Perceiving nature in the glass

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For the past year I have been thinking about how people perceive wine as a natural product. Often wine drinkers are shocked when they learn about the elaborate chemical process that is wine making and the amount of human control and manipulation that is involved in making any type of wine. No, fermentation is not some magic process that happens all on its own (or at least not well). Does the technical, chemical nature of wine make it less natural?

Certainly some wines are more natural than others but all wine from vine to barrel is a process of human techne interacting with nature. Like all forms of agriculture, grape growing is the human hand bending the will of nature to produce a controlled and desired outcome. When you give it some thought, agriculture can be seen as a very violent act against nature. The grape vine, vitis vinifera, does not want to produce fruit at all when left to its own devices. Vines must be carefully pruned, trellised and tended throughout the seasons in order to produce fruit that is acceptable for wine making.

Many people view this heavy laying of human hands upon nature, whether it’s pruning a vine or controlling a fermentation process, as adulteration. But hang on a second, what is going on here? The students in my anthropology of food course and people I interview about wine and food have led me to believe that perceptions of nature in food and wine are often connected to a romantic view of agriculture and artisinal production. So much of what we see in supermarkets and wine shops, on labels and in advertising tries to erase the connection between human craft and the application of technology. In the end, people are often shocked to learn how most food and wine are actually made.

You have perhaps noticed a growing desire amongst many consumers to reconnect with their food, how it is made or grown and where it comes from. I can see a similar trend developing with wine: just take a look at the proliferation of organic and biodynamic wines on the shelves. However, there is still a great deal of confusion about what these terms mean. In many ways buying organic has become a moral choice that many shoppers face as they stare down the certification labels on bottles and packages. Are organic and biodynamic wines more natural and what does that mean to the wine drinker? Are ‘natural’ wines somehow seen as better in quality? Is this related to the wine drinker’s perception of nature? Is it a moral choice that makes that wine purchase more acceptable and therefore even taste better? Perhaps ethics and morality do add a positive psychological aspect to taste perception. A blind tasting would certainly tell another story but the reality is that, while standing in front of a shelf or rack, most wine drinkers work through a complex decision process that can include factors as disparate as gustatory experience, the aesthetics of a label, perceptions of nature and quality as well as price as they select a wine to enjoy with dinner. These are a few of the questions that I am grappling with in my current research that explores the perception of nature in wine.

How people look in their glass and what they see says a great deal about larger relationships within human ecology. Focusing on wine is just one way of looking at how people perceive and talk about the natural world around the.

Wine Blogger Wednesday #54: A Passion for Piedmont

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Wine is personal. In particular, when I talk about Piedmontese wines I feel like I am telling a part of my own life history. Over the past ten years, I have spent a great deal of time wandering the hills of the Langhe, learning about this complex place and developing an appreciation for the excellent wine that is made in this part of Northern Italy. Keeping this in mind, I truly believe that tasting wine is about subjective tastes and unique experience. When we taste a wine it enters into our taste memory as a new sensation but it is also compared and combined with past sensations, smells and memories of all kinds. When I drink Nebbiolo from the Langhe it is a new, unique experience each time but somewhere in my mind it meshes with my memories, giving coherence to what I am tasting.

Objectivity eludes me when it comes to the subject of Piedmontese wine; the anthropologist takes over trying to understand the place, the people who worked the land and their stories. I can’t help but look beyond my glass. Last night when my partner Doug opened a bottle of 2001 Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco Rio Sordo, we felt as if we were having a conversation with friends. We both know the town of Barbaresco very well and have had our own adventures along these steep hills. Our memories of long Nebbiolo-filled lunches in little osterie in Neive and Treiso still make our mouths water. The best part of all is that we know Giovanna and Italo who made this wine and despite the distance between San Francisco and Barbaresco, we felt closer to them as we talked, ate our risotto con funghi and enjoyed this lovely wine. At moments like this I am struck by wine’s incredible ability to foster connections, the imagination and dreams.

The bottle that Doug chose was still young but it was very true to place and the people who made it. The Nebbiolo grape is notoriously difficult to work (from the vineyard to the cantina) and in particular it does not often express an intense colour despite its incredible tannic  structure. The Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco is a case in point–the ruby red colour lacked density and screamed Nebbiolo. There was a marked note of sour cherries on the nose and an earthy odour that reminded me of a walk in the vineyard when the seasons are changing from fall to winter. As I buried my nose in the glass, I could smell the decaying underbrush along the strada di Rio Sordo as it dips down off the main road and I shivered a little at the thought of the cold fog setting in. When I finally got my lips to the glass, I realised right away why Barbaresco has such a long life in the cellar: the tannins hit the front of my palate and the lovely acidity filled my mouth for a balanced finish. With the creamy risotto finished with Parmigiano cheese, this wine found its match.

My passion for Piedmont may be personal; it comes from having experienced the place and made friends with folks there over many glasses of Nebbiolo on chilly winter afternoons spent in the subterranean depths of a cantina. My view of wine is perhaps at times overly romantic but I can’t help but feel that each bottle of wine I open has a story to tell me and that my own imagination and experience are part of that sensory narrative. The wines of Piedmont have some of the most intriguing stories to tell and I most certainly won’t forget last night’s bottle of Barbaresco and what it said to me.

Anthropology of Sport

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This past week we have been focusing on the Anthropology of Sport in my European Ethnography course. The first thing that struck me was that we could not agree on a definition of sport: do billiards and darts count as sports? What makes an activity a sport? Does it depend on physical exertion, skill or both? This got me thinking about the embodiment of skill; something that had also come up in Anth 422 in relation to work.

The previous week we explored the historical rise of nationalism and whether nationalism is still a valid area of inquiry for anthropologists in the face of the European Union. Do we need to talk about post-nationalism or supranational identities? As we work through the framework I have set out for this course, major themes are becoming apparent; in particular, we keep returning to the question of identities.

Studying European football, we took a closer look at the flexibility of the identities of both spectators and players. Depending on the type of game or championship we noticed that fans’ identities shifted. In local matches, it could even be said that fans are defending their cities. At an international level, national ties are deepest. From the side of the players, we were fascinated by professional teams and the way in which the international and racial differences are erased in order to create a unified team that represents common values. This, however, does not always hold true: we saw how at the end of the last World Cup Zinedine Zidane’s Frenchness was challenged by fans and the press when he lost his temper in the face of a taunting Italian player.

The GMO debate: Is something missing?

I have been a rather lazy blogger but I have decided to turn over a new leaf. In the future, I would like to use my blog as a way to share my research and teaching experiences. I would also like to open up a wider dialogue beyond the university for issues that come up in class and in the field.

Next week, my students in Anth 422 Modes of Subsistence will be preparing a debate for and against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food systems. Over the past year, I have worked  hard to try to understand the potentially negative and positive impact of GMOs on the world food supply. For me it is important that my students also understand both sides and come to their own conclusions.

While looking for readings on this topic, I noticed that there is a lack of pro-GMO literature in the Social Sciences (particularly in Anthropology). I would like to put a call out there for other thoughts and perspectives on this issue. Are there some critical articles and books that I have overlooked? Are there others who have noticed this entirely anti-GMO stance on the part of my colleagues? What does this say about the relationship between the ‘Hard’ Sciences and the Social Sciences? How can a useful dialogue be created across disciplines on this issue? If you have suggested readings that take positions on either side of the GMO debate, please send them along.