31 October 2008

Idea log

[questioning brain]It will surprise no one that I’ve had a political discussion or two over the last few weeks. And it’s probably also no surprise that one of them got me thinking about wine. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the role played ideology.

There are a number of ideological stances one can take in response to wine. This is true whether you’re a producer, in the trade, or a consumer…and in fact, those ideologies often run in parallel lines through those three groups. For example, consumers with a given philosophy often patronize the wines of retailers, importers, and producers who share that philosophy.

What do I mean when I refer to wine ideologies? Here are a few common examples, though by no means is this an exhaustive list:

  • “natural” wine is superior
  • “natural” winemaking is anything but
  • biodynamic viticulture is better
  • biodynamic viticulture is mystical hooey
  • organic viticulture is preferable
  • organic viticulture is marketing
  • all that matters is what’s in the glass
  • wine is wine, no matter how or where you drink it
  • wine is meant as a companion to food
  • quality is not inherent, but is a product of context
  • there are objective standards to wine on which experts can agree
  • taste is subjective
  • quality is determined by price
  • quality is determined by terroir
  • sulfur is bad
  • the abandonment of sulfur is lunacy
  • screwcaps are the answer
  • only real cork belongs in a wine bottle

…and so forth. One immediately notices that a good number of these ideologies are fundamentally incompatible. And yet, they are passionately-held, each of them, by very serious wine folk. How can this be?

It is likely true that some ideologies are, in fact, nonsense. And that others are justified primarily by their marketability. And that still others are only held because their holder fails to understand (or denies) evidence to the contrary.

I’m not interested, here, in discussing which ones are valid or not. Instead, having been brought to this musing by considering the positive and negative effects of ideology in a political context, I’m interested in whether or not the very concept of ideology is worthwhile, especially from the standpoint of the consumer.

Long-time acquaintances are undoubtedly sputtering in their biodynamic Muscadet right now, objecting thusly: “oh, sure, you’re a fine one to talk about the negatives of ideologies, Mr. Everyone-has-a-bias, and Serious-is-not-a-philosophy, and Alcohol-is-a-conceptual-problem, and No-really-everyone-has-a-bias.” (OK, maybe no one actually talks like that. At least, I hope not.) And it’s true: I have ideologies, and while I feel I’m open about them in a way unfortunately few critics and writers are, I would never presume to deny them.

Despite this, might ideologies be a profoundly mixed blessing?

Let’s start with the positives. I’m a firm believer that wine – that is, wine worth thinking or writing about, wine worth more than a tossed-back glass after a hard day at the office – can be about more than a gut-level, caveman-like response to the pure pleasure it brings as it fills your mouth and gets you just a little bit more drunk than you were a moment ago. That, in itself, is an ideology, and one certainly not shared by everyone. But it’s a basic, foundational ideology, without which I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – write about wine for a living or for fun.

Based on that foundation, then, one can immediately see the appeal of sub-categorical ideologies. Especially those reinforced by experience. If, on balance, wines self-identified as biodynamic, or “natural,” are appealing to me more often than is the norm across all wines, I as a consumer have a ready-made shopping list, even if the brands on it are unknown. Or if I find the modern obsession with ripeness to be fundamentally deforming, I now have a ready-made list of wines, and perhaps even places, to avoid. The mere existence of these ideologies, coupled with the knowledge of how to apply them, makes my life as a consumer a more efficient one. And it reduces the number of times I’ll waste my money on something I was destined to dislike.

Other philosophies can be similarly-examined for their benefits, which accrue not just to the consumer, but to other entities as well. An organic producer has a ready-made audience, while a low-sulfur producer a smaller but proportionally more fanatic one. An importer with a portfolio of luscious liquid “hedonism” from warm, fertile regions – big explosions of velvety fruit layered with toasty new wood – has a reliable market, as well.

Of course, the temptation is – as with any ideology, in any field – to mistake preference for objectivity, projecting hierarchies outward from the person onto the thing itself. This isn’t to say that there cannot be objective value in certain ideologies; organic viticulture may indeed be better for the environment, low-sulfur wines could be easier on the body’s biochemistry, screwcaps might maintain a wine’s intended form better than other closures. But most ideologies aren’t like this. They’re philosophies that emanate from subjective preference, codified and thus eminently arguable, but no less subjective for the force and structure of them. And that’s where we run into trouble.

It is perfectly reasonable to prefer one wine to another for stylistic reasons. If those stylistic reasons are directly attributable to philosophies, and that preference reliably extends to other examples, then it is similarly reasonable to connect the preference with the philosophy, and thus to prefer one philosophy to another. In fact, I know of no one who does not do this, to a greater or lesser extent, even within the narrow field of wine appreciation.

The problem arises when the ideology becomes more important than the object of the ideology. There exist more than a few winemakers, tradespersons, writers, and consumers who cannot free their response to a given wine from the boundaries of their ideologies. Sometimes, they won’t even try a wine because of how it’s made, where it’s from, or what it represents. More often, they’ll take a taste, but final judgment has been rendered before the first sniff.

It needs to be made clear that this does not make said victim of their ideology a bad person, nor does it make them useless as an observer or commentator on wine. In fact, many of the most successful critics and writers in the wine field are absolutely laden with ideologies. But note that word: victim. The trap of ideology is that is closes the mind and the palate, while calcifying in such a way that the subjective eventually becomes canon. Wines that fall outside the strict borders of the ideology are tarred as heretical, rather responded to with reasoned dislike.

Don’t believe me? Ever heard someone dismiss a Burgundy just because it was a Burgundy, and thus already known to be a lousy value, thin, and rife with biological flaws? I hear it all the time, and with unfortunate frequency from a number of California winemakers and their fans. (Worry not: some Burgundians can and do return the favor.) Ever read a writer or importer decry a wine for using non-indigenous yeast before they’ve even tasted it? Or their control-freak opposites mocking the very concept of indigenous yeast and the oenological negligence it represents? Ever heard someone respond positively (or negatively) to a wine tasted blind, and then completely change their tune when they find they’ve been had by their ideology-tweaking friends? Of course you have. And so have I.

I think this is a shame, and something to be resisted. There are good wines out there made in a way I’d probably prefer wines weren’t made, and if I can’t leave myself open to the possibility that I might enjoy them, I’ve not only lost something important, I’ve prevented myself from ever finding that important something. There are surprising experiences left for the experiencing, but they’ll never be experienced if I refuse to experiment. There are beautiful places and people in the world of wine who I will never meet should I be unwilling to accept what they do on their, rather than my, terms.

More generally, the inability to adapt to one’s circumstances is a dangerous trait, both intellectually and socially. Should friends not be able to enjoy a wine they like without receiving a philosophical lecture in return? It sounds unfathomably rude, but I’ve heard wine ideologues who couldn’t help themselves. Should one stubbornly cart one’s preferred wines around the world, refusing to drink local wines because they’re ideologically insufficient, becoming the oenophilic version of one of those people who brings their own condiments or desserts to a restaurant?

This doesn’t mean that one has to change, or even lower, their standards. Not at all. As I noted before, I believe wine is about much more than whether or not it tastes good. It’s right up there in the header: “wine is liquid, wine is life, wine is emotion, wine is thought.” (I might add that it’s art and science, as well. And it gets you tipsy. And it tastes good.) Matters of philosophy, practice, and execution are, to someone who feels as I do, important. And if wine as anything other than a commodity is to survive and prosper, it needs ideologues at every stage of its existence.

But it’s crucial to remember that we do not drink the ideology. We drink the wine. And if we don’t, we’re drinking the Kool-Aid.

(image used thanks to a Wikimedia Commons license)


Unknown said...

very well written piece...and, thanks to this bit:

"But it’s crucial to remember that we do not drink the ideology. We drink the wine. And if we don’t, we’re drinking the Kool-Aid."

I now have some CHEESE to go with my wine this evening.

thor iverson said...

They don't call me the Dairy King for nothing.

Anonymous said...

"wine...can be about more than a gut-level, caveman-like response to the pure pleasure it brings as it fills your mouth and gets you just a little bit more drunk than you were a moment ago."

Ogg say: if wine not cut mammoth fat, wine not have place in cave.

Ideologies seem to make people feel good, and cut down on the hassle of having to think and reason. I remember when I was much younger, hearing or reading frequently that Americans were somehow less ideological/political and more practical than Europeans in their practice of democracy. Whatever the truth then, it seems clear to me that the reverse is the case now. Shame to see it infect wine appreciation too. I guess you could say ideology is its own reward when it comes to personal enjoyment. The problem is when it prevents publicity or distribution for otherwise worthy wines.

thor iverson said...

I could be mean and say something about people who talk a good ideology but never do anything about it, but I won't. No politics here. ;-)

The ideological issues do, as you note, become a real problem at the various gateways that wine has to pass through: AOCs, importers, major critics, 100-client oenologists, and so forth. Thankfully, there are competing ideologies (and I think they're getting stronger, which in the narrow case of wine has some positive aspects), so at least there are some sources for wines that fight the currents.