In today’s post I will consider the ideology of one of the most common narratives in wine through the lens of an Italian estate that I greatly enjoy and respect. The structure is simple: A flourishing ancient tradition that respected the land diminished as the result of some social change and almost disappeared but for a saviour that preserved the tradition and reinvigorated it, giving contemporary drinkers access to this authentic, ancient tradition that is closer to the truth than our world. Usually the narrative involves a contrast between small-scale, earth-friendly practices and the industrial agricultural complex that threatened and almost destroyed it. The winemaker/farmer saviours at the centre of the story become the messiahs of an environmentally sustainable world.
The Ideology of the Wine Idyll
Here is the story of Le Piane from the Canadian importer’s website:
“Boca now is every wine-makers dream. An area that has a track record of producing world class wines from a noble grape (Nebbiolo), volcanic soil at an altitude of 400-450 metres, and all the best south facing vineyards are available or abandoned. And best yet – the terraces are still there – sleeping quietly in the forests – waiting to be reclaimed and returned to life. For a wine professional – to drive through these forests is like finding that lost forgotten place that you dream of but are sure cannot exist.
In the 1990s, there was only one producer of note left in Boca – Antonio Cerri and he was 80 years old. Cerri made elegant long-lasting Nebbiolo wines that would rival anything from the south.We recently tasted a 1990 and a 1964 Cerri wine – and these are Nebbiolo wines of the highest pedigree – still vibrant and bursting with fruit after 25 and 50 years. But, Cerri was the last real wine-maker left in Boca and he always said: “With me, Boca will die.”
But one person, came to buy his wines, one person revered him, one person was determined to carry on his legacy and ensure that Boca would not die with Anotonio Cerri. That person was Christoph Kuenzli. When Cerri passed in 1998, Christoph bought the estate and through 90 separate real estate deals he expanded Cerri’s small vineyard to a manageable size of 6.5 ha to carry on the tradition of making great wine in Boca.”
The American Importer narrates as follows:
“Christoph Kunzli had the opportunity to become acquainted with the “BOCA” wine production region when in 1988, together with Alexander Tolf, he met Antonio Cerri. At that time Antonio was more than eighty years old and one of the last local wine growers to produce and cellar the typical and outstanding Boca wine. Christoph was immediately fascinated by the uniqueness and the beauty of the vineyards on the hills near Boca, and by the sumptuousness of its wines as well. Antonio had been making wine for his family and his friends all his life. His vineyard was planted with Nebbiolo (called Spanna locally) and Vespolina in the early 1920’s. It was small but beautiful, facing south and sheltered from the hill on which it was planted.
The Boca wine region is the most eastern and highest one (420 – 520m) in Piedmont (district of Novara), situated between Valle Sesia and Lake Orta and nestled in the foothills of the Lower Alps. To see it now one would never suspect that this tranquil corner of Piedmont, once blessed in a golden age, suffered like many appellations of Northern Italy, the repeated abandonment of the countryside…so much that the forest took back what was once hers. The wild landscape, Chestnuts, Beach trees, Cherry trees, Pines and ancient Oaks occupied this space, while farmers, who migrated towards the industrialized areas left behind the ancestral wine-making territory. By the 90’s Boca with less than 10 hectares, was almost totally abandoned.
When Christoph and Alexander visited Boca, it was love at first sight. Following a tasting of Cerri’s wines Christoph and Alexander decided to purchase the vineyards, the barrels (still full) , a nice archive of library vintages, and a small broken down building right in the middle of the vineyards. Over the course of 10 years, Christoph and Alexander, convinced Antonio that they would honor his ancient way of making wine. Without heirs interested in the continuing Antonio’s tradition, Christoph and Alexander slowly acquired and cleared small plots of land and like a puzzle the property soon grew together. On the newly restored vineyards they planted Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Croatina vines so that now the “Le Piane property has 8.0 hectare of vineyards, 2 of them from old vines. On some of these vineyards Kunzli restored the Maggiorina system, where four vines evolve in the four cardinal points, form a cup of sorts.”
