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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Wine Talk: Cosmopolitanism with a Human Face

Draft. Do not quote. Presented at the Third International Conference on Philosophy and Wine. Pollenzo, Italy 30-31 May 2008.

As a Milanese living abroad since 1992, I have always been sensitive to the different weights different cultures give to various topics in conversation: when I moved to Paris for example, I was a little shocked at the beginning by the predominance of talk about food and wine at dinners, a kind of conversation that was proscribed at the almost “protestant” tables of the Milanese bourgeoisie. I was even more shocked in discovering that food was becoming a topic of conversation among academic friends and colleagues in countries such as England, United States and Australia. Some academic workshops started to change “style” by the late Nineties: while travelling around I had the impression that in many occasions local organizers were slowly replacing Spartan meals at the university refectories and cafeterias by more interesting dinners in local restaurants, thus transforming the severity of the intellectual trip in a richer human and cultural experience of discovery of new tastes. Food and wine were becoming an international topic of intellectual conversation, as music and art were since longtime: they were dramatically changing their position and legitimacy in the hierarchy of discourse in a way that other intimate and everyday life topics were not (talking about children and styles of hairdressing for example – were, and are, still in the realm of private life). Food and wine have joined the realm of “high-culture”: culinary traditions have been recognised by the UNESCO as part of the cultural “immaterial patrimony of the humanity”[1], quite an odd recognition for the most animal, natural and material among human behaviours. A conference such as the one we are attending these days here in the temple of the Slow Food cultural movement, is an example of this positional change.

Of course, this is just anecdotical, and my proposal here is not to provide a serious sociological explanation of what made the transition of food talk from the slums of private pleasures and urges to the glories of the academic high-tables possible. Rather, I will try to argue that the new role of food talk, and, in particular, of wine talk, in our contemporary culture is due to a special relation that the new wine industry was able to entertain with a certain image of cosmopolitanism that has entered our global culture and with what is acknowledged as “civilized conversation” in this culture. As if the wine world was able to suggest a landscape of reconciliation between the inevitable globalization of the means of production and markets and an intimate need for anchoring our identity in local traditions and legacies.

In the last two decades, globalization has taken place. On the one hand, it has realized an ancient Marxist nightmare, that is, that the imperatives of capitalist production inevitably would have led the bourgeoisie to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, and establish connections everywhere.”[2] On the other hand, it has simultaneously realized a Marxist dream, that is, that the instruments of “capitalist exploitation” - new technologies that increased possibilities for human interaction across borders - would have provided in the end the necessary infrastructure for a cosmopolitan future civilization. Globalization thus concentrates all our deep and contradictory fears and hopes. Global, deterritorialized, liberal trading imposes acceleration on the standardization and rationalization of forms of production and exchange. For an item (and I am referring here to all sort of items or goods, a medication, a cultural product like a book, a scientific result, etc.) to go “global” it has to undertake a series of transformations that make it suitable for entering a reliable and efficient chain of production and transmission that sustains its diffusion around the world. This seems to lead to an inevitable uniformity of goods and to a growing dominance of common rational standards of production to the detriment of variety and cultural diversity. The frightening face of the global world thus presents itself as a desert landscape, a flatland of conformism in which all interesting differences will rapidly vanish away. But, as I said, this goes together with positive hopes, such as that the interconnectedness of the global world is creating new forms of conversations and trustful interactions among different people sharing common concerns and values while keeping different standpoints and perspectives.

The two faces of globalization solicit two very different forms of trust (or, sometimes, distrust): the first one is a trust in the reliability of the techno-scientific mode of production and transmission that makes globalization possible: it is a form of trust that is based on the technical expertise of producers and in the rational design of the means of distribution as well as the respect of the standards. It is a trust that comes out of a loss of control: we cannot control anymore all the steps that go from the production of an item to its delivery to us. So we need some reasons to be confident in the reliability of the process that selects and filters what we come up to buy, to eat or to even to know. It’s an impersonal trust more on the credibility of the reliable and rational design of social institutions and processes that on people. The second is a form of trust that comes out of the interconnectedness of the world that makes new encounters and conversations possible: it is a trust based on our relations with others and on an optimistic stance towards the opportunity we have today to share common values and conversations even with people whom we do not clearly share norms and customs.

