No one thinks of Scotch as the highest expression of barley. Bourbon is not corn’s quintessence. But wine is routinely thought of as an ideal expression of an agricultural product—grapes. Arguably, it is that transformation of a commonplace commodity into a glorious work of art that has captivated wine lovers for centuries.

Striving for an aesthetic ideal through the skillful use of raw material and then symbolically referring to and exemplifying that ideal is surely one characteristic of art; and it characterizes winemaking as well.

Wine also symbolizes a plot of land under a sweep of sky ,both of which have unique characteristics in each place where quality wine is produced. A wine bears witness to the origin of its distinctive sensory identity and thus stands as a symbol of that particular plot of land and sky.

But wine doesn’t make itself. That distinctive sensory identity is also a product of a winemaking tradition that developed that sensory identity over many years. A wine stands as a symbol of the people who made it, their practices and their sensibility, which are both referred to and exemplified in the aromas, flavors, and textures of the wine.

More controversially a wine points to and exemplifies the winemaker’s sensibility. It is after all the winemaker who must decide how terroir is expressed. Furthermore, we know that some quality wines are not primarily about terroir. Non-grower Champagnes are complex blends exemplifying a house-style rather than vineyard or vintage expression. The first-growth wines of Bordeaux are not primarily terroir-driven although they do express a regional identity. They are blends of more than one grape variety from various vineyards that are often not contiguous and may not share the same characteristics of terroir, especially after undergoing filtration, fining, and aging in oak. The result is not a pure expression of a vineyard, but a product of a winemaker’s vision of what those grapes can be.

Wine of course also symbolizes the ideal of a good life—a life of refinement, sophistication, and know how—which is exemplified in the refinement and sophistication of the wine.

And, for a different cohort, wine symbolizes a different social ideal—the ideal of community, conviviality, and authenticity—of people sharing a honestly made beverage in an atmosphere of fun and good cheer.

Wine, made from a lowly fruit, remains a cultural force because it embodies all these meanings. It is a most remarkable transformation.

One comment

  1. You’ve left out one key element to wine’s role as an iconic beverage. You can make beer or spirits any time the spirit (oh God) moves you. But wine can only be made once a year—at a time when the fruit is ripe, when the animals are fat, and when it is clear that God loves us. Wine is a symbol of plenty, of the harvest, and for this reason it will always be more of a beverage of celebration than any other drink!

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