And the story from Le Piane itself:
“In the 90s, and together with enologist Alexander Trolf, Christoph Kuenzli visited Boca and its forgotten vineyards and both became enthusiastic about the region and it’s excellent potential. At that time we became acquainted with Antonio Cerri, one of the last winegrowers to produce the typical and outstanding Boca wine. In view of his advanced age, more than 80 years old, Antonio Cerri handed over to us his small vineyard (0.5 hectares), cellar and his old vintages. We seized the opportunity and step-by-step acquired further small plots of forest. Like a jigsaw, the property developed to become a whole. The best areas of Boca – 4 vineyards with about 1.5 hectares (4 acres) each – were cleared and replanted with Nebbiolo and Vespolina vines. “Le Piane” now has an area of 8 hectares (20 acres) of vineyards, 2 (5 acres) of them with old vines.”
I have underlined words in the above passage that have strong narrative qualities and that use literary techniques to evoke certain values. Consider the range of underlined words that fall into two categories:
Loss of Tradition and Ancient truth: “wine-makers dream; sleeping quietly in the forests; reclaimed and returned to life; lost forgotten place that you dream of but are sure cannot exist; with me, Boca will die; once blessed in a golden age; suffered; abandonment of the countryside; the forest took back what was once hers; wild landscape; ancestral wine-making territory; abandoned; forgotten; one of the last winegrowers.”
Restoration of the Ancient truth: “one person revered him; ensure that Boca would not die; the uniqueness and the beauty of the vineyards; slowly acquired and cleared small plots of land and like a puzzle the property soon grew together; honor his ancient way of making wine; restored; Like a jigsaw, the property developed to become a whole.”
These words are typical of a strong trend in contemporary wine writing that valorizes restoration of lost grapes, vineyards, methods, and traditions. Their frequency suggests a significant interest in and reliance on the tragic idyll narrative and tropes from Romantic art. But these tropes have little relation to legitimate reasoning and more to an ideological function.
For example, in the 19th century Romantic movement in Europe, Enlightenment conceptions of the self were confronting the moral fatalism and providential thinking of traditional religious and monarchical authority. Depictions of ruins and catastrophes served as ideological warfare against the “corrupting” ideas of the traditional religious-monarchical world order. Take, for instance, Caspar David Friedrich’s famous 1819 painting “Cloister Graveyard in the Snow”:
The imagery in this painting evokes the narrative of the corruption of nature by religious moral aspirations, the eventual ruination and decay of those European religious traditions, and the resurgence of a newly reinvigorated nature that symbolizes the potency of the mind in the face of inexplicable natural sublimity. The ruined church is overcome by the trees, which dominate the frame. The feeble monks pay homage to something beautiful only by its destruction.
These images came to serve an ideological function – most obviously seen in the French Revolution. By way of famous example, French painter David’s “Death of Marat” returns to classical forms, and rejects the elaborate religious and monarchical forms of art from the 18th century, in order to contrast republican austerity (and thus dedication to a moral cause aligned with the French Revolution) against the traditional religious and monarchic authorities of France. Death symbolism becomes martyrdom for this new moral vision of the world.
These narratives thus have social-political functions in service of ideology (I of course acknowledge that the great works of art have many other interpretative possibilities within them). However, the actual nature of human activity is protean. Social and political structures are in a constant state of flux. There was no truth to the moral superiority of classical Rome in 19th century Europe just as there is no truth to the moral superiority of the ancient agrarian lifestyle valorized by wine writers and importers today.
Rather, the narrative provides an anchor to give the illusion of truth to a concept. Nostalgia is one of the most powerful techniques for achieving this anchor because it bears no relation to historical truth but uses an image of the past to conjure a sense of comfort, permanence and moral purity. We see rot and decay around us, moral loss, and seek an edenic purity. In this way the romantic idyll that recalls a golden age in the past has symbolized moral purity for hundreds of years. This symbolism today in the world of wine and food is often used in the service of a moral imperative of environmentalism. “Industrialization” becomes the world-view that has corrupted a morally pure world represented by the idyllic ancient agrarian. Modern saviours appear among the ruins to reassert that ancient moral truth.
In my view this is a dangerous and untruthful way of thinking. This type of symbolism is structurally vulnerable to cooption by any ideology that relies on a vision of moral purity. It is a narrative that does disservice to the real issues, complexity and moral dilemmas of modern environmental problems. A better grounded and more rigorous environmental philosophy should look deeper than the typical narrative and seek to discover the paradoxes and moral ambiguity of the history of a particular place or person and then rigorously and thoughtfully seek to reason solutions to the issues that have arisen out of this history. The romantic idyll narrative does violence to effective environmental moral reasoning.
