Seven Days in the Wine World

Thursday, 10 December, 2009
Neil Pendock
Most art appreciation takes place visually. Which is not to knock the aural art of James Webb whose dad Gyles takes Cabernet Sauvignon to minty heights at Helshoogte.
 Nor the facile texture of a Dylan Lewis cat sculpture, if you have one lurking in the shrubbery outside your winery. For art luvvies, the eye is the dominant organ of appreciation, acting the same role that the nose and mouth play for the lover of wine.

Starting from the assumption that Wine is olfactory/tasteable Art, a translation of sociologist Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World (Granta, 2009) from best seller to best cellar is a no-brainer. Herewith the first paragraph of her introduction with wine replacing art:

"Seven Days in the Wine World is a time capsule of a remarkable period in the history of wine in which the wine market boomed, tasting room attendance surged, and more people than ever were able to abandon their day jobs and call themselves winemakers. The wine world both expanded and started to spin faster; it became hotter, hipper, and more expensive. With the global economic downturn, this ecstatic moment is over, but the deeper structures and dynamics remain."

The second paragraph translates as easily: "The contemporary wine world is a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in wine. They span the globe but cluster in wine capitals such as Napa, Adelaide, Bordeaux and Stellenbosch. Vibrant wine communities can be found in places like Priorat, Mendoza and Riebeek-Kasteel, but they are hinterlands to the extent that winemakers working in them have made an active choice to stay there. Still, the wine world is more polycentric than it was in the twentieth century, when Bordeaux, then London held sway."

Even the jokes translate. "Winemakers have huge egos, but how that manifests itself changes with the times. I find it tedious when I bump into people who insist on giving me their CV highlights. I've always thought that wearing badges or ribbons would solve it. If you've got five stars in Platter or are Diners' Club Winemaker of the Year, you could announce it on your jacket. Winemakers could wear stripes like generals, so everyone would know their rank."

The themes are the same. "One theme that runs through the narratives of Seven Days in the Wine World is that wine has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists...just as churches and other ritualistic meeting places serve a social function, so wine dinners generate a sense of community around shared interests."

Who can deny that "collectors run in herds to buy wine from a handful of fashionable winemakers." So why has wine become so popular? "We are more educated than ever before, and we've developed appetites for more culturally complex goods. Ideally, wine is thought-provoking in a way that requires an active, enjoyable effort. As certain sectors of the cultural landscape seem to 'dumb down' so a sizeable drinking audience is attracted to a domain that attempts to challenge tired, conventional ways. In an increasingly global world, wine crosses borders. It can be a lingua franca and a shared interest in a way that cultural forms anchored to words cannot. Ironically, another reason why wine gained in popularity is that it is so expensive. High prices command media headlines, and they in turn popularized the notion of wine as a luxury good and status symbol."

The format of Sarah's book works for wine: seven chapters illuminating seven facets of the subject:
  1. The Auction: Cape Winemakers Guild Auction. "Wine is positioned principally as an investment and luxury good."
  2. The Crit: Great White Tasting. "Winemaking is an intellectual endeavor, lifestyle and occupation."
  3. The Fair: WineX. "Wine is a fetish and leisure activity."
  4. The Prize: Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Competition. "A media story and evidence of a winemaker's worth."
  5. The Magazine: WINE. "Wine as an excuse for words; it's something to debate and promote."
  6. The Studio Visit: A visit to Eben Sadie's winery. "It's all of the above - that's one reason Eben is sociologically fascinating."
  7. The Biennale: Cape Wine 2008. "Wine as an alibi for networking, an international curiosity."
Sarah concludes her introduction in the same way I would wish to end. "Despite exhaustive research, however, I still find the wine world fascinating. One reason is no doubt that it is tremendously complex. Another relates to the way this sphere blurs the lines between work and play, local and international, the cultural and the economic. As such, I suspect it indicates the shape of social worlds to come. I have to agree with Artforum publisher Charles Guarino: "it's the place where I found the most kindred spirits - enough oddball, overeducated, anachronistic, anarchic people to make me happy."

Finally, it must be said that when the talk dies down and the crowds go home, it's bliss to sit with a glass of good wine."