( Note: This piece originally appeared as my first column on the new Harpers.co.uk website last week )
I’ve just read “ Antifragile”, Nassim Taleb’s thought provoking sequel to “ Black Swans “. At one point, in a diatribe against large corporations, he writes ‘ have you noticed that whilst corporations sell you junk drinks, artisans sell you cheese and wine’. He goes on to argue that large corporations cannot produce wine and puts forward Wine as the ‘ best argument in favour of the artisanal economy.’
I would suggest that this view would resonate across much of our industry and, indeed, with many consumers. The irony, however, is that his book is essentially about defining a more realistic economic and political doctrine. If he was to study the wine industry in more depth he might well be less convinced that our industry model is either ideal or sustainable.
To me it’s a question of balance. If we were to lose the artisanal flavour of our industry, if we fail to understand the difference between simplification and dumbing down and that the complexity and diversity of our category is not just excess baggage, then we might find that wine’s core appeal becomes significantly diminished.
On the other hand, we need to understand that Taleb is hardly the average consumer. A large number of consumers see wine simply as an alcoholic beverage. And with Beer, Cider, certain Spirits, and fusion drinks, in the ascendancy, the competition is intensifying. We need to understand the implications of being too highbrow and arcane to such consumers and the more general need to engage with different consumers in specific ways. Otherwise, while we may retain our soul, the prognosis for large swathes of our industry is arguably pretty dire.
Thoughts on the Nurture v Nature debate.
There is a moment in the French film Ridicule when a celebrated wit and member of the church has just completed a passionate exposition to Louis XIV and his court on why he believes in the existence of God. As he takes the applause at the end of his speech, he announces that, if his majesty so desires, he could return the following week and attempt to prove the exact opposite: that God doesn’t exist. This, unsurprisingly, goes down rather badly with the king and the Abbe has to leave Versailles in some haste.
This somehow came to mind recently as I read Robert Joseph’s thoughts on the RAW Wine Fair, which celebrated “natural wines” – www.thejosephreport.blogspot.co.uk – and the ensuing discussion his thoughts provoked. In the same week I attended a wine tasting at which a not-inexpensive Volnay was showing particularly badly. A colleague remarked that, if the producer had been there, no doubt the word “terroir” would be found somewhere in their explanation of its “unusual” character.
It would seem there is nothing that the wine trade enjoys debating more than the theme of nurture versus nature. And what I find a little frustrating is that I’m not technically competent to get to grips with the detail of the debate. Conceptually, however, I feel I could argue for both sides.
On the one hand I believe that in an ideal world all premium wine would reveal some sense of place and, more importantly, that all wine, would be made in a sustainable way (in the broadest sense of the word “sustainable”). On the other hand, as a consumer, I believe that wine is fundamentally something to be enjoyed, while I value and respect consistency of quality and style. The way wine is produced should to me (within reason) therefore be a means to these ends, and not an end in itself.