The risk that such narrative structures can be appropriated is significant. Nazi architect Albert Speer created an architectural language based on a revised version of neo-classical Romanticism. His ethic was to harken back to an ideal classical period (that never existed) as an ideal image of a morally pure world. His architecture borrowed neo-classical forms and were explicitly designed to ‘look good’ in ruination. In other words, the very formal aesthetic of the architecture had built within it the narrative of tragic idyll and romanticism. It was not only easy for Speer to appropriate this type of symbolism but it was powerfully effective at projecting a certain moral vision as part of a historical narrative arc.
I am of course not suggesting a wine narrative is akin to Speer’s architecture. I am merely making a point about how certain narrative structures can be appropriated to ideological thinking rather than rigorous, reasoned thinking.
A Better Way to Talk About Wine
What’s a better way to talk about wine? Thinking through the real forces that influence its particular histories.
In the case of this Le Piane, the story has much to do with economics. As in many parts of Italy in the early to mid 20th century, economic necessity led many farmers to abandon the countryside in order to survive. The textile industry in particular offered well-paid jobs that could lift many in the countryside of northwest Italy out of poverty. These farmers’ agrarian existance was not romantic, but hard and often involved significant suffering. Thus the landscape in Boca (where Le Piane is located) was heavily impacted by economic trauma.
The ‘survival’ of Le Piane and Boca is also due to economics. As is true of the vast growth or resurgence of unknown regions, lost varieties, old techniques, and ‘sustainable’ winemaking, Le Piane owes its continued existence to the forces of globalization. Globalized information flows and travel possibilities brought Christoph Kuenzli to the region. Globalized distribution networks, and access to markets create amalgams of niches that previously could not exist. The same globalizing forces that have wrought huge environmental damage on the world also allowed wineries and practices such as those at Le Piane to survive.
Thus there are many contradictions in the narrative of wines such as Le Piane. Others include the cost of ‘sustainable’ farming, and the fact that accessibility of such products belongs mostly to wealthy classes or is supported by government subsidies that impact negatively on the economics of other countries’ agricultural industries. The globally disenfranchised also form part of the narrative: environmental sustainability is intricately intertwined with wealth and poverty. Thus a good environmentalist moral philosophy will recognize that its imperatives require consideration of many interconnected problems and an effort to reason through whether to take a consequentialist or deontological approach and a commitment to continually weighing competing interests to allow both case by case distinction and a broader moral consensus intended to create, on balance, holistic benefit for the entire world. These questions cannot be answered with the idyllic narratives that populate most wine writing about ‘natural wines’, ‘sustainable wine’, ‘ancient winemaking techniques, ‘lost traditions’, etc.
Relying on such narratives denudes needed complexity from the central moral questions of environmentalism and tends to create an aggrandizing moral superiority that results in ideological ‘reasoning’ in the guise of philosophy.
A Successful Global Wine
If you have survived my long diatribe, I hope to reward you with the news that Le Piane’s Mimmo is a beautiful, sensuous, silky bottle of mid-weight red wine that feels like wrapping yourself in a blanket.
The wine is comprised of Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Croatina. The vines are planted in porphyritic gravel soil, which is unique in Italy. The sub-Alpine climate is a big part of the terroir of the wine: warm autumns and significant sun go alongside significant diurnal temperature shifts. The sub-Alpine hills protect the vines from the extreme cold of Alpine winds.
Le Piane makes wines that consistently over-perform for the price, offering idiosyncratic wines of place with complexity, accessibility and versatility. This is a key feature of its success because it has harnessed the economic traumas of its past and the powers of globalization to offer delicious, terroir-driven wine made in a manner that does not strip the soils of nutrients and destroy the ecosystems around the farm. And, it does so at a price that a reasonable number of individuals in the middle-classes can afford (particularly, the “Maggiorina” bottling, which is about $30 and which I have reviewed previously).
Excellent and Highly Recommended Value
$47 + tax at Kits Wine
H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, 5th ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004)
Michel Makarius, Ruins, (Paris: Editions Flammarion, 2004)
“Architecture of Doom”, Directed by Peter Cohen, 1989
Sean Coyle and Karen Morrow, The Philosophical Foundations of Environmental Law (Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2004)