Wine Worlds and Distributed Agency

by Dwight Furrow

Discussions of the factors that go into wine production tend to circulate around two poles. In recent years, the focus has been on grapes and their growing conditions—weather, climate, and soil—as the main inputs to wine quality. The reigning ideology of artisanal wine production has winemakers copping to only a modest role as caretaker of the grapes, making sure they don’t do anything in the winery to screw up what nature has worked so hard to achieve. To a degree, this is a misleading ideology.  After all, those healthy, vibrant grapes with distinctive flavors and aromas have to be grown. A “hands off” approach in the winey just transfers the action to the vineyard where care must be taken to preserve vineyard conditions, adjust to changes in weather, plant and prune effectively and strategically, adjust the canopy and trellising methods when necessary, watch for disease, and pick at the right time.

Such modesty about winery interventions has not always been the norm. For a brief moment in time, beginning in the 1970’s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century, the winemaker as auteur, a wizard at winery tricks, was ascendant. During this time, new winemaking technologies, viticultural methods, and remarkable advances in wine science were introduced into a formerly artisan practice. Only the wealthy, educated, and connected had access to these advances so the flying winemaker, a globetrotting consultant who made his knowledge and expertise available to the wider community, was common. Grapes were a blank slate upon which the winemaker’s vision could be implemented. This too was misleading; despite new technologies you cannot make good wine from bad grapes.

In fact, this entire discourse ignores the collaborative, social dimension of winemaking. There is more to wine production than the winemaker and her grapes. Although the winemaker and her team contribute a great deal to the final product, wine is made in communities, communities that are part of traditions and situated within a context of a variety of actors who are influencing the final product, although that influence often happens under the radar and behind the scenes.

In addition to the head winemaker, there is the winemaker’s team that, in all but the smallest wineries, does most of the physical labor and executes the winemaker’s plan. Winery owners, even if they employ a winemaker, may nevertheless have input into creative decisions. Then there is the community of which the winery is a part, which includes factors such as zoning ordinances, land prices, and political factors that play a role in wine quality to the extent they regulate how business is to be conducted. There are laws that govern winemaking and labeling in each region, some in Europe quite restrictive specifying yield per acre, planting densities and vinification techniques that have a significant impact on wine quality. Winery associations function as a clearing house of information and a forum for discussion about wine production norms and quality assessments. Consumers provide various kinds of feedback that influence winemaking decisions; so do critics, writers and sommeliers that create a discourse about wine and help set the expectations of consumers. The scientific and academic communities increasingly supply crucial information to winemakers in all phases of their operation as do technology firms who often do significant research to advance their products. In addition, the general business and economic environment provides powerful incentives and constraints on decisions in the winery. The larger society, within which both producers and consumers function, has its own norms and preferences that may influence how wine and alcohol are perceived.

My point is that agency in the wine community is widely dispersed–creativity, the birth of the new, is seldom the work of an individual but emerges from a social milieu that shapes the final product. Yet if agency is dispersed, with independent actors making individual decisions affecting wine production, how is all of this coordinated?

There is in fact some sociology on this question that is directly applicable to wine. In his seminal work Art Worlds, Howard Becker studied the social milieu that enables artistic production. He describes the armies of support personnel that facilitate artistic creativity. But support personnel, although important, are not the main feature of art worlds. According to Becker, art worlds are organized via conventions that constrain both the artists and their support personnel. Conventions are the glue that bind art communities and foster the reproduction of styles and genres therein. People cooperating to make and display art do not make decisions cut off from the past. They rely on earlier agreements that have become customary, part of the conventional way of doing things in a particular art world. Sometimes the conventions arise from the technology or raw materials used in the production process. Often the conventions arise from the interpretation and consumption of cultural texts that comment on art. Regardless of their source, conventions constrain the kinds of choice available to artists long before they are faced with a particular creative decision.

Becker’s analysis can be directly applied to the wine world. Just as composers and musicians work within an implicit agreement to use particular scales and modes, winemakers use particular grape varieties for winemaking, employ methods and techniques inherited from previous generations even while supplemented by new technology, and they create within stylistic frameworks that in some cases have been around for centuries. For example, stylistic distinctions between red wine and white wine, sweet wine and dry wine, are maintained for the most part, with an occasional exception. Just as painters use an abstract idea such as perspective to convey the illusion of three dimensions, winemakers employ the abstract idea of terroir (the French term meaning “of the earth”) to convey a sense of authenticity and attachment to the geographical location in which the grapes are grown. Just as composers use the form of the symphony or sonata to make combinations of musical phrases intelligible to their listeners, the appropriate size of a wine bottle, the kind of information conveyed in tasting notes, and the proper format for tasting—starting with dry, light bodied white wines to heavier reds, to sweet wines—are all a matter of convention.

