Did you know that Bwog was an armchair oenologist? Neither did we, until today. Please raise your Nalgenes as we venture together into the mysterious world of wine columns. We hope to be bringing back whatever wisdom we can garner from free tastings at International, instructional YouTube videos, and the notoriously inconsequential conjectures of the social sciences. Former Bwog editor Claire Sabel comes out of retirement in the name of terroir.
During her talk on Wednesday evening at EC’s Heyman Center, the adorably French and effortlessly eloquent sociologist Marion Fourcade offered a persuasive account of “the relationship of social classification to social structure” using the example of the state-controlled classification systems of wine in the Burgundy region. She illustrated the relevance of the proposition made by Émile Durkheim, that the way we judge things follows the way we judge people, barring her use of slides from Asterix.
Fourcade analyzed the social, economic, and historical factors that lend the culture of wine production and consumption such an air of connoisseurship and esoterism. By illustrating the historical contingency of the concept of terroir—the particular geological, climatic, and ecological factors determining the subtleties of any particular grape—she exposed the supposedly “scientific” consensus as one that was more directly structured around social and political interests. A gross simplification of the notoriously tricky Bordeaux classification, is that the richest and most powerful people certified that their wine was the best, and thus reaped the profits from the lucrative and artificially imposed certification.
“Social context does indeed structure sensory experience,” Fourcade argued. So when you taste a fabulously expensive bottle of wine, the correspondingly fabulous taste reflects the price tag, rather than the chemical reactions taking place on your tongue. This should come as no particular surprise—there was a time when you probably would have sacrificed a limb for a shiny Pokémon card, yet it is worth investigating why wine should sustain such a particularly complex infrastructure of imagined value and expertise.
Nowhere in the Core will you learn about the other judgement of Paris, a famous blind taste-test from 1976 when American wines triumphed over some of the most exclusive French vintages. But it is a pretty publicly-acknowledged fact that the amount of enjoyment you derive from drinking wine has almost everything to do with the information you’re equipped with before tasting it.
The discussant, renowned historian of science Steven Shapin (who happens to look a wee bit like Asterix himself) brought a welcome bit of science into the mix. He pointed out that although terroir may not be a scientific way of assessing taste, there is nevertheless a scientific basis to the outwardly fanciful business of tasting notes. The classic example is the so called “green bell pepper flavor” in Cabernet Sauvignon. Chemical research has shown that certain characteristics of the viticulture of this grape produces compounds in the wine that are also found in the vegetable.
What are the physiological and psychological differences, Shapin asked, between what a wine expert experiences in an unlabeled bottle alone in a room, and (allow a spot of poetic license) what we feel over celebratory Franzia. More importantly, how can a critic’s nose and palate be insured for one million dollars?
I hope to discover this, and more, over the course of the coming year. If you want to join in, you might begin by checking out International’s free tastings, every Thursday through Saturday, from 5 to 8 pm. They’ll be serving whatever salesmen dump on them and it might also be spirits. As Nietzsche said (both really, and also not really) “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Strength in numbers via Wikimedia Commons