Is Wine part of the Culture of any society, or is wine merely an artefact of culture, something that arises from wine being made within that society? Or maybe there is only a culture OF wine such as is easily experienced when visiting parts of France such as Burgundy, Alsace or Bordeaux? This is my opening article in what will be a series of posts about Culture and Wine, published every Wednesday. Two incidents, wine and travel related, which I experienced in the past 7 years demonstrate, beyond argument, the connection between Culture & Wine, which I now intend to explore. The first occurred in Budapest, Hungary. The second occurred in one of our favourite French wine towns in Burgundy. But before I make the connection we must all understand where I’m coming from when I say “culture”. It’s one of those things or concepts that is so difficult to define, we all say we know what culture is or means, but try and explain it to someone else! Well, I’ll give it a go based on two images:
This first image shows culture comprising 9 different elements or components, each one representing something that CONTRIBUTES to the overall makeup of culture. It’s a composite, a blend or mix of these things, just like bread is a composite of flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar for example. The individual ingredients have “disappeared” into creating the whole. An easier way to think about it is to consider a foreign country you have visited, a country very different from your own such that rituals, customs, faith, food, language, attitude, beliefs etc etc are easily recognised and can be identified. Nepal immediately springs to mind for myself, my wife’s country of birth, and like a different planet to me.
The second image is more specific, it’s a generalised model of Corporate Culture, with 6 different elements, as above, representing things that CONTRIBUTE to corporate culture. I worked with this model for almost 30 years as an organisation psychologist, either helping to create a new company by building the culture, or more difficult ….. changing the culture of an existing company. The reason I have shown it here is because two of the elements should specifically be part of the first wider model, and these are Symbols and Stories.
Finally before I tell you my two stories from Budapest, and Burgundy, let’s add “Drink” to the Food element of the upper image for culture and mention Whisky and Guinness. I’m willing to bet that you are already thinking Scotland and Ireland? Of course you are, because those two drinks are symbolic of those two countries, and somehow each drink is embedded within the culture of those two countries, especially through Rituals, Customs, Beliefs, Behaviour, Art ……. maybe even a “religion” too:
“Few beverages have cultivated the reverence that Scotch whisky has. For some, it’s the very essence of Scotland distilled, matured and poured into a glass. The drink is rich with history, craftsmanship and culture”Blair Bowman
- “When things go wrong and will not come right
- Though you do the best you can
- When life looks black as the hour of night
- A pint of plain is your only man”
- (Flan O’Brien on Guinness/Porter)
And so now to my two stories, connected by the expression “In vino veritas et amicitia”
The first experience occurred in Budapest, our first visit several years ago. We had decided to have an early dinner in the hotel restaurant and took our seats at 7pm looking forward to some Asian Fusion. The wine waiter/sommelier arrived and asked us if we would like something to drink …. and the fun began! “Yes” I said, “we’ll be sticking to wine mostly, do you have some furmint”? There was a quick and faint look of surprise on his face before his composure reasserted itself and a conversation began about how we knew about furmint and had we had it before. In fact none of us had tasted furmint before but exploring the indigenous grape varieties of ANY country is top of our list before visiting, and this is what we told him. He said he would be back, and a few minutes later returned with 4 bottles of wine, two were furmint and two were harslevelu, both Hungarian white wines. He began opening the first and said “please, I would like you to try these before you decide which you like, and welcome to my country”! How about that for a welcome, and all because of a little knowledge about grapes? Needless to say, our week’s holiday and hotel stay was defined by this single experience.
