Wine has always been political. For thousands of years, it has been liquid diplomacy, a tool of imperial control, a strategic resource and a currency—until, suddenly in the last 50 years or so, it wasn’t. Today, wine drinkers don’t want to think of wine as political, but rather, as a product—something that can be looked at “objectively,” divorced from the myriad of contexts that give it meaning and then rated and priced accordingly. Politics are vulgar. Why worry about right-wing coups or the legacy of imperialism or even, say, the rights of the people who do the work in the vineyards, when we can rely on the market to tell us everything we need to know about a bottle?
Even in 2023, when nearly every topic is a political battleground, the complaint leveled against anyone who says or writes anything interesting about wine is that they’re “bringing politics into wine.” This, of course, isn’t the problem. The real issue is not that politics have been injected into wine, but rather that for most of recent memory, the way we approach wine—from the level of the wine critic to the wine clerk—has been systematically depoliticized.
I’m not suggesting a grand conspiracy of blackpilled master sommeliers here. That the wine world forgot to see politics is simply a reflection of how we citizens of 21st-century capitalist society have been conditioned to see the world. (The writer of this piece would like to suggest that interested parties Google “neoliberalism” to learn more.) What is clear, however, is that by removing politics as a tool for understanding wine, we’re unable to actually appreciate what’s going on in the glass and beyond. We’re left with a neutered vision of terroir, vague trends and “vibes,” and inane stabs at point-based objectivity.
Without politics, terroir is just soil, as if the vast panoply of AOC/DOC/AVA/WTF maps perfectly onto mute geology, as if wine really does “make itself.” In reality, of course, every single line on the wine map is the result of, at best, compromise and horse-trading and at worst, violence. Consider, for example, the weeks of riots in 1911 that precipitated the Aube AOC regaining Champagne status, which left towns, vineyards and merchants in wreckage, and which even today results in a region simmering with discontent over perceived second-class status. There is no doubt that wine regions do trace relevant geographical features and historical trends. But they are also dynamic entities shaped by local power brokers, special interests and, increasingly, large-scale lobbying firms.
“If we blind ourselves to the politics behind what we drink, we are, invariably, privileging wine with truly vile politics.”
Wine criticism that doesn’t speak to the facts on the ground is just blabbering about aesthetics, which is cool if you don’t actually believe in anything. Wine critics spend one decade searching for opulence, another chasing acid, another hunting for “funky” or “cloudy,” and eventually throw their hands up in the air and self-righteously claim to be classicists. Good luck searching for vintages and expressions that recall a world several degrees cooler and which, absolutely, won’t ever be coming back. Every vintage is the hottest one yet; sorry if the wines are showing a little VA.
Perhaps most importantly, if we blind ourselves to the politics behind what we drink, we are, invariably, privileging wine with truly vile politics—not just industrial dreck, but even thoughtfully made, beautiful bottles from people who happen to be real fucking monsters. For instance, in Wine Enthusiast, Michael Schachner writes of the wine industry in Chile: “While the regime is reputed for abusing human rights ... [it] was during Pinochet’s rule, which was from 1973 through 1990, that wine production returned as a viable industry with long-term potential.” Apparently this doesn’t go without saying, but, uh, you don’t at any point in time have to hand it to Pinochet, or really anyone who is associated with death squads or IMF reform, especially when you consider that the “long-term potential” unlocked by the regime was massive, foreign-owned estates that make bulk wine out of industrial grapes, rather than meaningful career opportunities for Chileans. On the home front, Trump Winery boasts of numerous “90+ point scores with Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and James Suckling, numerous best-in-class designations, and internationally awarded gold medals,” including a prestigious “Rising Star of the Year” award in 2014 for Eric Trump. (This award, oddly enough, is no longer mentioned on the Wine Enthusiast website, but is still visible on Trump Winery’s.)
“For every canceled natural wine legend or neofascist blue-chip estate, there are dozens of opportunities to put our mouths where our hearts are.”
Even the natural wine world—which, by virtue of superior farming, imagines itself above such things—is not immune to vile politics. This is demonstrated by recent high-profile and heavily litigated allegations about exploitative labor practices, sexual assault, Russian oligarchs and good old-fashioned European-style nationalism. This has led to the indignity of many guardians of the natural wine world, who made their career rightly dunking on the evils of conventional and industrial farming and winemaking, meekly demanding “vins sans soufre ni politiques ajouté.” As always, my response is simple: If you’re being asked to ignore someone’s politics or behavior, someone is trying to sneak a fascist into polite company. We don’t have to comply, even if the person in question is Demeter-certified.
The time is ripe for a glorious and uncompromising re-politicizing of wine. Lest this sound like a call for waves of cancellation or a paean to being holier than thou, I’d like to suggest that quite a few of us got into wine for the thrill of discovery. So, go fucking discover. Luckily, for every canceled natural wine legend or neofascist blue-chip estate, there are dozens of opportunities to put our mouths where our hearts are and drink something exciting. According to Nathan Ratapu, of the stellar caviste Rerenga Wines in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, “There are always people that are excluded who were producing high-quality natural wine and fighting the same fights, but because they happened to be a woman or a person of color or in a region that’s not wealthy ... we don’t talk about them.” Drinking politically can be an act of rebellion and discovery. Taking the politics of wine into account is an opportunity to actually engage with a wine, a chance to go beyond the dullness of aesthetics and get into the real meat of the juice—to understand the why of wine beyond rocks and grapes.