Wine: What is it? Where did it come from? And why is it here?
The last two questions are kinda irrelevant, but the first one is easy to answer: wine is the alcoholic liquid produced by fermenting grape juice, and it is the sole subject of Jancis Robinson‘s recent book, The 24-Hour Wine Expert.
Robinson is more than qualified to have produced this. She writes regularly about wine for the Financial Times1, she advises the Queen on what wines to buy and she runs the hugely comprehensive (though arrogantly named) wine website, JancisRobinson.com. In short, Robinson knows what she’s talking about, but – and let’s get political, because it’s the only way this review is going to be interesting – in Robinson’s usual environment she’s not talking to your average British citizen, she’s talking to:
- Pin-striped banker bastards who probably use prostitutes (the FT);
- Tailcoat-wearing, politically neutered monarchists (the people who work for our embarrassingly unelected head of state: VIVE LA RÉPUBLIQUE!);
- People who are willing to pay a monthly subscription THAT COSTS MORE THAN NETFLIX to read regular, new, articles about wine (subscribers to her website).
I am none of these three things, but I am a borderline alcoholic,2 former bar manager and individual with an interest in wider ideas of culture. For me, taste is as much an appropriate sense for the exploration of cultural products as sight and hearing: why should a beautiful painting be considered more “Art” than food or drink? Increasingly, this is not the case, and Robinson is (I’m sure) someone who would agree that the wine industry represents one of the pinnacles of human cultural inventiveness. Like all good sensory (i.e. not literature) art, wine production requires the combination of a practical skill with a difficult-to-define creativity. The best wine makers in the world use old, ancient even, methods, in combination with contemporary technologies and processes, right from farming the grapes through to marketing each bottle. Wine is a pinnacle, an apogée, of culture: it is one of the most impressive things humanity has learnt how to do, and it is something of which a great deal can be known and a great deal can be enjoyed.
The 24-Hour Wine Expert does exactly what it sets out to do. It offers a brief introduction to the most common/famous wines and wine-producing regions; describes how best to store, serve and buy wine, how it is made, where it originally came from, and suggests wine-food pairings. Robinson tells the reader her favourite wines/grapes/producers and offers vocabulary training for the discussion of wine. All of this information (and The 24-Hour Wine Expert is info-heavy) is delivered with a chatty, informal, manner, quite at odds with the presumed elitism of the subject matter. Robinson is open and engaging, witty in places and very non-conservative (in a wine sense): she’s pro New World, she’s against the phrase “New World” and she approves of technological developments. She is informed and, obviously, informative.
The 24-Hour Wine Expert is an engaging, fact-filled read that constantly made me thirsty. Robinson describes tastes and details of grape varieties and geographical tendencies with a keen understanding, and the only real way to improve the experience of reading the book would be to accompany it with a sip of every mentioned wine. Robinson suggests tasting exercises, acknowledges when she is suggesting ones that may be pricey, and she is a clean and unselfish narrator of factual information.
There’s not much more I can say about the book, really. It’s fine.
But is it right that it even exists?
My copy of the book has been stained (look at the lower left hand corner in the above photo) with caponata, Sicilian aubergine stew. What is a more middle class mishap than that? And what is a more middle class interest than wine, despite it being the connoisseurship of an intoxicant?
Intoxication is an inherent attack on the body and the mind. I believe – firmly – that intoxication is a bad thing, though painfully necessary in this horrible world. The first thing I do every morning is bang coffee until I’m so high I’m not distracting myself from work with sad thoughts. THAT’S LIFE.
We shouldn’t chase intoxication, but almost everyone does.
We wouldn’t have to if we were happy and didn’t hate ourselves, but that is a state only the very lucky or very unquestioning are able to attain.
Thusly, if intoxication is a destructive act – which I believe it is – should major publishers, the bastions of knowledge and self-reflection, etc, be publishing non-fiction, informative, books that unquestioningly encourage and advocate the consumption of alcohol? (NB: not a single reference to the side-effects/long term health issues related to alcohol abuse in the whole book. Because they don’t happen to the middle class, right?)
Would a text about different varieties of marijuana get published by a mainstream publisher? Maybe in California, but in the rest of the world, no. Likewise, were unlikely to see an unbiased, non-judgemental book on the best way to get hold of ecstasy and the best places to ingest it, or – even more pertinent – a detailed guide to the best coca and poppy farms of the world. This definitely wouldn’t happen.
Why does alcohol – and here, specifically, wine – get such a biased positive treatment? An easy thing to say would be the money involved – but there’s a huge amount of money in the illegal intoxicants trade and smack experts aren’t getting Penguin Random House publishing deals. What gives? Why is booze so special? Because it’s traditional in Europe?
I, personally, think that all intoxicants should be banned (easy option) or – failing that – be legalised and taxed the way booze and tobacco are (the more sensible, but harder, option).
The former – banning the bottle – would be more in keeping with the previous actions of international governments (i.e. drug prohibition), while the latter would be more in keeping with a sensible response to reality – i.e. there will always be demand for psychological distraction until humanity discovers a purpose to existence. This second option, alas, isn’t how governments behave, and the only way to justify their behaviour over the past few decades (and the violence this has directly resulted in across parts of South America) is to fully, formally and indefinitely prohibit the production and sale of alcohol on a massive international scale.
The 24-Hour Wine Expert is an informative read. But it is normalising and encouraging the consumption of an intoxicant whose use has serious personal and social repercussions. If Penguin Random House feel that this is a morally justifiable publication, they should also be publishing – soon – The 24-Hour Cocaine Expert, The 24-Hour Weed Expert, The 24-Hour MDMA Expert: but they’re not going to, are they?
Ban the bottle, get it off the streets, prosecute its distributors, its producers, its users. Go full Philippines if you have to, governments. Because then you’re not hypocritical. Make alcohol illegal, make books about wine suspect, make wine experts social pariahs.
And then, when the police are all busy prosecuting the working class for being found with 750ml of Gallo rosé or a single can of Fosters, me and all the other white middle class bastards who get to live above these kind of laws will be drinking the finest illicit chardonnay we can get our hands on, washed down with stinking negronis and all those other illegal drugs that no one like us struggles to get hold of or gets in trouble for having. Prohibition of alcohol won’t stop people from drinking it, but it will offer moral justification for other draconian laws related to intoxicants, and consistency – I feel – should be something every lawmaker should strive for.
Ban alcohol, criminalise the people who openly write books about wine.
I’ve really wandered off point here.
The 24-Hour Wine Expert is a casual, informative, book about wine. It’s the type of book I’ve been looking to read for years. But I have a problem, and it shouldn’t be encouraged.
1. That’s the giant, weird-coloured, newspaper the kind of men you want to spit at hide their erections behind on public transport when all the cash in their wallet is too blood-stained to use when paying for a taxi. ↩
2. Though I haven’t had an alcohol-related black out for eight full days (that’s a long time for me), I cycled over 12 miles Saturday, played squash Sunday, all of this without a hangover. I don’t recognise me in myself any more. ↩