I’ve been planning for ages to do a post on the unintended consequences of legal definitions. It turns out procrastination means that the world has caught up with my intentions. In late March, INAO – the French organisation that oversees agricultural products (including wine) with geographical indicators – introduced a new category for wine.
A previous post had touched on the argument for a legal definition of ‘natural wine.’ The basic argument in favour is that right now, anyone can call anything ‘natural’ or ‘low-intervention’ wine and there’s really no way to police this. I can see why a lot of people are in favour of the idea. It makes it easier for the consumer to know – or think they know – what they are getting.
The definition that INAO will be using covers what will be known as “Vin méthode nature.” This requires the grapes to be organic, hand-harvested, and wild-fermented. There are two levels of classification, depending on sulfites. One is where none have been added, another lets up to 30 ppm of sulfites be added, but only after fermentation.
There’s a fair amount of discussion on the announcement. Jamie Good, usually worth reading, covers it in the Wine Enthusiast. Jancis Robinson, probably the UK’s most famous wine writer / critic, talks about it as well. The website Wine-Searcher has an interesting piece that raises at least one of the points I’m going to as well.
What I want to do here is focus on one particular aspect of having a legally enforceable definition: unintended consequences. Basically put, research and experience has shown that while it may be intuitive to expect legal definitions and Geographical Indication protections to help small producers, this isn’t how it always works out.
Let me backtrack a bit and talk about Geographical Indications (GIs). These were introduced in the EU in 1992, but the idea stretches back much further in time. A GI are exactly what the name suggests: it is a special status accorded to an item made or grown in a certain region. It is intended to provide recognition and protection to certain products. Thus, for example, only sparkling wine made in a certain way with certain grapes can be called ‘Champagne.’ A Cornish pasty has to be made in a certain way, with certain ingredients, in Cornwall. And so on. The various wine categorisation schemes – whether the French AOC, the Italian DOC / DOCG or any other – are essentially forms of GIs. (Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but this particular aspect, in this discussion, it is a close enough approximation.)
Geographical Indicators are usually liked by foodies, and their wine-consuming kith and kin. They are presented as a symbol of ‘authenticity,’ whatever that may be, and allow producers to charge a premium for their product. But there are also drawbacks and unintended consequences.
The new category of “Vin méthode nature” is not a geographical indicator, but I think the potential consequences are similar, so let me turn to them. I’ll discuss two here, plus one irony.
First: Who does the legal category actually benefit? The popular conception is often that it benefits smaller producers. That artisanal cheese maker lovingly tending to their animals and their cheese. This can indeed be the case, but it can also be the case that the reverse happens.
Once you have defined a foodstuff (including wine, of course) legally – how it must be produced, what the ingredients can and cannot be, and in what proportions – you’ve just given the world a recipe. Yes, there are other restrictions, tied to the location, but within those boundaries, you’ve told people what they have to do to claim that premium label (and price).
Rachel Signer, who edits a magazine on natural wines is quoted in the Wine Searcher piece as observing that “A few large companies will surely capitalize on the popularity of natural wine and use this new label to make vin méthode nature that will be sold in grocery stores around France.” This is what often happens. Larger producers, now know exactly what they need to do to market a new wine aimed at a growing audience. Larger producers, of course, have more volume and capability to produce wine or ham, or cheese. In other words, they are in a position to outcompete smaller producers of the same product. It is also possible that a GI can eliminate some of smallest producers by requiring standards and documentation they simply cannot meet (see Vitrolles 2011).
This seems particularly significant in the present case, as one of the requirements of the new definition is that the grapes be farmed organically. Larger producers – some of whom already farm this way – can more easily afford the expensive and potentially onerous process of organic certification. Few, if any, of the low-intervention wine producers I know are certified. It’s an extra cost, more work, and for them, seems unnecessary. But that would also mean that under the new French definition, they couldn’t legally call their wine ‘Vin méthode nature,’ since they lack certain paperwork. Bureaucracy, in other words, trumps practice.
This points to the other main issue I want to highlight. Boundaries. Most anthropologists will be familiar with Fredrik Barth’s take on ethnic groups and boundaries (1969). (As will readers of my post ‘The Wine Spectre‘.) His basic point was that often what matters is not the ‘cultural stuff’ (his actual term!) inside a boundary, but the maintenance of the boundary. It doesn’t matter so much what my people do, as long as it is different than what your people do. In the present case – my grapes are certified organic, yours aren’t. I make ‘Vin méthode nature,’ you don’t and can’t. This is bound to create tensions in the low-intervention wine world. Not only is it bound to create tensions, but it quite possibly puts quite a few of the most innovative wine-makers on the ‘wrong’ side of the boundary. Of course, maybe those who don’t certify won’t be bothered by not being able to claim a particular label. But nonetheless, once you’ve declared a boundary exists, you also have declared a definition in defining and defending it. My boundary, right or wrong. Love it, or stay on the other side.
Now, the irony: There is an admittedly small rebellion against Geographical Indications, on the basis that they promote conformity. Low-intervention producers have often been sympathetic to this, since their own wines fall afoul of the guidelines. Now, however, rather than freeing things up, they seem to be arguing for greater restrictions.
So, where does this leave us? My pessimistic view is that it opens the door for exploitation of labels by those who just want to cash in on a movement. It also paves the way for potential conflict between those who think things like certification matter, and those who just want to get on with making wine that accords with their philosophy. I could, of course, be wrong. It happens surprisingly often. But I’d be more surprised than usual if that turns out to be the case this time.
So I’ll leave you a brief injunction: the map is not the territory. Gregory Bateson uses the phrase in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). Others have made the point before and after. You can also argue over what exactly it means. Here I think it is a useful reminder when thinking about ‘Vin méthode nature.’ The label is not the wine. In the end, it’s the wine we drink, not the label.
Barth, F., ed. (1969) Ethnic groups and boundaries: the social organization of cultural difference. Long Grove, IL, Waveland Press.
Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. New York, Ballantine Books.
Vitrolles, D. (2011) ‘When geographical indication conflicts with food heritage protection: The case of Serrano cheese from Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’ Anthropology of Food. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.6809