The food and wine industry are especially concerned with this tension. Eating and drinking make us part of a food chain that starts somewhere under the land and terminates into our stomachs. This makes us dramatically vulnerable to other people’s decisions and choices. As Michael Pollan rightly points out in his last book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma[3], one of the most natural human activity, that of preparing and consuming meals every day, doesn’t rely anymore on our spontaneous capacities of choosing what to eat, but on a complex system of trust relationships that involve experts, marketing strategies, dietary advisors and policy makers. Food industry has obscured the natural connection we have with our bodies and our territory. But, on the other hand, the possibility today of sharing at a global level our eating and drinking experiences, as well as our fears about the risks of the spreading of a technocratic alimentary industry, has given to many of us the access to a new form of sharing our tastes at a new level, and – I argue - to get rid of some of our “unreal loyalties” to our cultural niches and folklore and take part into a broader conversation which nonetheless is deeply entrenched in local identities and cultural temperaments. Global networks such as for example Terra Madre, a Slow-Food initiative whose aim is to preserve, encourage, and support sustainable food production methods by allowing small local producers all around the world to gather and share their savoir-faire, are an example of these new conversations that require an effort of adaptation to a new sense of community for those who participate. It is a community that shares values about food production methods, which should be based on attention to territory and those distinctive qualities that have permitted the land to retain its fertility over centuries of use. This vision is in direct opposition to pursuing a globalized marketplace, with the systematic goal of increasing profit and productivity. Yet, it is thanks to global network that this initiative can thrive and to the capacity of its members to adapt to the conversational standards of this network. On a more modest note, even a very personal example, such as the blog that Noga Arikha and I write at is an instance of the articulation of very personal experience and sense of what a good meal is within a global network, the blogs, that allows us to share our local dinners in Paris and New York between us and with people around the world.

Food and wine have thus exacerbated this contrast between forms of trust. The hypothesis that I would like to advance in a very informal way, more as an attempt to find a cultural interpretation of a phenomenon than to provide an explanation for it, is that the rise of food and wine talk in our worldly conversations lies in the particular way that at least a fraction of this production has succeeded in articulating our trust in reliable, new ways of production and circulation of goods and our will to take part into cosmopolitan conversations, where no one is expected to converge on a single mode of life, but only to share some common tastes and manners without abjuring to local allegiances and perspectives.

But let’s try to argue for this in a more concrete manner through a brief excursus on the globalization of wine markets since 1990. Globalization of wine markets means many different things. On the one hand, the mastery of new agricultural techniques by many producers and the rapid diffusion of innovations such as drip irrigation, new trellis systems and techniques, grape chilling etc, started to modify the way of production of many European producers, thus enhancing the quality of their products and the possibility of market expansion. The decade 1990-2000 was a prosperous era for European winemakers. On the other hand, during the same decade, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States started to impose themselves as real competitors to the European monopoly of wine production, export and consumption. If we take the export, between 1988 and 1999, this New World group’s combined share of global wine exports grew from 3 to 16 per cent in value terms. When intra-European Union (EU) trade is excluded, Europe’s decline in dominance is even more dramatic: from 91 per cent to 66 per cent, while the New World’s share grows from 8 to 31 per cent. And of the world’s top ten wine exporters, which account for 90 per cent of the value of international wine trade, half are in Western Europe and the other half are New World suppliers. Rates of consumption modified also radically within the same period. Just as an example, while France and Italy were facing a decrease of consumption of – 16% and – 8% respectively, due to a change in preventive health policies in both countries, Australia, United States and China saw a growth of consumption respectively of + 32%, + 43% and + 115 %.[4] New producers were relying often on much bigger vineyards, thus allowing more important economies of scale and a better ability to negotiate with mass market retailers.

