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Society, Politics & Law

Once upon a wine

Updated Wednesday, 23rd May 2012

In the discussion below, Dr Wendy Maples explores the changing socio-cultural significance of wine-drinking in response to Steven Shapin’s talk, 'The Tastes of Wine'.

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Wine Creative commons image Icon Through the Lens of Kimberly Gauthier under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license This article was written in conjunction with Thinking Allowed.

In Paul Torday’s The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce (2008), the protagonist swoons at the £3,000 bottle in front of him – he can’t afford it, and his alcoholic consumption is killing him:

‘First I inhaled the scent of the wine and then, when its flavour had filled my nose and lungs, I sipped it. I knew what to expect: flavours of truffles, spices and sweet fruit. Then those tastes receded and it was like entering another country, a place you have always heard of and longed to go to but never visited. It was an experience almost beyond words, not capable of being captured by the normal wine enthusiast’s vocabulary. I sipped the wine and I was so happy, all of a sudden, that a huge smile came over my face. I think I laughed. The sommelier smiled too. “Is it wonderful, sir?”. I handed him the glass and he too inhaled it. “It is wonderful,” I told him.’ (p.14)

While wine drinking is no doubt partly about the pleasures of imbibing alcohol, there is further pleasure for some in its scents and flavours and in the expressiveness these evoke, and more broadly still in the social and cultural meanings attributed to its consumption. Indeed, for connoisseurs – the eponymous Wilberforce, my Wine Club friends – wine drinking requires a specialist vocabulary (albeit that a 1982 Pétrus transcends this). 

Steven Shapin’s talk, ‘The Tastes of Wine: A Cultural and Social History’ uses wine and wine culture as a core case study of changing tastes and expressions of taste. More broadly, he explores the historical intersubjectivities that account for ‘taste’, following on from his article, ‘The sciences of subjectivity’, wherein he posits a delightful aphorism: ‘Our scientific knowledge is about the world and it is also irremediably about us, as knowers. And the condition of our knowledge being intelligibly about the world is that it contains a bit of us.’ 

There are, in fact, a few things we know about contemporary alcoholic consumption. For instance, wine-drinking is decreasing in the traditional wine-producing countries. Yet, according to the Office for National Statistics, UK wine-consumption has doubled in the past decade, with women especially preferring to drink wine 60 per cent of the time (men choose wine 25 per cent of the time). Beer-drinking has been in comparative decline – though more recently, groups like CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) have raised the profile of traditionally-brewed beers, particularly those from small-scale breweries. Given that beer is easily produced in the UK, with hops and malts in plentiful supply, it is unsurprising that historically UK adults would consume more of this alcoholic beverage than any other. However, climate change and global trade have affected both the UK’s agricultural production and consumers’ buying habits. 

By contrast to grains, grapes have struggled to grow in our temperate climate – until recently. In the past 10 to 15 years, vineyards in the south of England have found increased success growing a variety of different grapes. Once something of a sommelier’s joke, ‘English wine’ now includes even the cherished ‘champagne grapes’, such as chardonnay and pinot meunier, and some of the English methode champagnoise are international award-winners. With this success, it is not surprising that, according to DEFRA the area for UK vineyards is increasing by 10 per cent each year. The vast majority of English wines are sold to an expanding English market.

But what has led to this expansion? There are a number of explanations: more palatable, and cheaper, wine is now available in the UK, due to increased global trade: the expansion of ‘New World’ product has, in particular, brought less expensive table wines to the UK. Vintners around the world have recognised the public preference for lighter wines and have catered for this market. Alongside a changing wine economy have been changes in cultural behaviours that may be linked with increased wine-drinking. For instance, broadsheet culture sections feature reviews of wine and suggestions of what wines might best accompany a particular food. Wine and food festivals cater to those wishing to develop an ‘educated’ palate. Arguably, the increased visibility of wine, in the media and popular events, affirms and accelerates changes in social behaviour. A simple explanation is that ‘our tastes have changed’. Except that this is no explanation at all…

Shapin’s historical survey of the language of wine taste shows a changed vocabulary that marries well the scientific and social pre-occupations of the day. Where the humours served as Classical Greek medical explanations for malaise, wine’s attributes and curative properties addressed imbalances in ‘sanguinity’. In a world where the consumer wishes to know the worth of a product in simple metrics, Robert Parker offers a designate rank for a given bottle (by contrast, the Slow Food movement argues against such metrics). For Pierre Bourdieu taste and class were inter-locked expressions; Shapin’s interest, and argument, is not dissimilar to Bourdieu’s. Shapin’s intersubjectivity – our agreement to a signifier – of the language of wine is also an agreement to the meaning of wine-drinking. As with much in the current historical epoch, our ‘anthropocene’, globalisation, interconnectedness and consumer aspiration inflect our purchases and our experiences. 






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