Ignore or educate?

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on May 24, 2015

This post comes a bit later than planned, as I’ve mostly been dealing with administrative issues and helping prepare students for their upcoming exams, turning in dissertations, and so forth for the past few weeks. So while I’ve had time to think about wine, it has been even less coherent than usual. However, I don’t want to give the impression that Anthroenology has disappeared. If anything, we are more active than ever, just not always visibly so. Watch this space (and Twitter: @anthroenology) for what’s coming up.

Last Sunday and Monday (17 & 18 May) was the RAW Fair 2015 – a showcase of natural wines (http://www.rawfair.com/). I went down on Sunday, and talked to all the Austrian wine-makers that were present, as well the two Swiss winemakers. This meant I left huge swathes of the Fair unexplored, not even looking at the French or Italian wines, for example. Regrettable, but necessary. Nonetheless, it was a very informative trip. What I want to cover here is the range of approaches to the consumers of natural wines that I came across. I do want to suggest, however, that perhaps it isn’t quite as wide a range as it may seem at first, and has interesting implications.

I am not going to name names in this discussion since a) they aren’t relevant, and b) I did identify myself as an anthropologist working on a research project, and visibly took notes, but didn’t ask if I could attribute quotes to people. I’ve decided to adopt a sort of Chatham House rule. I’ll use the information, but in a way that should leave it unattributable. Anthropologists will often do this with many sorts of data, and to anthropologists reading this, it is probably unremarkable. However, for the non-anthropologist readers, I thought a slight detour to explain this was worthwhile.

Back to the responses. One wine-maker told me in effect they weren’t too concerned about the consumers. My notes in fact say they ‘ignore’ the customer. Rather, they focus on trying to bring out the best from their soils and grapes. You can’t do that if you are too worried about pleasing the consumer, I was told. At first glance, this looks like an intriguing approach: philosophy / dedication over sales. I’ll come back to this.

The other apparent end of the spectrum of responses was someone who said the key was educating the consumer. Sure, they won’t necessarily like a natural wine that is cloudy and not what they are used to in taste. But that’s expectations, which can be changed. This winemaker said they’d ask someone ‘which sort of apple juice do you prefer? The clear type or the cloudy one?’ People almost always said ‘Cloudy of course.’ To which the wine-maker would respond: ‘So why should wine be any different?’

The second approach might appear to be quite different to the first – education and engagement as opposed to almost an arrogant disregard for the consumer. But I am not sure that is an accurate picture. I find it hard to credit that the first winemaker is as indifferent to the consumer as they claim. If so, why have they bothered to come to a wine fair to show their wines? Why even sell wine, unless they are independently wealthy, and the winery is a hobby? Passion, however genuine, won’t pay the bills if no one is buying. What I’d suggest is really happening in the first case is not so much ignoring the consumer, as relying on others to do the work of producing an educated consumer who is willing to try and appreciate the first wine-maker’s wine. (And both wine-makers make wines very much worth trying and appreciating.) In other words, the first wine-maker has externalised the cost of creating educated consumers, and the second has decided to undertake the process themselves.

What’s the take-away message from this post, then? Partly it is underline the political economy of the production and consumption of wine. It is, as anthropologists like to say, complicated. The other part of the message follows on from this: natural (and biodynamic) wine-makers very much form a community, one that appears to be rather tight-knit, more so than the wider wine-making community. Pretty much all of the Austrian wine-makers seem to know each other, wandering around to taste each other’s wines, and knowing why a certain wine-maker had not been able to come this year. Like any community, however, there are multiple threads of relatedness worth teasing out and unpicking. I look forward to seeing where they lead.



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