RACHEL E. BLACK & ROBERT C. ULIN
Wine and Culture: Vineyard to Glass
Bloomsbury Academic, London and
New York, 2013
ISBN: 978- 0857854018
Reviewer: Kevin D. Goldberg
Rachel E. Black and Robert C. Ulin’s edited volume reminds me of the fickleness of disciplinary boundaries. As a historian who researches wine, I have long believed that my discipline lagged behind others in vinous studies. From my perspective, geo- graphers, philosophers, economists, and anthropologists, in particular, have led the movement to institutionalize wine scholarship in the academy. Thus, it surprised me that Black and Ulin, two prolific anthropologists who research wine and viticul- ture, consider vinous scholarship in their own discipline “scant over the past twenty years” (1). It turns out that grapes always appear riper in someone else’s vineyard.
The smart volume is divided into four sections, each of which is preceded by a short editors’ introduction that attempts to synthesize theoretical approaches or analytical threads. Despite the unavoidable geographical, theoretical, and methodo- logical overlap, the book is structured cleverly enough to allow the reader to jump around, finding what may be most useful. The strength of the volume is in its going beyond rote discussions of wine’s phenomenology (as a subject/object of taste), its place in the lab (for metric analysis), or its commodification (as a product in the market). Instead, the book offers critical accounts of the social relations behind wine production and consumption, discussions of place and iden- tity, and finally an engagement with the technology-nature dualism that continues to define wine in the twenty-first century.
Section I, “Rethinking Terroir,” reevaluates one of the most controversial themes among wine writers. But, rather than rehashing worn debates about the environment, soil conditions, and the objective measurables of wine, the authors here consider how terroir is itself an active, dynamic, politically driven “ensemble of knowledge” (p. 12). Sarah Dynes’s ethnographic account from Bordeaux reveals how the Bordelais them- selves consider their task as winemakers to magnify the given terroir. The social dimen- sion of terroir, though secondary to its physical dimension, is also real; offering winegrowers and winemakers possibilities for the contextualization of tradition and labor of their wines. Robert Swinburn, a graduate student in anthropology with family roots in an Australian vineyard, and Nicolas Sternsdorff Cisterna, also a gradu- ate student in anthropology, test the notion of terroir in the New World. Swinburn coins the term “deep terroir” in order to move beyond the physical and to discuss the intangible, spiritual qualities of terroir. Deep terroir, we learn, is anathema to the worlds of science and commerce, where terroir usually reigns. Sternsdorff Cisterna, though a bit closer than Swinburn to terroir’s conventional attributes, raises interesting questions about the Chilean wine industry’s employment of terroir in shifting its reputation from a producer of low-cost to quality wines.
Robert C. Ulin, a veteran of academic terroir, asserts that historians and geogra- phers are as complicit as contemporary wine writers in marginalizing the historicity of social relations behind the production and consumption of wine. This is an out- dated charge that is no longer valid. Nevertheless, Ulin’s analysis retains its promi- nence of place for the way in which it unreservedly intertwines terroir and late (or “disorganized”) capitalism. The brilliance of Ulin’s approach is in his recognition of the limitations inherent in thinking about terroir exclusively as an antidote to modern, place-less wines. Moving beyond this simple formulation, Ulin postulates that terroir can mystify production and consumption and therefore naturalize critical social relations. What is at stake here is the diminishment of human labor, past and present, and the continued abstraction of social relations under modern economic forms.
Section II analyzes power relationships and shows how the intermingling of local growers, regional wine trades, and global conglomerates serves to reinvent tradition. Chapters 5, 6, and 9 introduce the English-language audience to viticultural regions beyond their usual purview; Bulgaria, Poland, and Slovakia. Although each chapter tackles a unique problem, the essays are united in their exciting engagement with wine and identity in the post-Soviet world. Ewa Kopczyńska’s essay, “Wine Histories, Wine Memories, and Local Identities in Western Poland,” introduces readers to the war-torn Lubuskie (Lubusz) winegrowing region, where a fascinating mixture of German winemaking traditions, anti-German sentiment following World War II, Soviet-era viticultural bungling, and post-Soviet wine tourism have been fused together to create a complex, twenty-first-century nationalist project. Bulgaria and Slovakia are grappling with a similarly complex intermingling of culture and political economy as their own wine trades enter into global commercial networks. The effects on the local environment, we see, are worth paying attention to.
