As someone who studies and writes about wine’s history, I’ve been thinking lately that we just might be in the midst of a paradigm shift, with long-held assumptions concerning how to produce, consume, and value wine being challenged and replaced. I should emphasize the word “may” because the last significant such shift came 250 years ago. Back then, the advent of glass bottles and cork stoppers revolutionized production just as the rise of a new social class with money to spend did so for consumption. Wines, or at least some wines, became collectible objects of desire, not just vehicles with which to relieve thirst or escape troubles. Current changes certainly may be much less significant. Nonetheless, it seems clear that something important is happening. The ways in which many people think and talk about wine today suggest that they are operating within a new and different conceptual framework than were generations past.
The paradigm that emerged in the eighteenth century was most fully embodied by the wines of Bordeaux. Not all the wines surely, just those coming from the properties, then beginning to be called “chateaux,” that fetched high prices in the international marketplace. Until quite recently, those predominantly red wines continued to serve as benchmarks the world over. They were models for early Barolos and Riojas in the middle of the nineteenth century, and 100 years later they set qualitative and stylistic standards for the new wines coming from Australia as well as both North and South America.
Today, however, the paradigm seems to be shifting away from Bordeaux. If it’s going anywhere recognizable, it seems to be heading towards Burgundy--or at least towards an idealized image of Burgundy. This is not so much because more people in more places are making wines from Pinot Noir, though they certainly are, but rather because people are thinking about wine in a more Burgundian fashion. In the Bordeaux model, wine always was a commodity; in the Burgundy one, it is more a force of nature. In Bordeaux, the estate, meaning everyone from the wealthy proprietor to the humble vigneron, gave the wine its identity; in Burgundy, identity is rooted in locale rather than human action. And while in Bordeaux money has always determined value, in Burgundy something more amorphous, terroir, is at play.
I do not mean to suggest that vintners the world over deliberately ape the wines from either Bordeaux or Burgundy. And surely most consumers, even extremely knowledgeable ones, do not consciously think of those wines when they purchase or drink other wines. But then, that’s a crucial part of how a paradigm or framework works--one isn’t necessarily aware that one is operating within it.
The basic idea of paradigms and paradigm shifts was first formulated by the late physicist Thomas Kuhn, who argued that normal practice within any sort of science needs to be supported by an often unrecognized worldview, the paradigm. Change comes not when practice runs up against problems, but rather when the concepts composing the paradigm begin to be questioned. A fundamental change in those concepts results in a shift to a new paradigm. So, for example, quantum physics supplanted Newtonian physics, and doctors practicing medicine based on biochemistry replaced those who tried to balance their patients’ bodily humors.
This may seem to have little to do with wine, but the ways in which many people think and talk about wine today bear less and less resemblance to how people did so 50, 100, or 200 years ago. One fairly obvious example comes in the contemporary emphasis placed on grape varieties. Before the 1960s and 1970s, few consumers knew which grapes went into their favorite wines. They understood what those wines should taste like, but they did not attribute that taste to a certain type of grape. But today, people have become obsessed with grape varieties. Even casual consumers know the names of the more popular ones, and adventurous drinkers search out wines made from extremely obscure ones. In the twenty-first century, wine is in large measure defined by grape.
And increasingly by place. Locale has mattered to vintners ever since the ancient Greeks and Romans prized certain ones over others, but the contemporary emphasis on terroir, though it sometimes masquerades as a return to something old, is in fact quite new. The claim that a wine should actually taste of its natural origin--the soil in which the vines grow, the microclimate in which they ripen--is a Burgundian one that, until recently, was unheard of elsewhere. But all of a sudden it has become ubiquitous. Even new wines from new vineyards routinely get praised for their gout de terroir, as if that seemingly mystical sensation is a prerequisite for vinous success.
Grape and place together signal a new emphasis on wine as something natural, a radical departure from how wine was conceived of for most of its history and especially most of the last three centuries. Led again by the famed Bordeaux estates, wine then was thought of much more as an artifact, the product of human labor. And as an artifact, it attracted an audience that valued the supposedly finer things of life--fashionable clothing, china, paintings, and the like. Thus it very much was the property of certain social classes, the wealthy and the haute bourgeoisie. Of course this applied to only a small percentage of the world’s wine. All the rest, which was drunk primarily by the poor, was valued mostly for the alcohol it contained. Whether it was at heart natural or artificial made no difference.
These days it is increasingly common to hear people sing the praises of natural wines (though no one seems to know exactly what that phrase means). This new focus frequently is presented as a return to wine’s peasant roots, but that is an idealized notion with little basis in historical fact. The most esteemed wines always have been made by privileged people. It’s just that the privilege has varied. In some places, it originally came from a church or monastic rule. In others, it originated in market demand. In both cases, the image of great wine being made by a rustic laborer painstakingly tending his vines is a romantic fantasy. Even so, it’s a fantasy that holds special appeal today.
Will that appeal endure? If it does, it will indicate that a new paradigm with which to think about wine and its cultural place is indeed emerging. If it does not, all the new talk about grape and place and nature will have been but an ephemeral bit of fashion. Only time will tell. But one sign pointing to a new paradigm is the new audience for fine wine that is emerging seemingly everywhere. Though only a very small percentage of the world’s population cares about wine as anything more than a (sometimes) pleasant drink, those that do seem to be ever more passionate about it. Witness, for example, the growth in the number of people earning, or trying to earn, certificates as “master” or “expert” sommeliers. And the plethora of blogs and other social media forums devoted to wine. And the fact that, in the United States, millennials consume an estimated 45% of all wine sold. More and more of them think of wine differently from their parents or grandparents, let alone their eighteenth or nineteenth century forbearers. More and more of them are unabashed terroir-istes, fans of little-known grape varieties, and advocates for anything and everything natural. As I said earlier, something is changing. And it’s changing fast.