Why "traditional" wine is inherently bullshit

James Sligh is a brilliant sommelier and writer, who also hosts the delightfully post-colonial Children's Atlas of Wine online club and tasting series. Sligh's knack for knowledge and words means that he's not just interested in the way that wines tastes — he's also deeply engaged with the cultural, historical, and geopolitical context of the wine.

Case-in-point: Sligh has a wonderful new article over at Punch Drink about how basically all of our modern categorizations of wine — all those fancy elitist-sounding "traditions" that one might expect a sommelier to wax philosophical on at some over-priced restaurant — how all these things are, in fact, just a bunch of gatekeeping colonialist bullshit. "Myths are braided tightly into wine's history, perpetuating the concept of its heritage as exclusively European, European culture as exclusively white and history itself as immutable," he writes. "I want to suggest that what we think of as wine 'tradition' is more of a selective misremembering than an unbroken chain."

I can drink Guillot's "910" in my Brooklyn apartment; the monks wouldn't have been able to get their barrels across the Atlantic before they spoiled. Grape varieties hadn't really been invented yet, and pinot noir wouldn't be referred to by name for another 400 years.

Move forward another thousand years or so, to 1878. That year, the merchant house of Louis Latour showed red Champagne-method versions of Burgundy grand cru vineyards like Vougeot and Richebourg at the Paris Exhibition, to a drinking public rapt with bubbly wine. The Champagne method was complicated, owed its early invention to the English and had taken about two centuries to perfect. Long before it became a pandemic meme—"It's only quarantine if it's from the Quarante region of France; otherwise it's just sparkling isolation"—Champagne was a modern beverage technology sweeping the globe, and the merchant houses didn't worry whether the grapes they bought were from Champagne, or even from France.

While Sligh's focus here is, of course, on wine, his writing gets at a deeper truth about institutional knowledge in the post-industrial age. As World Wars and rapid manufacturing technology advancements simultaneously united and divided us, a lot of people became obsessed with arbitrary signifying. The successful "titans of industry" sold products, yes, but they also sold stories of authenticity — which were also just marketing tools for the selective retroactive re-writing of history, specifically to sell more product. But as industrialization and globalization spread, most people ate up the lies, then regurgitated them as truth. And that's how things like wine (or language, or labor, or collective cultural memories in general, etc etc) became commodified and politicized. Sure, if we're being technical, then "champagne" is specifically sparkling wine from Champagne. But why? And who decides that that arbitrary technicality actually means anything of value? Why isn't all sparkling wine named for its region of origin?

Sligh frames this argument better than I do; he is, after all, the wine expert. And he ultimately spins his thesis into an inspiring and positive message, looking forwards to a more inclusive future for everyone. It's some damn impressive writing and thinking, even if you don't give a shit about wine.

If you do give a shit about wine, I would highly recommend signing up for one of Sligh's Children's Atlas of Wine courses (which I previously wrote about here). With the winter festival season coming up, his classes also make for some excellent gifts. Who doesn't want some post-colonial deconstructionist wine drinking for the holidays?

The Myth of "Old World" Wine [James Sligh / Punch Drink]

This cool new wine club walks you through terroir, taste, and history with a sommelier's hand-painted maps [BoingBoing]

Image: Public Domain via NeedPix