The second experience occurred in Burgundy where we are regular visitors. This particular evening we were having dinner at Bistrot des Grands Crus in Chablis, just a few metres away from our hotel. We had last been here a couple of months ago as we sought out the first wine on my Wines 101 Bucket List, a Dauvissat Grand Cru, Les Clos. We were welcomed on entering by Christian, the owner/manager, who led us towards our previous table which was already occupied, so he sat us at the one next to it. We chatted for a few minutes about our previous visit and the very special wine he had obtained for us before he described the daily specials. I ordered a seafood salad as starter, Dr C ordered a squash soup, and we both followed with a trout in an almond sauce. I chose a small carafe of Petit Chablis to accompany which arrived in short order. The table next to us was occupied by 3 men, one of whom leaned across to me and asked me about the Dauvissat Chablis Premier Cru he had heard Christian and I talking about from the earlier visit. I told him of my Wines 101 quest and that it undoubtedly was the best Chablis I had ever tasted in my long life and what a treat it was to share it with family too. They had chosen a bottle of Fèvre Premier Cru, Vaulorent, and he, without hesitation, poured me half a glass to taste! They introduced themselves as one master sommelier, a colleague and a business owner from Germany who were visiting Chablis then Meursault for tasting and purchasing pallet loads of wine for import into Albert Kierdorf’s wine business. Albert was the one who poured me the Fèvre! Albert now called Christian over and asked him for a bottle of the Dauvissat I had previously bought, only to be told that there was none left. Albert asked him if he had any other Dauvissat, and Christian replied “yes, a 2014 Premier Cru Vaillons, but it’s not ready yet so I really couldn’t sell it”! Oh dear, I thought WWIII was imminent until Albert explained they were tasting lots of wines not yet ready so he would appreciate a bottle. Christian relented and out came the Dauvissat with an extra glass for me. I now seem to have been adopted into German wine society! My wife meanwhile continued with her squash soup! A classic debate now began, to what extent was the Dauvissat Premier Cru not ready, when would it be ready, how did it compare with my 2012 from the previous visit, and …….. how might it compare with a Raveneau from the same year! Good grief, Albert now called Christian back and ordered a 2014 Chablis made by Dauvissat’s neighbour, Francois Raveneau so we now have 3 bottles of rock-star status Chablis in front of us from three winemakers, Dauvissat , Raveneau, Fèvre, that might cost £400-500 in a UK restaurant! The evening I have described continued for some time with my wife eventually adding her own teetotallers views; what more could demonstrate the veracity of that famous Latin phrase, “In vino veritas et amicitia”, as three Germans, a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Nepalese woman meet as relative strangers, share their evening, and depart as friends with shared contact details for the future.
These two incidents demonstrate a very powerful influence of wine, a cultural influence, not an intoxication influence. Without the wine neither of these conversations would have taken place and our experience of each restaurant would have been quite different. Our memories would not have been so engraved, or our thoughts, several years later, so easily triggered and related here. The first incident shows how a little knowledge of Hungarian grape varieties affected our relationship with hotel staff and added to the enjoyment of our holiday ….. it was a sign of mutual respect created by the “behaviour” of us all. Likewise, but in a different way in Burgundy, the long social interaction between ourselves, three German visitors and a restaurant manager couldn’t have taken place if we were all drinking water or beer with our food.
The wine, and our knowledge of it, opened a door into a cultural exchange between us, a discussion that can be traced back for comparison to the Ancient Greek culture of Plato. It was at Plato’s Symposium that wine was drunk as a lubricant to fine conversation between comrades, conversations which embraced art, poetry, music, politics, philosophy, and wine of course. The Symposium is a recognised ritual from Ancient Greek culture and there should be no doubt that this second conversation as described was a classic and classical example of the relationship between Culture & Wine. I am NOT referring to “wine culture” here, but something much wider and more significant, how wine not only stimulates cultural interaction between people, but how in many societies it is embedded within the culture of that society. I will go further, and suggest that wine is an art object, an aesthetic object, and even a cultural artefact. It has been associated with faiths and religions for millennia, it is often a part of certain customs and rituals in many societies, wine and food are natural partners and therefore is as much a part of the model of culture at the top of this post as all of the other elements, but for future posts and discussion I’m going to use my own model.
I rest my case; but I’ll be back!
I have recently created a new Facebook page with a group Wine Culture for folks interested in all aspects of wine and culture. If enough like minded people join and engage there is a great deal we can learn from each other, wherever you are in the world and whatever your level of experience. So click the link Wine Culture to view it, join up, and let me know what you think 👍🍷
My good friend Danell at Vinthropology has recently created a Cultural Association in Italy in which she will be exploring the connections between wine and culture including aspects and influences with art and music for example. I encourage everyone to visit and follow her blog, also to recommend her to anyone who is interested in wine and culture as something to explore. From her blog:
Art and culture can create a conceptual and perceptive framework through which the art of wine becomes a chance to know the world, and oneself, more intimately. At the same time, an attentive and curious approach to wine tasting can give meaningful value to the use of our senses and increase one’s openness to perceive the world beyond the glass.Vinthropology
Danell and I collaborated on my recent book, It’s Not About The Wine, which has many similar topics of interest to wine lovers. It is full of travel tales too and will inspire you to visit vineyards, wineries and to engage with wine in a completely different way. Available now from the Amazon website in your own country.