Christina M. Ceisel’s essay on Galicia, Spain, centers on the performance of wine trade participants, who simultaneously capitalize on local traditions while appealing to the European Union for funds and additional support. Evoking Max Weber’s “eternal yesterday,” Ceisel calls into question the presumed tensions between heri- tage identity and the transnational marketplace. Erica A. Farmer’s essay on Bordeaux considers the historical creation of the appellation d’origine côntrolée (AOC) and the links that connect geography, notoriety, and tradition while also creating an enforceable, protective legal framework. The essays by Farmer and Ceisel both complicate the simple view that place alone creates a wine’s identity.
Section III opens with an excellent essay by Marion Demossier, an anthropologist who has already made important contributions to the study of French winegrowers. Here, Demossier offers a richly informed unpacking of the concept of grands cru— once thought of as an intensely local project—but that now, because of the transna- tional wine trade, has been extrapolated to other cultural and social settings, including New Zealand and East Asia. Although some elements of the original, local narrative are “lost in translation,” transnationalism has thus far managed to uphold the significance of the grands cru designation. Adam Walker and Paul Manning’s essay offers another view of a post-Soviet winegrowing area: Georgia. The authors argue that the shift from quantity to quality in wine production has been simultaneous with the post-Soviet republic’s attempt to appeal to Western con- sumers or domestic consumers who aspire to Western forms of consumption. The project of transformation in Georgia has engendered new forms of stratification and exclusion that are commonplace in the contemporary post-socialist world. In an interesting departure from the mainstream of essays in the volume, Winne Lem analyzes gender and labor divisions in the Languedoc region of France. Strongly tied to the terminology of family and kinship studies, Lem uses Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus and Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to theorize how men and women maintain family winegrowing farms over generations. Lem provocatively argues that the “masculinization” of viticulture in the Languedoc has led to the regulation of labor that is in accordance with the interests of men and that manages “to keep their sons and daughters down, in the multiple senses of the word, on the farm” (p. 238).
Section IV tackles the place of technology in the production and representation of wine, long seen as a “natural” drink. Elizabeth Saleh’s essay captures the spirit of winegrowing among former colonial partners (though this historical relationship is not overly explicit). Saleh traces the presence of French wine “technopreneurs” in Lebanon who struggle to maintain French/international viticultural standards, including grape selection, while Lebanese winegrowing traditions slip away. Essays by Paul Cohen and Rachel E. Black target the contested notion of “natural wine.” Cohen offers a historical view of natural wine through the lens of Jules Chauvet (1909–1989), a Beaujolais biochemist, négociant, and winemaker. While I disagree with Cohen’s assertion that Chauvet was a “pioneer” in the areas of nonintervention and natural winemaking (these philosophies are centuries old and were centered in German-speaking Europe rather than France in the generations before Chauvet), there is no disputing Chauvet’s influence in post–World War II French winegrowing. Cohen nicely interweaves a number of separate but related threads, including con- tested discussions of which ingredients/methods constituted “natural” winemaking and the surprising difficulties in pinning down a useful concept of nature. As Cohen argues, natural was not (and is not) a stable, clear-cut category. Black’s essay moves the discussion to the present as she challenges the prevailing way in which wine—as manmade product as any—is still conceived and packaged as natural and untouched by human hands. An additional problem is the hydra- headed nature of the term “natural wine” itself. There is no enforced legal definition nor is there an international certification process. Although the natural wine move- ment is full of contradictions, Black smartly points out that there is a strong drive among European and North American consumers to reconnect with agriculture and artisanal craftsmanship, including winemaking. Our drive toward the “natural” arose in part because of our turn away from technologized processes.
As with any book, one can find faults to quibble about. Vinous scholarship has grown at a blistering pace in the past five to ten years, but significant elements of this accumulation have been overlooked. In addition, several of the essays contain few references, though a useful bibliography is included. In terms of geographical coverage, it is striking that more than 25% of the book is dedicated to post-Soviet countries while Argentina, Austria, Germany, Italy, and the United States are ignored. I assume that this reflects an anthropological preference for the developing or undeveloped world, yet the majority of the balance of the essays concern Australia, France, and Spain. Nevertheless, Wine and Culture is a worthwhile volume because it combines the most seminal anthropological and ethnographical questions about wine production and consumption with geographical and theoreti- cal diversity. The book reaffirms my belief that anthropologists are making a greater contribution than scholars from other disciplines to the academic study of wine.