The Wine Spectre

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jun 23, 2019

A spectre is haunting the wine world – the spectre of labels. My apologies to Marx. His spectre – that of communism – was something feared and resisted by the old guard, and thus to be welcomed. The spectre I am referring to is the old guard and thus perhaps a spectre to be exorcised.

The terms we use to describe wine – the labels – are a spectre I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. To be blunt, are they more limiting than they are helpful? More and more, I think they are. I don’t mean the labels on the bottle, but the terms we use to describe wines. Most fundamentally, perhaps ‘red’ and ‘white’ wine, but there are others. What I want to suggest is recognising the limits categories and labels place on thinking about wine. Perhaps it makes more sense to think approach wine more broadly than labels encourage us to do.

The basic idea was germinated ages ago, and was inspired in some ways by a round table I was supposed to take part in during the summer of 2018. For personal reasons, I couldn’t attend, but you can read my abstract here.

The particular label that has spurred my thinking is ‘natural wine,’ but I’m far from convinced that these ideas won’t also work with other categories of wine. For many in the wine world, both for and against natural wine, the lack of a rigorous, legal definition is often portrayed as a stumbling block. (Here’s a recent article arguing for a definition or certification.)

With no such definition, people can call whatever they want ‘natural wine.’ Some people want an official, legal definition, presumably so they can draw and defend their territories. As Fredrik Barth (1969) taught us all those years ago about ethnic groups, it isn’t so much about the stuff inside the boundary, but the fact that the boundary exists. Identity, whether ethnic or wine-focused, is very much about exclusion. There’s no point in an ‘Us’ if there isn’t a ‘Them.’ Others take is more as a live-and-let-live way of thinking about wine.

Natural wine of course isn’t natural. It’s still a product, made by humans. That’s why I think low-intervention is a much better term. But that detail – the artificiality of ‘natural’ wine, the elision of technology and intervention behind the term – tends to get glossed over, and the idea, as any semi-regular reader of this blog will know, is to do as little as possible to the grapes and their juice. Ideally, to add nothing and to take nothing away. Two influential proponents offer views here (Isabelle Legeron) and here  (Alice Feiring). But the point remains there is no legal definition. 

Yet rather than being a problem that needs correcting, I want to suggest that the lack of a rigorous, legal definition is a good thing. Among other things, it offers the possibility that we’ve been thinking about wine wrongly for too long.

Briefly put, categories create expectations. They lock us into ways of thinking. As the linguist George Lakoff has written:

Categorization is not a matter to be taken lightly. There is nothing more basic than categorization to our thought, perception, action, and speech. Every time we see something as a kind of thing, for example, a tree, we are categorizing.   Whenever we reason about kinds of things – chairs, nations, illnesses, emotions, any kind of thing at all – we are employing categories (1987: 5-6).

I’ve cited before the example of orange wine.  In my experience, the less used someone is to thinking about what to expect from ‘red’ or ‘white’ wine, the more open they are to the idea of orange wine. Since I’ve first made that observation, I’ve seen nothing to change my mind, and a lot to convince me I’m correct. A similar point holds with low-intervention wines. The more you’re accustomed to thinking in certain categories, the more embedded they become and the more resistant to being challenged.

I want to take the questioning of labels a step further.  To put the question in a way that was (and presumably still is) favoured by my former department at Cambridge at exam time: What is gained and what is lost when we abandon the established labels for wine? Not just opening up the world to orange wine, and resisting a legal definition for ‘natural’ wine, but labels more generally? Do we really need ‘red’ and ‘white’ wines?  Probably not. (I do not think for even a fraction of a moment that anyone will drop the terms.)

Let me shift gears for a moment, and talk about how wine shops are organised. Many (perhaps most? I haven’t counted) tend to organise by country. So we think ‘I like French wine, let me look at their French wines.’ Fair enough. Other shops, however, and these are a minority in my experience, organise by type of wine. Not just ‘red’ vs. ‘white’ but full-bodied versus fruity. You can argue that this changes one set of categories (country or region) for another (sensory experience / expectation). And of course, ‘red’ and ‘white’ are sensory classifications themselves. All this is true, but I’d argue that organising by sensory experience could be more helpful. One could even imagine a shop that organised by what sort of food a wine might be paired with. Well, one could imagine that until you starting thinking more about all the permutations and possible matches.

To go back to my point: if we can and do organise some wine shops by certain sensory characteristics of the wine, why don’t we just do so with the wine more generally? Or just forget about organising? Do our best to get rid of the cognitive categories that tell us we only like claret, or that lead people to say they really don’t like Chardonnay, but do like Chablis.  And yes, that’s happens. (For the non-wine people readers – Chablis is made with Chardonnay, which is a grape.)

So, what is lost? Categories that mislead us, and lead to fruitless debates. Perhaps a bit of ease in finding wines in the shop. 

What is gained? In an ideal case, a world of experience, stripped of cognitive categories. Wine that can be approached and enjoyed without worrying about drawing lines around what it is or isn’t. (In more academic terms – shift the focus from boundary maintenance to the ‘cultural stuff’ inside the boundaries, to use Barth’s wonderful phrase.)

Is this a utopian vision? Yes, of course. With more apologies to Marx and Engels, I’ll end by once again mangling a passage from the Communist Manifesto beyond recognition:

In  place  of  the  old  wine  society,  with  its  boundaries  and  category  antagonisms,  we  shall  have  an  association,  in  which  the  free  enjoyment of  each  is  the  condition  for  the  free  enjoyment  of  all. 

[Footnote: For the curious, the original passage reads: ‘In  place  of  the  old  bourgeois  society,  with  its  classes  and  class  antagonisms,  we  shall  have  an  association,  in  which  the  free  development  of  each  is  the  condition  for  the  free  development  of  all. ‘]


Barth, F. 1969. ‘Introduction’ in Ethnic groups and boundaries: the social organization of cultural difference, F. Barth, ed.. Oslo, Universitetsforlaget

Lakoff, G. 1987. Women, fire, and other dangerous things/ Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

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