Good and Bad Wine Culture

Culture is a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the best that has been known and thought, as Matthew Arnold put it. Arnold believed that culture palliates, if it does not altogether neutralise, the ravages of a modern, aggressive, mercantile and brutalising urban existence. You read Dante and Shakespeare in order to keep up with the best that was thought and known, and also to see yourself, your people, your society, your tradition in their best lights.

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Octavio Paz wrote: “Life is plurality, death is uniformity”. By suppressing differences and peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, the unthinking race towards standardisation weakens life and favours death. Globalisation is often synonymous with homogeneity; progress, for some, entails rationalisation and a levelling of standards. Brands are the beneficiaries of this desire for an aggressive, mercantile wine culture. Each brand pitched and manufactures wines at the price point required to fit a model of public expectation. It is “The Law of Raspberry Jam”: the wider any culture is spread, the thinner it gets. Quantity naturally dilutes quality; in the interests of downmarket perfectibility it is the commercial exaltation of voluminous mediocrity.

A progressive wine culture maintains its identity despite corporate pressures to conform. A wine can speak eloquently for its own region; this should be the underpinning of the idea of appellation, a clear set of principles which recognises the best of tradition whilst allowing the best of innovation. To me healthy wine culture is indistinguishable from biodiversity wherein each autonomous element in the eco-system thrives. Protecting wine culture is not protecting tradition for the sake of it, but preserving and perpetuating those elements that should never be lost. With food, for example, it might involve saving a rare breed of pig from extinction or teaching a traditional technique of cheese-making, whereas in wine it might be planting (or even just not grubbing up) grape varieties indigenous to a particular region. The soil, after all, holds the knowledge of centuries; it is important to ensure that farming methods are integrated into the rhythms of nature. Wine culture is not about creating wines to fit with a perception of what people might like to drink; it is about the integrity of the product itself.

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Many of the ideas are articulated in the manifesto of the Slow Food movement, whose primary tenet is that each wine shall be the full expression of its terroir; that each wine “be good, healthy, great and structured when the conditions permit this‚Ķabove all, that these wines give people a desire to drink them, wines simply and solely made from the grapes of our (sic) vineyards, wines which have the peculiar characteristics of our grape varieties, of our particular terroirs, of our special characters‚Ķour common will is to work our soil while respecting nature, as craftsmen seeking harmony between nature and man‚Ķ‚ÄĚ

One of our Italian growers has the following credo: “[We make our wine] as we did one century ago, because we want to protect the environment. We are sure that the marriage between the fruits of nature and careful and traditional winery techniques can product an autochthonous and unique wine that is a wine having no equal in the world.‚ÄĚ

A moribund wine culture is one that solely applies rigid commercial criteria to all decision making. The need to plant more and more land and make more wine is part of the gradual industrialisation of wine. The need for consistency at all costs; the focus on the conventional market; the focus on critical approbation ‚Äď all these diminish wine.

‚ÄúCompromises are for relationships, not wine.‚ÄĚ –Sir Robert Scott Caywood

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