Globalization of wine was perceived by European producers as a shock and, by most of them as a “bad thing”. An industry that had for centuries relied on local savoir-faire and national regulations and norms that institutionalised and reinforced the status-quo (appellation system, etc) was facing a competition with “strangers” who did not necessarily share the same conception of control on wine. Indeed, if some general rules and principles are shared by almost all producers, like the definition of wine or the control over the use of chemical products, others are ignored (like the use of transgenic rootstocks (porte-greffe) or the control on irrigation). More generally, world-wine was perceived as a standardized product, a challenge to the colourful personalities and local and temporal (year by year) varieties of wine typical of the traditional production. For example, it has been claimed at lenght that red world-wine has standardized its taste in order to comply with the following international “taste-profile”:

  • Wine should have a very dark color-the darker, the better;
  • It should have very ripe, fruity flavors;
  • It should have a minimum of 14° alcohol; even more alcohol is okay;
  • The wine's tannins should be very soft;
  • The wine's acidity level should be low;
  • The wine should be voluptuous, or velvety, on the palate;
  • Most of the wine's flavor should be on the front of the palate[5].

But from the perspective of the emergent markets, wine globalization was perceived on a more positive note as a form of democratization of taste. Robert Parker, the internationally acclaimed “taste-pundit” in the world of wine, whose 100 points-based system of wine rating has revolutionized the wine market, presents himself as the advocate of a new class of wine consumers liberated from the inferiority complex towards the Old World. And indeed, the fact that so many people joined the pleasures of wine taste around the world made the market of wine less elitist. Also, if we take countries such as South Africa or Argentina and Chile, their presence on the international scene of wine world and the new image that these countries associated with their production was really connected to the process of democratization that these countries had undertaken and the willingness to give an image of themselves as “civilized” interlocutors on the international scene.

Still, it is true that wine taste today is partly due to the separation, so common in all food industry today, between the “taste-design” process, that is conceived and designed by experts (like the famous or infamous Austrialian flying winemakers that zip around the world, jumping from one season to the next, and taking advantage of the rotation of the globe to spread their expertise and grow the same wine everywhere) and the local characteristics of different soils and plants’ varieties. As the international taste was an abstraction, the outcome of a “cold” process of refining a flavour to please an abstract entity, the “ideal” palate of a generic consumer that could be located anywhere in the globe.

To put it roughly, the tension between the Old World and the New World of wine can be framed as a tension on two opposite interpretations of the role that two key concepts, democratization and civilization were playing in the globalization of wine market. While the Old World was perceiving the democratization of wine taste as an inevitable loss in “civilization”, the price to pay to give access to the many to the civilised pleasures, the New World was perceiving the same phenomenon as a step towards a new global civilization, which challenged an imperial view of civilisation of wine taste imposed by Europe.

The two attitudes were both plausible: civilization is an intrinsically normative concept: it refers to a human cultural patrimony that is potentially valuable for all humankind. But this patrimony is culturally situated: it stems from a particular nation, with its territories and cities. According to Norbert Elias[6] the concept of civilization (civilisation in French) refers ambiguously in the European Renaissance to the cultural, political, scientific accomplishments of a society and the behaviours and attitudes of its members (the good manners, the taste preferences of the “civilized” man). Even if the German term kultur refers to a more limited portion of the civilising process, that is, its intellectual, artistic and religious accomplishments, the term “cultivated” (kultiviert in German) refers also to the civilized manners: being cultivated refers to a form of people’s conduct or behaviour. As Elias says “it describes a social quality of people, their housing, their manners, their speech, their clothing”[7] Global civilization, if distinguished from imperialism and colonialism (that is, the imposing rules, manners and norms of life that stem from a centre of power) thus sounds as an oxymoron: either you are well mannered and national, or you are global, may be more democratic, but uncivilised.

