Drink or Food?: Wine, social taboos and norms

When did wine stop being considered food? Wine used to be an essential part of most Mediterranean diets. Indeed, it was an important source of calories, particularly for those labouring on farms. There were few farm workers who went off to the fields without bringing some wine.

Wine drinking in Italy has changed over the second half of the twentieth century and what that says about changing relationships of Italians to alcohol and food. During the Fascist period, wine drinking was associated with sloth and a lack of productivity on farms and in factories. Although moderate drinking was an acceptable part of Italian social life, drunkenness was the main was shunned and considered socially unacceptable outside of specific occasions (for example, Martedi grasso and village festivals). Drunkenness was also a strictly male activity and rarely were these gender norms easily transgressed. Wine has always been an important beverage for Italians and has a special place, which used to be the table: in particular, it was mixed with water to protect against water-born illnesses. The alcohol content of this watered-down wine was quite low and the main function of the alcohol was to purify the water. As Italy began to rapidly industrialize after World  War II, bottled water, and soft drinks became available to a new market of consumers who now had money to spend on these novel products, which were popular signifiers of modernity and upward mobility. In contrast, wine drinking was often associated with a backward agrarian past. In addition, many families left the countryside altogether and no longer had the means to produce their own wine. The once ubiquitous carafe filled with wine was slowly being displaced from the family table. In the late 1980s, after much scandal and crisis, the Italian wine industry began to focus less on mass production and more on quality. This jump in quality and rising cost have caused wine to become a beverage that is now associated with special occasions. When sitting down to a meal, bottled water, soft drinks and beer are presently the most popular beverages in Italy.

Italians are losing touch with wine production and their agrarian past. Much like in North America, wine drinking is becoming associated with a certain level of cultural capital and prestige.

I will be giving this paper at the American Anthropological Association meeting in New Orleans on November 17.