The New Gastronome
Of Words & Wine
In Search of a World Where the Pen and the Hoe Can Get Along
by Morgana Germanetto
by Morgana Germanetto
Maybe some decades ago, we could have gathered outside an osteria, or in small cafés to talk about the weather, politics, or share our ideas about how to save the world. And if someone was coming up with unjustified judgments or motiveless evil, we would have made him or her keep their mouths shut, or, even better, poured ourselves another glass of wine to forget that weirdness.
Today, our social platform has radically changed. After exhausting hours spent at the office desk, we may surprise ourselves, knock-off a drink in our hand, taking part in animated discussions on Facebook groups, deciding how many migrants we should or should not rescue from the sea, whether the winner of the latest Masterchef’s edition has actually deserved the throne, or if the new vintage released by that Sicilian producer really merited such a high score.
Except that, this time, unlike the beautiful osteria where we used to argue, nobody will prevent us from destroying our reputation, or, even worse, from damaging other people’s destiny permanently. Verba volant, scripta manent. And in the multifaceted world of wine, writing tendencies have evolved so much, that they have not only had a crucial impact on consumers’ choices but on producers’ choices, as well.
Wine has always played a predominant role, despite different nuances, in many societies around the world. But, when did wine writing start? The first indication of wine writers seems to date back to the first century: in Rome, authors like Columella and Varrone, with De re rustica, wrote about wine in amphora and illustrated vine trellis systems.
Italy sees its trade and culture shaped by wine which, indeed, becomes an essential element of the Mediterranean cultural identity. As a matter of fact, wine embodies a crucial pillar of the national economy: it is an agricultural commodity with a nutrient, healing and hygienic function, apart from releasing joy and alleviating concerns. Moreover, the scarcity of this good – which cannot be produced everywhere, but is craved by many – makes it extremely valuable, boosting commerce and exchanges of any kind.
However, its importance is primarily connected to visceral needs and remains deeply enrooted in the land. As a consequence, early wine writing mainly concentrated on ampelography, the “writing of the vine”, agricultural practices and descriptions of the different grape varieties. In the Middle Ages, miniatures’ subjects mostly corresponded to works and instruments employed in the vineyards. But society evolved, water became drinkable, Europe discovered other beverages that were able to provide comfort, conviviality and, most importantly, that were alcohol-free, so they finally got rid of that intoxicating, yet fascinating power.
Therefore, wine changed its functions and gradually became a luxury good, a status symbol. Little by little, from the end of the 16th century until our times, drinking wine has represented a taste for cultural refinement, a savoir-faire. Wine gains value for the image that lies behind the action of drinking it. A glass of wine is able to convey a certain idea of a woman or man, and vice versa, a man or a woman swirling a glass of wine are highly emblematic of a kind of lifestyle.
“‘Wine has always played a predominant role, despite different nuances, in many societies around the world. But, when did wine writing start? The first indication of wine writers seems to date back to the first century: in Rome, authors like Columella and Varrone, with De re rustica, wrote about wine in amphora and illustrated vine trellis systems.“
Nevertheless, back in the Middle Ages, the “darkest” of the eras, wine was not just a matter of style, but it embodied the actual proof that human beings could dominate and control nature from a raw material: grapes, which were getting spoiled because of the fermentation process. They imprinted a precise direction to the process and prevented the liquid from becoming vinegar; instead, they turned it into something extraordinary. To quote the diva,
Meryl Streep : “Take your broken heart, turn it into art.”
Then, because of our typical control-mania, the human’s immeasurable ego, in one word, the intellectual hybris, we let the pen take over the hoe, the wine critic prevailed on the vigneron’s work.
Wine is not just “booze” to everybody. Only the most delicate and trained palates are able to pick out refined aromas of red fruit, cigar box and fox-fur-in-the-morning-rain. Wine connoisseurs only drink old vintages, and they like sniffing their glasses and swirling them violently. Why do they all specifically want to distinguish themselves from the “average” consumers and, at the same time, all surprisingly agree on what to like? In this context, wine writing not only informs consumers, but influences their taste, dictating the most admirable style of the moment.
This occurrence became so extreme that, in fact, wine writing started influencing wine production, shaping the market. In order to see their own bottle being published and scoring 100 points on the coolest magazine, and getting importers to increase their yearly order, producers started grubbing up their autochthonous varieties to plant what the market, or better, some writers, were demanding, sometimes even manipulating their wines to make them all taste the same, all “better”.
Nonetheless, we belong to the world of the fastest click, to the culture of the instant change and wine, unlike other commodities, is deeply rooted in the life cycle. Nature makes the last call. We cannot imagine planting grapes just because we die for pleasing the market’s needs. We will need three years to actually see the first fruits ripening, timidly, from the shoots, probably tasting like nothing at all. We will need other five years before having something marketable. In the meanwhile, people will drink bubble tea, blue wine or unicorn tears!
