I think about wine a lot. About how the grapes were grown, which grapes were grown, where, why, how and by whom; how the wine was sold, to whom; what it tasted like.
I explore threads of stories and events, people, places, plants, businesses, scandals, tragedies and triumphs which particularly featured wine in the past. I do this for the same reason a historian of anything takes on their particular specialisation: I want to understand how now became the present by looking at then.
Oh. And I do this because I love wine.
[Unnamed woman drinking wine, c1930] Photograph: Sam Hood, hood_07059h, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW
As I see it, wine isn’t only a source of pleasure and release, it’s a way to understand something very specific about being human: the desire to have constant access to a drink that we don’t actually require for survival but which we would absolutely prefer not to have to get along without.
More than this, wine has cultural and symbolic meaning quite apart from other forms of alcohol like beer, spirits or cider. Wine illuminates aspects of human behaviour which are not limited to a certain gender or to particular classes or cultures. It operates as a source of stories and knowledge which ranges from providing a living for early modern European peasants through to a complex culture of trade culminating in outrageous heights of luxury and excess. Wine is a drink for men and women of any social class; and it is often not considered in wine history that wine growing as opposed to wine drinking is a culture loved by children. There are many nuances such as this that we miss in wine history if we do not begin at the plant production origin of the process in the vineyard and follow threads of inquiry through harvest, fermentation and then the supply chain through to consumption; with branches of cultural meaning created along the way.
Wine is no longer only a western product but a worldwide product. Its production is limited by climate and soils, not ethnicity, and its consumption is extending, all the time, to new parts of the world (as it contracts in other places as tastes and economies change). In fact, the tremendous tension between what is lost or gained in the privileging of either local or global forms of production began with wine, in France at the start of the twentieth century. But that is for a later post.
Wine can be high end or common cleanskins. Cultural meaning is ascribed to both extremes of this quality/cost spectrum. Depending on whether you are a wine producer, merchant, drinker, critic or a tee-totaller, wine may be a goldmine or a minefield.
Not only do I think about wine a lot, and write about it but I talk about it, which led my principal wine drinking companion, McMan, to remark that it is my ‘grain of sand’. That is, if you take the opening line from William Blake’s romantic poem Augeries of Innocence ‘To see the world in a grain of sand’, which is celebrating the miracle of the beauty of nature, McMan reckons wine is the single prism through which I view the world.
I believe we can see the world in a glass of wine. Metaphorically, at least.
My wine-glass-as-lens has the same qualities as Alice’s looking glass, or Doctor Who’s Tardis, it’s relatively diminutive size is by no means a guide to the riches it reveals.
Photograph by Alexander McIntyre
Through a wine studies lens we can witness modest moments such as the planting of a few vines; humble first efforts at wine making. Or we can see grand scenarios: the march of civilisations; first cultural encounters between peoples.
Some of these stories are in my new book First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales, due out later this year. The book and my scholarly publications are first words, and what I’m hoping for is a conversation with you about the ongoing pursuit of the world that can be discerned through wine studies; along with your thoughts, your stories and the world you see in that glass at your elbow.
I’d like to acknowledge that this blog was baptised with the assistance of Phillip, Washie, Susan, Kylie, Bharat, Vikrant, Kirti and several wines including a 2007 Wirra Wirra Sparrow’s Lodge McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon. This official naming took place in the presence of a 2006 Seppelt Chalambar Shiraz which is now tucked away for a reunion of the naming committee, listed above. Credit is also due to 2011 McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon which has been a faithful friend through the design stages of World in a Wine Glass.
If you like the Sam Hood image of the woman with a wine glass above, see Hood’s other beautiful photographs featuring wine and vineyards in the State Library of NSW Manuscripts, Oral History & Pictures Collection.
Several of these images are also in First Vintage.