The stylistic consistency of wine within particular winemaking regions is also a matter of convention. In Barolo or Madiran, highly tannic red wines are the norm while in Beaujolais or Emilia-Romagna more modest tannins are expected. This is in part because of choices about which grape varieties to grow in these regions but these decisions are not made in a vacuum. Terroir is an expression of vineyard or regional characteristics. Yet it is not something that simply exists waiting to be discovered. It is shaped over time in a collaboration between culture and nature, in interaction with consumers and communicators within a social discourse that designates certain patterns of taste as authorized and worthy of reproduction.

Thus, terroir, the sense of place that wines grown under particular conditions exhibit, is as much a social structure as it is a set of physical characteristics, guiding the actions of winemakers and consumers within a wine region that views itself as a coherent entity. As a particular style of wine becomes entrenched in a region it comes to be understood as an expression of that particular place—again, a matter of convention.

In winemaking today, the relative absence of faults such as excessive volatile acidity or off flavors that result from the spoilage yeast brettanomyces, the assumption that most quality wine (with the exception of dessert wines) will be dry, the use of oak to age red wines but typically not most whites, norms governing pairing food with wine, the tendency on the part of consumers to drink wines young, and tasting room etiquette are all matters of convention. Each convention embodies aesthetic assumptions that prescribe a standard by which a work is judged aesthetically successful, a violation of which would lead a wine to be judged distasteful if not disgusting.

But if conventions are the centripetal force that holds wine worlds together, why do people remain committed to them in the absence of some centralized authority to enforce them? Intelligibility and efficiency are the two primary reasons Becker gives for the reproduction of conventions within art worlds. Audiences are able to grasp the meaning of a work of art and emotionally respond to it only because they share with the artist implicit agreements about how works are constructed. Similarly, wine lovers share with winemakers and others in the wine community conventional understandings of what wine should taste like that help consumers make sense of what the winemaker is doing. The need to be intelligible constrains the degree to which artists or winemakers can violate conventions.

But conventions are also important because they promote efficiency. Conventions make the coordination of activity among winemakers, support personnel, and the rest of the wine community easier. Everyone from equipment manufacturers to winery designers to vineyard labor must share assumptions about what wine is and how it is made if they are to do their jobs. Without conventions, each step in the production process as well as the process of appreciation would require separate negotiations and constant retraining, and experience would count for nothing.

However, wine worlds embody an additional factor which explains the persistence of conventions, one that is relatively absent from art world. Among the norms that govern wine worlds is a shared yet quite limited understanding of what wine is and the abstract meanings associated with wine—as a complement to meals, a symbol of the sweet life, a reflection of the sensibility of a community or a people, or a heroic struggle against nature. Wine as an aesthetic object is viewed against the background of these traditional meanings. They have a powerful influence on the styles of wines that consumers are willing to accept and thus constrain what winemakers do in the vineyard and winery and how wine lovers and communicators talk about wine. The current fascination with stories about the origins of a wine and its rootedness in family traditions emerges from a shared understanding of the wine life and what it means. Long before there were armies of Instagram addicts looking for the next new wine fad, wine had become rooted in local folkways and geographical characteristics. Thus, most winemakers and their customers look at wine through this traditional framing that constrains their thinking about new possibilities. Attacks on these sacred aesthetic beliefs attack the existing status arrangements within the wine community, which will strongly resist any pressures to change. Art worlds, especially in contemporary society, lack the deep respect for tradition that is one of the central meanings of wine.

Yet, despite the important role that conventions and traditions play in the wine world, change does occur.  As Becker points out in his discussion of art worlds “one can always do things differently if one is prepared to pay the price in increased effort or decreased circulation of one’s work”. The same is true in the wine world. Over the past few decades we have seen a massive shift in preferences for dry wine over sweet wine. New world wine regions in the U.S., South America, Australia and New Zealand, among others, have risen to challenge the old world largely on the basis of greater ripeness and higher alcohol—styles that have recently come under attack by a strong counter movement toward more balance and lower alcohol. An International style has emerged to challenge the hegemony of local tastes thanks to technologies that enable a homogenized flavor profile to be produced almost anywhere. A whole new category of wine—Super Tuscans—emerged from the bastions of Italian tradition toppling Chianti, Brunello and Barolo from the list of most sought after wines, while styles of Chardonnay shift like mountain weather. Natural wine continues to grow in popularity, in some cases showing flavor profiles that transform our idea of what wine should taste like. Despite the commitment to tradition, the wine world is dynamic and changing.

The problem then is to explain aesthetic change in the wine community. In a community so tied to tradition, how is innovation possible? When the new emerges and is successful, creativity achieved, that constitutes a shift in style. How do these shifts in style take place? What guides them? Who are the main actors and what do they contribute?

For more on the philosophy of food wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution