The Evolution of Social Justice Wine Writing
If you don’t think we are living in the Golden Age of Wine Writing then you just aren’t paying attention and you are certainly aren’t taking notice of James Sligh’s recent “The Myth of ‘Old World’ Wine,” recently published at Punch.
This article just couldn’t have been written at any moment other than in the past five years when wine writing has not only continued to pursue stories about wineries and winemakers and varietals and wines from a myriad of voices but also has branched out into cultural and social justice themes. Sligh’s indictment of the idea of “old world” wines fall squarely into the developing social justice genre of wine writing.
The goal of Sligh’s work is to recenter wine away from its European roots that to many are a stark reminder of wine’s intimate connection with a culture of colonizers, oppressors, whiteness, and a history of remarkable success in creating what is possibly humanity’s most important cultural product.
In using the bulk of the article to highlight the various ways European wine has remade itself over time and often left behind so many practices as to make European wine traditions hardly traditions at all, Sligh wants us to consider the “Old World” vs “New World” paradigm so that we can, in turn, “dispel with this framework altogether”. It’s an audacious quest if only because the Old v New paradigm in wine remains remarkably useful today if only as a shorthand for the history of wine’s development and spread across the globe: the Old is where it began, the New is where it spread.
Nevertheless, Sligh does a pretty good job of driving home his difficult, but innovative, argument this way:
“The framework we use as a cornerstone of classical wine education doesn’t map onto a globe so nuanced as ours. It muddles a history of viticulture in the Americas that dates to the 1500s….it enables a hierarchy that places European wines before everything else, effectively dividing the people who make and drink the wine into those to whom it belongs and those who are trespassing.”
According to Sligh, he was apparently motivated to explore what he calls the “genteel, worn-out furniture of wine discourse” after reading what he interpreted as “racist” comments posted in response to Eric Asimov’s article in the New York Times earlier this year that highlighted “experiences of invisibility, exclusion and the largely white wine industry” by black wine professionals.
In the end, I don’t think Sligh makes his case. As I mentioned above, “old” v “new” is a very easy and simple shorthand for referencing the historical connection between geography and wine history. The fact that the “traditions” and winemaking techniques and even the styles of wines have evolved constantly over time in Europe doesn’t dispel the fact that no other place than Europe, with its colonizers and oppressors, can be called the historical and spiritual home of winemaking as we know it today.
What’s more important than the validity of Sligh’s argument is that it can be placed next to another argument that has been recently made by a host of wine professionals that also has the goal of “decolonizing” wine and decentering Europe from the wine narrative: that the traditional vocabulary used to describe wine is too eurocentric and is not inclusive mainly to people of color whose palates may not have been trained and raised in the flavors that are primarily familiar to Europeans and white Americans.
Miguel De Leon, an accomplished sommelier of Philipino heritage, made this case most forcefully earlier in the year in his well-read Punch article “It’s Time to Decolonize Wine”:
“Language is a particular challenge, considering English is my third. Traditional wine tasting grids and wheels are biased to Eurocentric flavors, and crucial wine vocabularies can center on foods completely foreign to my Very Asian Palate, like the description of body akin to the fat content of milk products or the essence of a flavor component wrapped up in a fruit I have never even heard of. Wine is rooted in Europe and its white adjacencies, themselves products of colonial and imperialist histories. From Chile to California, we feel the impact of how winemaking was affected by the conscious, hegemonic spread of Christianity.”
Even if you disagree with De Leon’s perspective, even if you take issue with the certain kind of entitlement embedded in De Leon demands, you can’t ignore the fact that he writes with great passion, does an excellent job of making his arguments and unquestionably inspires both action and thoughtful deliberation.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Sligh’s call to decenter Europe from the wine narrative is how his article pushes forward the developing social justice genre of wine writing. It is important to note that there is very little new in the realm of wine writing. There may be different platforms and different delivery vehicles and new writers, but there are very few new topics under the wine sun. The Social Justice sub-genre is new to wine.
What sets apart Sligh, De Leon and other’s entries into this new genre of wine writing is the common goal of inspiring action beyond motivating readers to buy a wine or visit a region. The goal is to change minds, change thoughts and change actions deemed discriminatory in one way or another. As a result, the success and longevity of Social Justice wine writing will naturally be judged on more than the quality of the writing. It will, in the long run, be judged (and even survive) based on the degree to which the changes it demands come to pass.
I understand and have an affinity for this kind of writing and discourse. I’ve been using it for quite some time as it relates to the laws and regulations that govern consumer access to wine in the United States.
I’m on board with some but certainly not all of the various observations and demands being made by the Social Justice wine writers. Demand for systemic change always includes overreach and overwrought interpretation. Social Justice wine writers are no different.