Our interest in food begins as a necessity, and we tame it so it becomes a civilized want that can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. But wine is a different matter. Wine is not a necessity. Many people neither drink wine nor any sort of alcohol, and for most people who do indulge, it doesn’t play the organizing role in life that food does. (Unless of course you write about wine) Yet, the relationship between wine and sociality seems obvious. People get drunk or at least tipsy from drinking alcohol, which loosens tongues, sheds inhibitions, and functions as a social lubricant. Although much day-to-day wine writing seldom acknowledges this, some of the more thoughtful discussions of wine take the relation between drunkenness and sociality as a brutal truth: As Adam Gopnik writes:
“Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing, including Parker’s, would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. To read wine writing, one would think that wine is simply another luxury food….Wine is what gives us a reason to let alcohol make us happy without one. It’s the ritual context that civilizes the simple need.” (From Gopnik, The Table Comes First)
Since we do not need wine for nutritional purposes, the “need” Gopnik references is the need for a substance to smooth the rough edges of socializing. However, alcohol in general and wine in particular are among many substances that accomplish this. Rituals surrounding tea for instance play this role in many societies. Thus, it isn’t obvious why alcohol must play this role. Furthermore, even if alcohol is “necessary” to grease the social wheels, there are many more efficient, less expensive ways of getting drunk than drinking wine. Thus, we must ask how plausible Gopnik’s thesis is. Is getting drunk the main reason we drink wine? Does that explain why wine in particular would be associated with sociality?
In fact when we look at many contexts in which wine is consumed, inebriation plays only a secondary, supportive role in explaining its connection to our social lives.
A great deal of wine is consumed at wine tastings including wine festivals, visits to wineries, or events at wine bars, restaurants, art galleries, private parties, etc. In all of these contexts, the rituals of wine tasting cast participants as tasters rather than mere drinkers by following norms that draw a sharp contrast to other forms of public drinking. Ordinary public drinking imposes few restrictions on how much alcohol one drinks, the techniques one uses for drinking or the kind of talk engaged in while drinking. At wine tastings, however, all of these factors are highly regulated. Wines are carefully listed with the qualities of each wine described in some detail. Pouring procedures include giving each participant a very small quantity in a particular order that facilitates comparisons, and participants are expected to swirl the wine in the glass to release aroma notes, sip and savor the wine, and in general approach it thoughtfully so one becomes acutely aware of the object–the wine and its aesthetic properties. The taster is then expected to express an evaluative judgment of the qualities of the wine, discuss it among companions and with the pourer, and ask the pourer questions about the wine and its production. The pourer is expected to possess knowledge of the production process and the people behind the scenes as well as to be able to provide her own more sophisticated analysis of the sensory properties of the wine to help guide the taster through the experience.
In these contexts, it is seldom appropriate to ask for more wine. The amount is carefully regulated to give each person just enough to gain an impression of the wine. And at large public wine tastings, it is wholly inappropriate to gulp and dash to the next wine as if the point was to consume as much as possible.
Thus, the wine is framed more like an art object than an alcoholic beverage, and tasters are treated as art patrons. By introducing the wine, the server heightens its artistic potential by helping the taster make sense of what are often fleeting, ephemeral aesthetic sensations, providing them with taste vocabularies to help them understand the experience. Furthermore, it is typical of these events that presenters tell stories about the background of the wine producer, and if the winemaker is present details of the process are related in a way that reveals the human context behind the wine. Wine education is a central part of the event.
Thus, it would seem that inebriation is not really the goal. The set-up in fact seems designed to limit consumption and direct attention to aesthetics.
I suppose one could still insist, as Gopnik does, that this is all a big ruse. An elaborate form of self-deception designed to provide wine drinkers with socially acceptable reasons to get drunk. But in fact drunkenness at these events is not the norm and so much of the ritual involves behavior incompatible with excessive alcohol consumption, that Gopnik’s conclusion seems less than plausible. Perhaps the idea is that by getting people to focus on taste, drinking is regulated sufficiently that social relations are enhanced. Thus, tasting plays an instrumental role in managing behavior. It is a way of civilizing drunkenness so genuine human communication can take place. But that would not explain why tasters seem to be engaged in the task of tasting for its own sake-genuinely focused on the wine, with socializing playing a supportive role or complimentary role.
This is not to say that alcohol doesn’t matter. It influences the taste and aroma of wine and the mild buzz we get from small quantities of alcohol contributes to the aesthetic experience, but excessive alcoholic consumption is not the point.