Wine Traditions, Authority, and Authenticity (Part 2)

grape stomping 2Wine traditions represent a common stock of knowledge and know how but also supply members with a sense of identity. They use flavor consistencies, symbols, and ceremonies to link people to a place, a common sense of the past and a sense of belonging. Last week in Part 1 I argued that when traditions are challenged because of outside influences, it becomes necessary to consciously assert one’s identity, at which 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. But what is authenticity and who decides?

In contemporary life, this assertion of identity has taken an interesting turn. The greatest threat to wine traditions is homogenization, the demand that all wines meet some independent taste standard imposed by the global market. Today, the authority of tradition comes from its ability to assert distinctiveness in the face of this homogenization. Flavor identities root us in the local and particular as opposed to the global, homogenized world of identical products. Thus, authenticity is perceived as a cure for excessive homogenization. Modern flavor identities presuppose a discourse of taste that implies that “natural”, rooted, artisanal products taste better than mass-produced ones. Furthermore, knowing the producer adds an imaginary value to the wine which makes it taste “better.” The fact that a particular person made it contributes to its quality.

But we return to the problem. What counts as genuinely authentic, embodying a real awareness of actual history and geography?

Too often appeals to authenticity select only portions of the past to remember and what is remembered is highly idealized, as manufactured as the industrial wine it seeks to displace. Unfortunately, any return to the past is a narrative reinvention—an account of the past as it looks to us after the fact, satisfying a need for romance and imagination, but having little connection to “how it really was.”

Wines don’t taste like they did 100 yrs ago (or even 25 yrs. ago) and we don’t want them to. This means that traditions must change because they are continually confronted by new threats, encroachments, copiers, and pretenders, and so they must find new ways of asserting identity.

This is where the winemaker as artist comes into play performing the delicate balance between innovation and tradition. Restlessness toward the status quo is essential to being an artist. They may be inspired by the past but their aim is seldom simply to emulate it. Any work of art is an experiment that strives to reach beyond what has been done.

Innovative wines thus pose a question—what is authentic? Are the violations of tradition that give a wine its originality and excitement indicative of the proper direction for that tradition? There may be tensions between a winemaker and her customers. Creative winemakers revel in the detour. Her customers want a straighter line, a place of respite, an end that is still recognizable according to what is familiar and conventional.

How do wineries work through this conflict? I think we need to question the very notion of authenticity that is presupposed by the conflict.

Why should “authentic” mean that a wine must taste as it did in the past? Furthermore, even if we could agree that a wine is made using traditional methods from a vineyard steeped in the lore of a region, why think consumers have the ability to experience it as authentic?

Authenticity is not primarily a matter of preserving history. It should not be a property of the wine by itself but of the relation between a producer, the vineyards, and her customers. Acknowledging this is not inauthentic but truthful. History shows that traditions have no obligation to preserve their culture “as is” since no culture has ever been preserved in that way.

Thus, authenticity is not about origins but about the commitments people make and what those commitments reveal about their sensibility. Winemakers who strive to get the most of their vines, who dedicate themselves to exploring every nuance their vines are capable of, while remaining sensitive to what their customers expect are making authentic wines.

So should we just throw out the norms governing flavor identities that specify what wines from a particular region should taste like? I think not. Flavor identities must be respected because they set the table for innovation—they define the standards that innovation must meet. Flavor identities say: “If you want to violate this tradition it better be good.” Without tradition, innovation is just novelty.

However, anyone who is just a slave to tradition and rigidly conforms without entertaining new ideas is threatening the conditions that enable the tradition to persist—its’ ability to be affected. The ability to be affected is, after all, what sensibility is. Traditions become great because of their capacity to seamlessly absorb new influences. Tradition and authenticity are not opposed to innovation—they depend on it. No tradition can remain alive if it does not innovate by accepting and transforming influences from abroad.

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