Beyond mysticism: embracing wine’s practical allure

My grandparents were impoverished; as was commonplace in Northern England, all had pursued physical labour. Aspirations notwithstanding, my parents were working-class too—culturally and economically, my father had been the first from either family to attend university, albeit as an adult. My own upbringing was profoundly industrious. Though both my parents valued education, there was no place for romanticism, myth or fanciful thought. Unsurprisingly, I grew to be a fiercely objective adult, a tenacious learner concerned with understanding the physical world. I had not tasted wine until my mid-20s; neither of my parents had any particular interest. First, I had enjoyed simply tasting wine. Then, I became interested in how wine was grown and made, followed by wanting to understand why some wines tasted so much better than others. Despite a ferocious reading of contemporary wine literature, I felt no more learned. Much of what I read struck me as received wisdom; I found magic, myth and pseudoscience littering popular commentary. As Richard Quandt observes, the wine industry clearly ‘lent itself to bullshit’. It quickly became apparent that accepting myth and mysticism were tantamount to baptism, while challenge constituted blasphemy. Author James Wilson laments doubters of terroir, puzzling at their ‘real appreciation of wine’; meanwhile, Alice Feirring coins challengers as ‘reductionist thinkers’. Producers and journalists alike gleefully propagate shibboleth. Wine need not be magical, though. For many, its allure is wholly practical, and this is sufficient. The rest is superfluous. Perhaps—as the industry contends with a ‘communication crisis’—valorising wines practical appeal might open new doors, inviting pluralist thought and ranging personalities.

Myth and mysticism

Today, myth and mysticism permeate much of the popular wine press. Esteemed critics and journalists tacitly repeat widespread myths associated with grapevine development. Educators reify these same myths in reference textbooks. For the most part, contemporary wine communication is disconnected from published literature. Mark Matthews has documented the genesis of the most pervasive of these myths in his ground-breaking book ‘Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing’. Though each contains a nugget of truth, most are oversimplifications hypothesised in the context of outdated scientific theory. For the most part, tackling these myths is of little interest to most writers; effectively communicating complex science requires skilled oration as well as the motivation to do so. 

Though, that myth persists in modern wine communication cannot be explained by mere lack of skill or disinterest. On the contrary, the status quo favours both producers and critics. It is no coincidence that the explosion of terroir as an immutable qualitative marker in wine literature coincides with significant challenges to established order instigated by Spurrier and Parker in 1976 and 1980. Compounded, of course, by the influx of high-quality New World wine. In an increasingly competitive market, that a particular vineyard might possess an immutable, irreplicable quality—a wines ‘sense of place’—is a powerful economic protection. And, as fine wine prices rise stratospherically, debunking these notions is of little interest to critics and writers, who increasingly rely on fanciful notions which presuppose a given wine might be exceptional for reasons unbeknownst to the layperson.

This environment—devoid of challenge or scrutiny—fosters increasingly ludicrous mysticism. Maria Thun’s Biodynamic Calendar informs optimum days for sowing, pruning and harvesting depending on the Zodiac, as well as suggesting days on which wine supposedly tastes better. To this day, major UK supermarkets arrange press tastings according to whether the proposed date is a ‘fruit day’. Biodynamic agriculture, the work of Rudolf Steiner, a pseudoscientific, clairvoyant quack, captivates journalists and grows popular among producers. An array of potions stimulating astral forces, culminating in healthy soil, ought to be a source of ridicule instead of admiration. Minerality, a positive attribute primarily attributed to the influence of soil types, returns several thousand results on Decanter’s website. Despite contradicting grade-school physics, journalists tell of winemakers racking according to the moon, such that its gravitational pull might not influence the lees. All of this culminates in ‘natural wine’, an increasingly numinous popular movement embodying all of wines most fantastical propositions.

Economist James Quandt has remarked that “the wine trade is intrinsically bullshit-prone and attracts bullshit artists”. However, that these numinous notions pervade so much of the popular wine press is troublesome, not to mention off-putting. That wine is portrayed as altogether magical by the wine literati, props up a patronising and sanctimonious image among regular people—I know, I was one. This totality subordinates practical allure, distracting from physical reality and spawning a wholly insular lexicon. Troublingly, this lexicon percolates even ‘modern’ communication, young emerging wine writers purporting to ‘make wine more accessible’ spew this same shibboleth. This need not be the case, though. 

