Andrew Jefford considers the place of wine, and the options for wine lovers, in an increasingly turbulent world.
A glass of wine is not a wholly autonomous object, though those writing about it often seem to consider it as such. It is an object in the world. What sort of object?
It’s an agricultural product, first of all, and not just any; in many ways, wine stands at the apex of ‘agriculture’ as a culture. Its production is vested in distinguished sites, some of them known and lauded for centuries. The product is often crafted into wine by the farmer who has grown it in the first place; and it is a celebrated and much-discussed item of international trade. The prices achieved by the world’s finest wines mean that vineyards occupy the world’s most precious agricultural land. Wine, moreover, makes farmers into global superstars. The fact that this website has over 500,000 users every month underlines the uniqueness and preciousness of this culture. No other agricultural product is globally celebrated in this way.
Now let’s move on to the world, and specifically the extraordinary times unfolding around us. We’ll then bring the two together.
How extraordinary are our times? Those searching for examples are spoiled for choice. The deliberate use of insult, of slander and of lies by those occupying high global office; systematic mind manipulation and the subversion of electoral processes in a world of intense post-military conflict; the jailing of journalists and the dismantling of an independent judiciary by NATO members; and the demonization of immigrants, refugees and those who have suffered ill-fortune as a populist tool to win power and to usurp constitutional rights: for most of my lifetime, this would have been the stuff of dystopian or science fiction.
They are now, astonishingly, daily items of news — in a world in which unilateralism, threats, posturing, bullying and sanctions are superseding multilateralism and consensus. This fragmentation, moreover, comes as climate change presents modern humans with existential risk. This challenge can only be met by multilateral responses. Agriculture, wine-production included, will sit at the front line of any ensuing catastrophe.
Some might consider these ‘political’ questions … and go on to suggest that wine is apolitical, beyond politics or, better still, an antidote to politics. I have a sympathetic nostalgia for that point of view. These are not, though, ‘merely’ political questions.
We are not bickering over details of governance. These are moral, even ontological questions. Is there any excuse for lying, bullying and slander? Is it ever legitimate for outside agents to seek to influence the outcome of an election or a referendum, and so erode social cohesion? What should our response be to the suffering of others? Where does responsibility lie for environmental damage, and how do we ensure that our descendants have the kind of viable future which will allow them not only a glass of wine to enjoy at the end of the day, but the peace to enjoy it in tranquility?
The defining feature of our extraordinary times, if you like, is that every certitude is now open to disruption, and every point on the moral compass of public life is quivering and sliding. This affects everything and everyone, wine and wine lovers included. We are all moral beings; we are all economic actors; most of us have some kind of stake in the future. It would be irresponsible, in today’s world, to make any kind of decision or adopt any course of action without considering the way it might impact our extraordinary times.
There have been moments in history like this (notably Europe in the late 1930s), but the stakes today are higher still. Nuclear war is unwinnable. Environmental catastrophe will constitute mass murder on the largest scale (as it already has for many of those creatures with whom we once shared our planet).
I have argued previously that boycotts “are counterproductive and often hurt those they are designed to help”. I still believe that. There are, though, many other ways in which wine lovers might involve themselves in fighting climate change, combating the disruption which characterizes our extraordinary times, and helping reset the moral compass of public life.
As an agricultural product, growing vines draw down CO2, but processing and transporting this widely exported product, usually in new glass bottles, has considerable adverse environmental impact.
Wine production is in the hands of innumerable growers and producers around the world, as well as a small but significant number of larger producers. Those growers have a social and political significance of their own in leading wine-producing regions as an electoral block. Larger producers often become emblematic, high-profile figures within a national exporting community.
Wine enjoys more intense media coverage than any other agricultural product, and is a visible element of wine-producing nations’ external trade. Fine wines are high-status agricultural commodities. Nations and companies are extremely sensitive about their wine image. The wealthy and the influential love to involve themselves in wine production for ‘legacy’ reasons.
Much the same is true of retailers. Wine is often a way for large retailers to gild their image, and associate themselves with the positive messages that wine’s lustre helps generate.
Governments, finally, take a close interest in wine retail and wine consumption, in part because of its health implications as an alcoholic beverage, but no less significantly because of its tax-raising abilities. They, too, are aware of its highly mediatised nature. The opinions of wine lovers have consequences.
What you might choose to do is up to you – but there are many roads to action. Any wine producer can be challenged on its use of a heavy glass bottle or its proposals for mitigating carbon emissions. Retailers should have climate-change policies and proposals affecting their wine ranges. Governments can be challenged – by you as a purchaser of that nation’s products — on their policies on human rights and the rule of law, on the protection of the vulnerable, on their support for international organizations, and on their response to the challenge posed by climate change.
It would be legitimate to ask any US wine producer for its corporate views on the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate-change mitigation, or on the unilateral imposition of economic sanctions on other nations. Hungarian wine producers might be asked how they view their government’s criminalization of those providing help to asylum-seekers, or denial of food to asylum-seekers held in transit zones. It would be interesting to have leading Italian wine exporters’ views on the Interior Minister’s proposed Italian census by ethnicity, his expressed contempt for immigrants and minorities, or his praise for President Putin and denigration of the European Union. In a world in which everything is connected and everything is significant, these are no longer irrelevant questions.
Responses can be shared on social media — but it is not the responses which count; it is troubling to ask the question which matters. That puts you and your concern, as a wine lover, on the radar of those with some economic and political influence. Your involvement is a ‘negative consequence’ of a particular course of action – slight in itself, but not insignificant. Doing nothing, by contrast, can always be construed as acquiescence. Adolf Hitler was appointed German Chancellor in January 1933. Should British wine lovers have carried on serenely sipping fine Mosel Kabinett and Spätlese wines through the six years which followed? Or should they have paused in their purchase of those wines, and troubled to engage with German wine producers and suppliers to explain why they were stopping?
Wine is not as innocent as we wish it was; the wine world is not a refuge from politics in its largest sense. Those who consider a glass of wine an autonomous object are naïve. Everything counts. There has never been as much at stake as today. We make the future with every action we take. Or don’t take.
Read Andrew Jefford’s other ‘August essays’: