The unproduction of wine

Eliding technology in natural and post-modern wine making

Christopher Kaplonski

Often portrayed as a ‘natural’ product – the outcome of terroir (the ‘taste of place’), skillfully guided by the vigneron’s hand – wine is in fact a deeply technological product. In the US, for example, over 60 additives can be added to wine, without the consumer’s knowledge. To borrow Levi-Strauss’ classic terms of binary opposition, although wine is presented as ‘raw’ or natural, it is profoundly ‘cooked’ – a deeply cultural and technological product. This presentation proposes, through an anthropological reading of a small, but vocal, debate in the wine world, to invert the conference’s main theme. Rather than exploring the ways in which technology has been highlighted in food or drink preparation, I will focus on the ways in which it has been elided in the production of wine, asking how and to what ends is a technological product represented as natural?

Although a key factor in the taste, look and smell of modern wine, technology has only recently resurfaced as an explicit issue of debate. This debate can be understood broadly as a conversation or, often, argument, between two factions, which their proponents label the ‘natural’ and ‘post-modern’ wine movements. The former argues for the rejection of as much technological intervention as possible, as evidenced in another self-ascribed label of the movement: ‘low intervention’ wine. The latter movement, in contrast, embraces new forms of technology to cure what it views as the ills of commonly-used technologies, such as stainless steel fermentation tanks and microfiltration. These have resulted in a sameness to wine that the post-modernists seek to remedy through newer technologies. The natural wine movement, in other words, can be viewed as an attempt to restore wine to its status as a ‘raw’ product, while the postmodern movement acknowledges, through a wholehearted embrace, wine’s ‘cooked’ nature.

Drawing upon fieldwork and interviews among Austrian winemakers, wine sellers and consumers, as well as observation of trade fairs and debates in wine publications more widely, this presentation analyses the place of technology in the perception of the production of wine. If technology has often been elided in presentations of wine, why is this so? Is an emphasis on wine’s alleged ‘natural’ status simply a marketing ploy, or are there deeper philosophical and technological implications at stake? What is at stake in our understanding of the relation of food and drink to technology not only in the natural wine movement’s rejection of technology, but the embracing of technology by the post-modern wine movement as well? The presentation concludes with some thoughts what this debate in the wine world can tell us about the relationship of technology to the natural (‘raw’) and the cultural (‘cooked’) more broadly.


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