Better communication and practical allure

For years I purchased wine from my local supermarket, rarely spending more than £8. After downloading Vivino, I visited my local Majestic, tasting wines with Andrij—a trainee store manager. Shortly after, I arranged a trip to Piemonte. I knew very little; I simply wanted to travel, taste and experience wine. It was this practical experience that truly captivated me. That human ingenuity, agriculture and craft produced such remarkably delicious products astounded me. Once home, I began reading and attending in-person tastings, followed various communicators on social media apps, bought wine publications, and watched YouTube videos. Everything a fledgling wino might do. Sadly, I felt estranged from my recent experiences in Majestic and Italy. Then, I felt out of place. The language perplexed me, and I was overwhelmed by the scale of mysticism. Frankly, I found the whole thing rather silly. Everybody wanted to educate me. The popular wine press, it seemed, knew what wine ought to be, a representation which felt wholly detached from what attracted me. The idea that one might simply enjoy wine—without the need for initiation nor education—felt blasphemous. Had it not been for my tenacity, I’d have given up.

On his popular blog, author and critic Jamie Goode describes why “wine struggles to speak to most people”. Regular people, Goode observes, already find talking about the taste of wine alienating; in fact, they generally find tasting notes ‘absurd’. He concludes few critics—even those who believe otherwise—write tasting notes a casual drinker might relate to. Former advertising executive Reka Haros has written about ‘why wine communication continues to suck’. She points out that “compared to other drinks categories, we [the wine industry] continue to push education … as our primary marketing tool”.

Further, Haros cites a study that found 66% of adverts in the Wine Spectator mentioned some sort of geographical component. Though acknowledging the importance of education, Haros believes it may have “gone a bit too far”. She suggests the industry has “created this notion that if you don’t know enough about wine, you are not good enough for the trade, and not good enough as a simple consumer”. Finally, Haros concludes that ‘this sort of communication has led to making wine exclusive … while our alcoholic beverage competitors are mainly inclusive and approachable in their communications”.

Further compounding these concerns, wine is falling out of favour with drinkers. Millennials are driving the first decrease in wine consumption in over 25 years. Meanwhile, Craft Beer and Gin have experienced remarkable growth. Each has centred the customer, favouring practicality and experience. While assumed exclusivity and a fixation with education clearly deter consumers, one must recognise the extent to which mystical narratives and fanciful shibboleth complicate communication, underpinning Goode and Haros’ observations that wine struggles to speak to ordinary people. It’s not only tasting notes normal people find absurd, but also the language which plagues said communication. 

Varied examples of effective and inclusive communication give cause for hope, though. Deputy Editor of the Wine Advocate, William Kelley expertly conveys complex learnings, utilising compelling narrative and multimedia content. Jermaine Stone of the ‘Wine and Hip-Hop Show’ connects music and wine through vibrant, relaxed, engaging events. Albert Blaize, author and sommelier, helps consumers pair wines with everyday foods, hosts in-person events and more. Robert Vernick of ‘Wine Terroir’ connects drinkers and producers via live Instagram videos and hosts entertaining ‘blind tastings’ with popular guests. Frank Chang of ‘Frank Drinks Wine’ tallies thousands of views on his unfiltered, unadulterated wine reviews and memes posted on Instagram. Finally, Hannah Crosbie, founder of ‘Dalston Wine Club’, encourages wine fanatics and Joe Public to drink and eat together, enjoying ‘nice chats and respectful glugging’. All of this without the faintest hint of woo woo.

Admittedly, poking fun at wine mythology is nothing new. In 1828, viticulturist, writer and pioneer, James Busby was already ridiculing ‘terroir’. Yet still, today, cleverly constructed marketing spin crowds the popular wine press. Irrespective of their stated aims, young emerging communicators make the same mistakes as those before them. Regular folk seek experiences elsewhere. While competing categories embrace the practical, the wine industry fixates on education, racing to diffuse an obfuscatory lexicon grounded in myth and mysticism. I implore communicators to favour the experience, recognise the pitfalls of shibboleth, challenge the status quo and embrace the practical.

2 thoughts

  1. I know we already touched base about this article, but kudos again for such a well argued and well written piece. On a personal note, your own trajectory and experience with wine and the wine industry mirrors my own. Though my own lower class Canadian parents drank some wine, there was still an acknowledgement that wine was a bit too self-obsessed with its own mythos. This connects back to another one of your knock out lines, “It’s not only tasting notes normal people find absurd, but also the language which plagues said communication.”

    A lot of your own conclusions are only heightened after I read this piece by Carpenter and Humphreys (2019): https://www.google.com/amp/s/hbr.org/amp/2019/03/what-the-u-s-wine-industry-understands-about-connecting-with-customers . Their investigation of the US wine industry shows how certain modes of institutional marketing are embedded, mainly the leveraging of critics or other influencers by winemakers as brand champions to drive reputation and sales. What you bring to the conversation is their major research gap: the qualitative impact of the language used in wine communication is a barrier to many other consumers. Whether this is biodynamics or other shibboleth, it’s turning potential customers away from a beverage deemed too stuffy.

    Anyways, well done once again. I’m looking forward to more clear and engaging insights from you! Your recent producer profiles from Piedmont and your time spent in Burgundy were really enjoyable, as well. Cheers from Canada!

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