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Wine as Cultural Artifact

Here’s a thing to ponder: wine is a cultural artifact. Wine is something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment. Simply put; wine doesn’t present itself in nature.

Contrary to what some zealots will tell you, wine doesn’t want to make itself. Wine is a point on a scale of decomposition; winemakers preserve (though not indefinitely) the juice of grapes on a journey towards spoilage and decay.

The very act of harvesting grapes inserts the human in a way that ensures any resulting product becomes an artifact. Even if the vines aren’t tended during the growing season, even if commercial yeasts are not used; even if enzymes and sulphites aren’t added and the wine is bottled without stabilization or filtration, wine is still a cultural product.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote extensively about myth–the stories we create and share as a kind of cultural binding agent, fortifying our societal groups and communities. Lévi-Strauss’ writings on honey myths and mead are pertinent here: a honeybee’s hive that is nestled in the trunk of a tree can start to ferment without any human intervention, the resulting alcohol oozing into the hollow truck. This is a natural process. This is nature. However, when a human takes the same honeycomb, extracts the sugary liquid, and sets it to ferment in a wooden barrel thus creating mead, this is culture. Intentionality on the part of the human takes something from nature to culture.

Lévi-Strauss was a structuralist too. He acknowledged that elements of human culture can only be understood by way of their relation to a broader system. Humans make and drink wine not in isolation to other cultural practices; humans also market wine not in isolation to other cultural practices. Affirming our kinship with the natural world means acknowledging our roles and effects within it. Seeing ourselves as part of our ecosystems, and not merely observers of them, is key to understanding how to do (and be) better. This is especially true of the climate crisis; if we don’t see ourselves as part of the problem, it’s incredibly difficult to see ourselves as part of a solution. Humans, in our desire to both create and maintain culture, make wine. We should, therefore, absolutely question and reassess how our industry’s practices impact the ecosystems we are all part of. Seeing wine as an artifact of culture means shouldering the kinds of responsibilities that might evade our attention when wine is viewed solely as a product of nature, or of ‘natural’ processes.

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