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.

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  1. Chris Kassel - November 18, 2020

    Mention the word ‘racist’ in any article on any subject and you are guaranteed a certain number of clicks.

  2. Tom Wark - November 18, 2020

    Chris,

    Just for the heck of it, I looked. Of the 3,400 posts I’ve authored since 2004, only 10 have the word “racists”. I can do better going forward.

  3. Mike Dunne - November 18, 2020

    He sort of lost me when he said New World wines are defined mostly by their lack of history, minerality and tradition. I’ve been thinking New World wines are defined mostly by their fruit, mass, alcohol, experimentation and price, among other traits. And there is history and tradition in New World wines, as well, though it doesn’t necessarily go back as far as Old World history and tradition. In sticking with his essay, however, I came away with the overall sense that it didn’t address social justice so much as reaffirm that history and tradition are ever evolving, that none of it is fixed.

  4. Donn Rutkoff - November 18, 2020

    I am always amused at the contradictory term “Social Justice”. social relations have nothing to do with the law, and everything to do with our own psyche, emotion, reactions to other peoples psyche, looks, behavior, etc. None of which is the purview of the law, except the rule of not committing violence.

    Justice is often specified as justic before the law. Justice is along the lines of penalty for breaking the law.

    The idea of mixing the 2 together is in my brutal opinion, dumb, stupid, garbage. You can’t legislate why I like Joan and not Jean, and vice versa. The whole concept of social justice is to deny adult human responsibilty and to have a oversight by some un-specific Big Brother. Who says I have to obey your view of social justice, instead of you having to obey my view of social justice??? Who ? When? Did I authorize or give my consent???

  5. Donn Rutkoff - November 18, 2020

    here is another take. 600 years before the birth of Jesus, the Greeks crossed the Adriatic in their little boats and discovered what they called Land of Wine, Enotria, what we call Italy. Wine wine everywhere. Why pray tell does wine have to be connected to empire and oppression??? Why not associate wine with Gallileo, Pasteur, the polio vaccine, invention of Bessemer steel and vulcanized rubber? A viewpoint of ugly parts of human history without the bright spots is childishly petulant. Y’all need to grow up into what John Milton wrote in his 2nd defense of the English People “You, therefore, who wish to remain free, either instantly be wise, or, as soon as possible, cease to be fools; if you think slavery an intolerable evil, learn obedience to right reason and the rule of yourselves bid adieu to your jealousies and superstitions your outrages …

  6. Peter Ricci - November 18, 2020

    I thought my 50 years in the wine industry was bliss, an honor, heaven. But this article has shown me that my life was a disaster. My understanding of happiness, knowledge, relationships, culture and tradition was totally wrong. I need a good attorney, so I can sue someone. Suggestions on who? How did I survive dealing with numerous languages, cultures, and laws? Maybe, if I stayed home with my mommy and daddy until I was 40, they would of told me my life sucked. Really, have we fallen this far with life is not fair?

  7. Donn Rutkoff - November 19, 2020

    Peter, your post triggered this jolt from my memory . . .

    I noticed in my wine journal, when I am navel gazing and drinking red wine, I write that I see red grapes, but if I’m drinking white wine, I see my gold mines in South Africa, and I begin to think maybe I should sell them.

    (Sorry Tom if I’m piling on.)

  8. Paul Bandenberg - November 19, 2020

    Seriously, what the fuck is a gooseberry?

    A question I was asked by California winemakers in the 80’s. Not in their culture either, then De Leon goes on to tell about trying to explain papaya. ( I sent gooseberries to their local tasting group when they came into season)

    I spent weeks in a little booth to smell my way around Ann Noble’s wheel. This is what we do to be professional. When someone described Lychee in a wine’s aromatic profile, I went to a store and found some canned lychee, yup, got it.

    Since wine is not really a product of the Phillipines, it has made small contribution to the lexicon.

    I am pleased that the students in wine production programs are no longer overwhelmingly Euro ancestry males.

    Unfortunately we still have plenty of old, fat, “white” guys who smoke cigars having a lot of influence. We are a society with plenty of inherent bias.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard


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