Perceiving nature in the glass


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.

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