Even the idea of a cosmopolitan citizenship, that has been so fashionable these years in order to try to find a way out to these contradictions[8], has raised some doubts, as it evokes an “unpleasant posture of superiority toward the putative provincial. You imagine a Comme des Garçons-clad sophisticate with platinum frequent-flyer card regarding, with kindly condescension, a ruddy-faced farmer in workman’s overalls”[9]

Yet, what I want to argue as a conclusion, is that the rise of world-wine contributed and contributes to a more suitable conception of cosmopolitanism “with a human face” that is necessary to build a new global culture without erasing the local standpoints. The globalized taste of the wines from the emergent market had a huge impact on the taste of wine even in the Old World, and it is hard to argue that this was just to the detriment of local traditions. Local traditions, if they do not want to become pure folklore, have to evolve even if sometimes this means to pay a price to its own identity and accepting that others, “the strangers” or the “uncivilized” may teach something new to you. Standardized worldwine tastes have something to teach to local traditions, at least by making them aware of an update of how the manners and needs of people around the world are evolving.

And as the rise of world-wine grows, its discrimination becomes more fine-grained: styles of worldwine start to develop, insisting on the notion of terroir and matching grapes and winemaking styles to particular locations. Californian producers, which started with a very simplified system of wine denomination, that included on the label just the name of the producer and the variant of grape, have started since already 10 years to put on their labels the name of local renowned vineyards now associated to a grape variety, such as Zinfandel in Dry-Creek Valley and Pinot Noir in Carneros. Differentiation of areas and vineyards is still ongoing, rankings and evaluations are multiplying. Instead of the desert landscape of an uniform wine, the globalized wine is becoming part of a global “civilizing” process in which conversations multiply and help to make explicit some common concerns for quality and respect of the difference. Wine has entered its cosmopolitan face, as many other products have, but this doesn’t coincide with a loss of identity and quality. There is no room anymore for a local standpoint of view, because the simple contact with global phenomena has irreducibly changed our way of perceiving our own identity and locality. Wine-talk is part of an attempt to construct a valuable shared culture (or civilisation) of taste, a cosmopolitanism with a human face that reinforces both kinds of trust: trust in the respect of the processes and trust in people who attach to these processes the richness and value of their local perspective. What kind of talk wine talk is that makes it so suitable for cosmopolitan conversations? It is mainly a sharing of different rankings, a meta-normative talk about what is good and bad. Exchanging rankings, that is, evaluated information, is one of the central ingredient of a new, emergent global culture. One could see the whole networked culture made possible by the Web as a giant network of ranking and rating systems in which information is valued as long as it has been already filtered by other people. In an informationally-dense but normatively uncertain environment as the global society, exchanging rankings becomes a crucial step towards the construction of a common culture. That is how culture grows, how traditions are created. A cultural tradition is, to begin with, a labelling system of insiders and outsiders, of who stays on and who is lost in the magma of the past. Wine talk is a talk that helps to establish new, exchangeable ranking of taste, thus providing a common ground to negotiate a new, shared cultural identity.

[1] Cf.

[2] K. Marx (1848) Manifesto

[3] Cf. M. Pollan (2006) The Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals, Pengouin.

[4] Cf. Report of European Commission 2006 : Vin. Economie du secteur, Direction générale de l’Agriculture, February 2006.

[5] Ed McCarthy, “The Case Against Globalization of Wine”, Wine Review

[6] N. Elias (1994) The Civilizing Process : Sociogenetics and Psychogenetics, Blackwell, Oxford.

[7] Cf. ibidem. p. 6.

[8] See for example A. Appiah (2006) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, W. W. Norton, New York, who contrasts the notion of “cosmopolitanism” to that of “globalization” and “multiculturalism”.

[9] Cf. Appiah, cit., p. xiii.