Wine Traditions, Authority, and Authenticity (I)

barrel roomMany wines, especially artisanal wines and wines of terroir, are a representation of the winemaking tradition from which they emerge. But what counts as an authentic representation of that tradition and who decides?

Wine lovers bring a history of personal experience, preferences, and emotional attachments to the wines they drink along with a sense of rightness about what Burgundy, Napa, or Rioja should taste like. Flavor memories meld with emotional cues and are appended to the ceremonies and rituals of life. And thus flavors, aromas, and textures acquire emotional resonance and symbolic power that enables them to express the style of a culture. And winemakers tend to follow these expectations.

These expectations cannot be fully articulated in a set of rules; one knows the taste of home even if one can’t say what home tastes like. Although the original association of flavors with identities is arbitrary, conventional, and driven by accidents of geography, once established they are no longer arbitrary but consciously perpetuated and enforced.

Moral taste and mouth taste become one.

Thus, each wine we drink refers to other wines as an imitation, interpretation, challenge, or affront to the tradition it purports to represent. Is it an authentic extension of the tradition or a violation worthy of scorn? And new wines or new expressions from traditional locations confront these norms by posing a question—where do they fit?

What gives these traditions their staying power? What gives them authority?

They may have authority because deviations are met with hostility. They certainly have authority because they express the identities of their members. Our self-concept is derived in part from perceived membership in a culture—making and drinking a certain kind of wine can be a matter of habit, a condition of membership, a badge of authenticity.

Perhaps more importantly familiarity has its own emotional resonance. This is apparent when you visit some traditional wine regions, especially in Italy, where they primarily drink only their own wines despite the availability of a global wine trade. Traditions have normative authority because their violation is an affront to the self concept of their members and threatens the implicit sense of belongingness that wine symbolizes.

Nevertheless, despite the authority of familiarity, traditions do change. New technology and the instability of taste preferences account for same change. But the biggest factor is the pressure of outside influences such as immigration, tourism, and the emergence of an international global wine market in which producers wish to compete.

Identities become unstable because they confront a variety of oppositions that have already mounted an invasion and taken hostages. An explicitly articulated, self-conscious identity is not something one needs unless that identity is under threat and trespassers have already taken their liberties. When identity requires continual assertion because it is persistently being challenged, then it must become consciously held and forcefully asserted. At that point, the concept of authenticity becomes decisive. One needs some way of separating what is really mine from the imposters who have crossed the border.

Thus, the flavor signature of a wine becomes a symbol of pride and contest. The French love their “dirt and acid” because it draws a sharp contrast with California’s overripe sunshine in a glass, even as they allow alcohols to creep up to capture some of those “new world” trespassers. The German’s assert their “quality by must weight” preferences for sweet wine even as the revise their labeling to conform to the geographic hierarchies prominent in the rest of the wine world. The ongoing debates in Barolo, Montalcino, and Chianti about modern vs. traditional styles reflect this tension between change and stasis.

In light of these tensions, how then do we define authenticity. What counts as an authentic representation of a tradition that is already in the throes of change?

That is a topic for Part 2 which I will post next week.

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