Every wine has a story. It starts from the very grapes it was made of and ends when the bottle is emptied—or in some cases when the stomach is emptied. However, somewhere in between the transformation and transportation of the wine, its story is lost and so is its value. And without the story and knowledge about the wine, the consumers are left bereft of one of the pleasures they might have gotten, which is knowing where their food comes from.
The Art of Making Wine: Nurturing the Nature
“The farmer has, therefore, his tools and his technical knowledge: he cultivates an art of working the land [terre] which is also a violence against the land [terre].This violence must temper and sublimate itself in a taking care of this earth [terre]. The farmer causes nature to suffer, but while making nature suffer, he makes of it a culture—insofar, however, as he dedicates to it a cult.” – Bernard Stiegler
In order to make wine, one has to start with the grapes, whether it be Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot, etc. The grapes, once de-stemmed, are placed in a tank where they are pressed gently for the juice. The juice along with the grape skins are left in the tank for the first fermentation to take place. During these first few weeks of fermentation, the wine has to be kept being mixed or circulated from the bottom to the top so that the skins don’t dry out. At the same time, the temperature has to be kept under check so that the heat from the fermentation doesn’t burn the sugar or nutrients or kill the bacteria and yeast in the wine. Once this phase is over, the skins are removed and the wine is moved to another tanks or container for the second fermentation. Once again the temperature has to be maintained. In this is second tank is where the aging of the wine occurs. Chianti Classico wines are supposed to be aged at least for one year.
However, for the wine producers like Vicky Schmitt-Vitali of Le Fonti in Chianti, it is not just about following the steps to make wine and selling it, for them making wine is “like taking care of a baby”. It starts with creating a relationship and taking care of nature: the grape vines and the land. The producers of the Chianti region, especially the producers of Panzano, believe in working with the land. They know the composition of the soil and what variety of grapes that would grow best in it, and where they lack knowledge they get help from the experts. They all participate in biological farming, Panzano Sustainable Territory Project. They don’t use any pesticides or chemicals. Instead, they plant grasses, wheat, peas and other nitrogen fixing plants to symbiotically help the grape vines gain nutrients and be free of harmful insects. Similarly, roses are planted because the pests infect them first and so, the producers have enough time to protect the vines before they get infected. Even then, they use sulfur and copper as biological pesticide as opposed to chemicals that may harm the ecosystem and community. As opposed to that, Ronald Sandler explains in his article that about 900 million pounds of pesticide and herbicide and 12 ton of fertilizers are used in United States for agriculture annually, which contaminate the air and water and cause adverse effects in the organism of that ecosystem.
In these small scaled—as compared to industrial— wine production, the producers really pay attention to their vines and try to understand what it needs best to flourish. For example, if they see that the plant is stressed due to having too many branches, they cut some down. They also hand-pick and hand-select their grapes for the different wines. Each producer has their own artisanal way of making wine and they choose the type of barrel or tank, depending on the way they want their wine to mature and what they think will be best for the wine. Hence, no addition of yeast is needed to support the fermentation. It is in this taking care and nurturing of the nature and cultivating grapes to become wine that Stiegler’s statement applies. Although, these producers may have changed and caused violence over the land for beautification and production of wine, they take responsibility and take care of it. Additionally, they are also respectful of the grapes and wine, and are looking to produce something of quality rather than quantity. It is also in this moment that they are transforming nature into culture, and with the way they are performing this act they are adding meaning and value to the product—wine— that is being produced.
Lost in Translation
“Scoring wines at all—still more confidently assigning a numerical score to a particular wine as an assessment of its taste, smell, and related organoleptic virtues—is a de-contextualizing gesture.” – Steven Shapin
As the process of making wine nears to an end, the wine enters the world of tasting games that exists with its own standards and languages. In Chianti, especially, the wines meant to be Chianti Classico are blind tasted by officials sent by the government who decide whether the wine for that year is fit to be Chianti Classico or not. Already the story of how that wine was made is de-valued as the wine is de-contextualized to see if it fits the “standard”. If the wine does pass to become a Chianti Classico, it has to be bottled into a certain shape and sized bottle, with a natural cork, and geographical indication labels. The only creative freedom left for the producers then are their own name labels. Even then, the producers make sure to try and convey a few stories. For example, Nittardi’s Leon Femfert explained how different artists are annually commissioned to create art for Nittardi wine labels as a way to pay homage to Michelangelo Buonarroti, who once owned that wine estate and had his own reverence for wine. Similarly, the hares on the label of Le Fonti’s IGT wine symbolizes the hares that are live in the area and are in an ecological relationship with the vineyards and the land. But even these stories are stripped away when these wines are blind tasted.