Sadly, many wines were born to please specific palates, thanks to famous “recipes” held by the so-called “flying” winemakers, who built their own fortune around the world advising producers properly and letting them conquer that precious score. The dream? From the United States to France, from Tuscany to Australia, to receive 100 points from Robert Parker even once.
Homogenization, as it happens in all fields of culture, of life. If we are all the same, if we share the same taste, then we will feel alright, we will belong to something. The poorer we are, the richer we feel. And if I love what Parker does, well, I am a wine connoisseur.
If we look him up on google.it, the brief description we will find is “enologo”, such as oenologist, in the sense of winemaker. The actual definition of winemaker in the Dictionary cites: «a person who makes wine; specifically: one who supervises the wine-making process at a winery» (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
In point of fact, Robert Parker obtained a degree as Juris Doctor and worked for several years as a general counsel for the Farm Credit Banks of Baltimore, before devoting his career to being a wine critic. Did he take part in a grape harvest, once in his life? Did he wake up in the night, to light up candles in the vines and protect buds against the frost? Did he sleep in front of a cask, waiting for the malolactic to finish? Did he rack his wine at 2 am because he was scared of reduction?
What is certain, though, is that we let a lawyer tell us how to make our wines, instead of listening to those who have dedicated a whole life to the vineyards.
The truth is, we never attach too much importance to what we eat, ingest, let enter our bodies and be part of us. Then, we are ready to spend huge amounts of money on beauty treatments and plastic surgery, but we are not willing to pay more than €1 for the milk we will drink every morning.
Eating is a political act. Our choices determine the market and not only the survival of many producers but also the one of traditions, agricultural practices and entire places on this planet. And this is especially true today, because of the speed at which we receive information, share knowledge and opinions about whatever surrounds us.
The Internet has shortened every imaginable distance, technology and trend that shapes our way of living. When we sit at a restaurant, the biggest concern is to get the ideal shot of the dish for our Instagram post, to pick the smartest hashtag, instead of having our delicious pasta alla norma hot and tasty right away. Web communication hugely impacts our choices and behaviours and, of course, a wine critic perfectly fits within this context. Blog posts, articles, scores have become an essential tool in the market, writing the fortune or the disgrace for millions of producers.
“The truth is, we never attach too much importance to what we eat, ingest, let enter our bodies and be part of us. Then, we are ready to spend huge amounts of money on beauty treatments and plastic surgery, but we are not willing to pay more than €1 for the milk we will drink every morning.“
In this sense, it is essential that wine tellers feel and fear the big responsibility resting in their pens – exactly in the same way as the vigneron can cause the biggest damage with their hoe and influence the yearly production, the fate of his family and employees –, writers need to understand that their words can sign the death certificate or the eternal glory for thousands of wine producers, families and appellations. They are not just writing about a wine, but
they have to account for centuries of history, of lands, of traditions, of human beings.
A revolution in the way we intend wine is urgently needed. If we think of the function it covered in the past, as a nutrient, medicinal, hygienic, sacred beverage, bringing joy and lightness in the spirit, we cannot deny the highly personal relationship established with each drinker. In Medieval times, wine was drunk to alleviate concerns, to seek nutrients; it gained value just when it related to a human being. Wine was the miracle: for once, humans had controlled nature, won the inevitable decay and turned it into life. Wine was the light in the dark century.
Today, if we managed to enhance the act of drinking, as the ingestion not only of a liquid, but of a whole terroir in its wide meaning, we would realize how wine drinking is actually a journey of self-discovery. The macrocosm of its background mingles together with the intimacy of our microcosm. If we feel these fine interconnections between the glass and our souls, we would reduce the distance between us and the wine, forget about an idea of wine tasting primarily related to a pretentious élite. Consumers are free to like what resembles them, as long as they are conscious that their purchases have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.
At last, wine writing will follow this slower rhythm, giving voices to stories, to places, to people. It will invite us to take the nose out of the glass, and plunge our heart into it. It will attempt to reveal all the poetry, all the beauty. Wine writers will be more similar, indeed, to vintners: they assist, accompany the ripening of the fruit, trying not to force, but to look after it until it can be picked. Similarly, the winemaker has not to ruin, not to rush, but to continue the journey started in the vineyards, leading to wine. In the same way, wine critics will carry along the job, completing the circle, helping people dive into the glass, discover the wine world, without any inferiority concern, any “wine anxiety” but, ultimately, allowing consumers to rediscover themselves and their identities. And finally, we will see the pen and the hoe walking together, in the vineyards.