I have reached a point in my posts about Wine and Culture where something needs to be clarified; and that is the two way nature of culture and all of the elements in the culture model I have chosen to use and shown in the image below.
So far I have labelled a group of elements that we know to be strong influencers of culture, or indeed part OF it. But what isn’t shown in my model is how culture AFFECTS our beliefs, our attitudes and of course our behaviour. Pay a visit to countries with a different culture to your own and you will soon see the difference, but also you will recognise a subtle change in your OWN behaviour. Take a holiday in Nepal and you will no longer shake hands with people to whom you are introduced, instead you will place your hands together in a “prayer-like” manner and say “namaste”. You will defer more significantly to older people, adding the word “Ama” or “Dai” when addressing women or men older than yourself. We tend therefore to speak of cultural norms, which imbue our moral values and then naturally condition our behaviour, subconsciously.
But what about situations and countries where culture has been “weakened” or even where in some sections of society who HAVE NO CULTURE and there are no strong moral values and beliefs to mediate behaviour? In his book “I Drink Therefore I Am” Sir Roger Scruton devotes a whole chapter to this issue, and although binge drinking is a central point of interest, he begins wider with the Ancient Greeks, especially Socrates, Aristotle and Plato and their philosophical search for “the good life” and “what is good”? Scruton mentions Delphi, the home of the famous oracle and a place I last visited about 30 years ago and where above the gate of Apollo’s temple is written “Know thyself” and “Nothing to excess”. These two “rules” are connected around the value of self control, and Aristotle argued that if you want to be happy you must cultivate virtue by avoiding extremes. This doesn’t mean living a puritanical life, it means balance and moderation, or to quote Horace ….. aurea mediocritas, which allows for passion but with the self in charge!
Plato’s Symposium was an example of this where men would meet to honour Dionysus, their god of wine and agriculture. They would drink wine, discuss politics, and listen to poetry and music. You get the picture. Now, this reminds me of a similar period in my own life about 40 years ago. There were four of us, all working in a very large steel making factory employing 13,000 people and 6 miles long. Phil and Adrian worked in HR/Personnel, Pete was an engineer, and I was a chemist in the research laboratories. All married, all with young children, interested in wine, good food, politics, literature, economics. We met as a large group in a different house monthly, the hosts cooked dinner, we each brought a particular wine “of interest”. As we all collected fine clarets the wine conversations were relatively narrow but you can imagine the wider conversations amongst us as we debated capitalism vs socialism, industrial productivity, ethics, our children’s education etc etc. The arguments were legendary but not a drop of wine was spilled and no tempers were ever lost! Now compare this with a recent incident.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself embroiled in a classic “Facebook spat”, in fact I was more than embroiled, I was the target! I had joined a couple of wine groups in the belief that it would be a good way to engage with likeminded people who would go beyond mere tasting notes on what they had drunk last night. You know the sort of stuff I mean and how I write about ….. wine WITH history, philosophy, art, people, neuroscience, terroir ……Anyway, someone kicked off a topic theme with this question: “I need to learn more about wine, so can anyone recommend to me a nice fruity red?” Before I had chance to reply there had been almost 30 replies like this:
- Try a Beaujolais
- How about a Merlot
- Cabernet Sauvignon is great, try it
- Malbec is my favourite, give it a go
- I prefer an Aussie Shiraz
- Yada yada yada
So I decided to try a reply of my own along the lines of …. “To help you learn more it helps to find the right question, I think you can already see by the number of replies that people have differing opinions on fruitiness. The best way to learn is by personal experience and here’s how ……”
What came back was horrific, here’s some examples: “we don’t need cranks like you on here” and “the last thing we need here is negativity so get lost”. Anyway, I decided to see what would happen next and wrote …. “The problem is that people have different tastes and different abilities to taste. For example the spicy-peppery taste in Shiraz/Syrah is due to a chemical called Rotundone. The problem is that 20% of the population can’t detect it at all. There are many other such components in wine that some people just don’t get. So one mans fruit is another mans vegetable, and the only way to find out is by systematically, over time, trying lots of wines made in different countries, from different grapes, and in different regions.” My goodness the abuse I received got worse!
This brings me back to the Roger Scruton philosophical points about wine and culture. He continues about the previous quote I mentioned, “nothing to excess”, and uses the word “binge” as applied to many facets of everyday life where western society seems to be riddled with bingeing on TV watching, Netflix box sets, internet porn, Twitter, Facebook, food, and of course, binge drinking. Scruton argues that we have “lost our culture”, the cultural norms that guided us as a civilised society to know ourselves and avoid excess that results in depravity, obesity, and the excesses of Saturday night binge drinking resulting in street vomiting and violence. Young people have NO culture, nothing that moderates the guzzling of wine and selfish behaviour rather than savouring a wine as part of a discourse on the arts or issues of the day as in Plato’s Symposium. Now, you may think this a rather harsh and extreme view, but try walking down a central street of a typical English city after 10pm on a Saturday night as we did a couple of years ago in Chester. This is a fine old medieval city, we used to live here but within a few minutes on leaving our restaurant we were in the midst of young people clearly the worse for drink, noisy, some barely able to stand and being supported by friends who at least could stand up, the street littered with bottles, discarded burger boxes and pizza leftovers. It was noisy too, as you might expect, the atmosphere was oppressive to a couple of old fogies like ourselves, I don’t think we were in any danger but the sense of intimidation was almost overpowering as my wife gripped my arm and we turned into a different street. Unfortunately the taxi rank was full of similar people, all in a similar state, and maybe surprisingly…… mostly young women, so we walked a bit further away from this particular street.
So, to return to the issue in this post, has culture been lost as Scruton suggests? Or are we in a different culture now, a culture created and lived out by a different generation? Can the old culture be recovered, or is this what multiculturalism means where there are extremes with an ultra excess of hedonism on one side and strict puritanism on the other? Whatever the answer, it won’t end well!