Wine scorers like Robert Parker who perform blind tastings completely decontextualize the wine and score solely based on “taste, smell, and related organoleptic virtues” (Shapin, 2011). But by doing so, the more ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ way some of the wines are being produced is being ignored. And they are being placed at the same starting level as those that are industrially made with imported grapes that are not grown by themselves, use of pesticides and chemicals in vines, addition of yeast to the fermentation process, etc. As Claude Fischler pointed out one of the reasons how identifying food is more difficult now is because “food technology is becoming increasingly powerful in the sense that it now uses more and more sophisticated processes tending to mask, imitate and transform ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ products: reconstituted proteins, artificial flavours, preserving techniques, etc.” (1988). Similar things could be done to wine, because as Shapin has pointed out, when one finds that the wine smells like “bell peppers” it’s not because it contains bell peppers but because both the bell peppers and the wine contain the same kind of molecule that lends to that particular smell. A wine then could be easily manipulated technologically to have a certain taste or smell by containing certain molecules. This process of considering the value of wine may change later but for now it remains this way, and as the story lost along this translation from nature to tasting culture, consequences do arise.
“All the world’s wines are available to them and they have no special reason–other than metrics of prestige and price—to embrace wines of one type and place over another.” – Steven Shapin
In the city of Florence, near the famous touristic and religious attraction—the Duomo— there exists a building with a modern food market in San Lorenzo. In the market amongst the variety of food vendors stands an enoteca, part of which is dedicated solely to Chianti Classico wines. In the shelves of this part, however, are hundreds of bottles of wines, each with different label—which is the only symbol of their story. Though it can be argued that the people, the consumers in Florence do have some knowledge about Chianti and it’s wines. The wine seller could explain to any costumers some story of Chianti, but this would be a much general one compared to the one of the specific wines form specific wineries. In the same way, a wine store in United States will have many different wines from all over the world but not their stories. And since we already live fast lives in the States and not much time to spare on trying to learn about all the different wines or food for that matter, we end up being blind consumers, consuming whatever is marketed as “best” or as food to us. Hence, like Shapin says, the only way to decide which wine is best, then, is by the price or by the score or stars the wine has gotten from blind tastings which may not even be fair at times. For instance, wine made by an industry that doesn’t take care or take up responsibility toward the ecosystem could end up having a higher score or price than an artisanal biological one. The consumer, on the other hand, wouldn’t be aware and just assume that the most expensive or the one with most scoring is the best. Therefore, it is important that the story of how the wine was made be taken into consideration, and carried along and not lost during translation of wine from the nature into the culture and transportation from one culture to another.
The “Recipe” for Pleasure
“The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet.” – Wendell Berry
Getting to the conclusion that we are becoming blind consumers of wine then, leads us to what Wendell Berry discusses in his article: “eating is an agricultural act”—well in this case drinking or consuming wine too, is an agricultural act. And so, if we are ignoring how the wine was produced, consuming wine that was produced with the use of environmentally harmful chemicals, then we are acting as “industrial eater” and are suffering from our own“cultural amnesia” and being controlled by the market culture, heavily relying on ratings, prices and advertising. By not knowing where or how the wine is produced, we are missing out on the pleasure that we’d get from knowing where the food comes from and knowing that we are part of the “agricultural act”. So then, perhaps the “recipe” for this kind of pleasure is knowing the recipe—recipe being the “idea” or “information about how to prepare and—in some cases—how to consume a dish” (Borghini, 2015). But in this case, it is not to imitate the dish, the wine, but rather to have the knowledge—to have the story—in order to get “extensive pleasure”. And it is key to keep in mind that recipes evolve. So we just have to keep learning the new ones, or sometimes it is the old ones that are brought back with subtle changes. For example, Le Cinciole’s Valeria and Lucca’s new recipe of placing full grapes in a circular container letting it go through all the steps and fermentations and not adding sulfur in the end. Therefore, not letting the story, the recipe, get lost along the way of the wine going from nature to cultures is important because it allows for the consumer to know they are part-taking in the agricultural act and to be able to gain pleasure from doing so. And even if it does get lost, the consumer should make the effort to learn as much as possible.
Berry, Wendell. Pleasure of Eating.
Borghini, Andrea. What is a Recipe?
Fischler, Claude. Food, Self and Identity.
Sandler, Ronald. Food Ethics.
Shapin, Steven. The Taste of Wine: Remarks on Its Cultural History.
Stiegler, Bernard. Take Care.