The world in a wine glass

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.

Irresistible!

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.

More soon!

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About @DrJulieMcIntyre

Historian of nature/culture through studies of wine production, trade and consumption. Also trans-imperialism, migration, mobilities and business. Budding connoisseur of Semillon and Riesling.
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10 Responses to The world in a wine glass

  1. turandotz says:

    Gorgeous words. Round on the tongue, with a lovely after-taste! Looking forward to the next post!

    Like

  2. Chris R says:

    The Caunians, … , claim they originally came from Crete. …For all of them – men, women, and children – believe that the most excellent and beautiful way to pass the time is to gather together with friends of the same age and to drink. Thanks Heroditus for making it lain that wine is not a late invention.

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  3. Definitely the most excellent and beautiful way to pass the time 🙂

    Like

  4. Sidsel Grimstad says:

    Love you wineblog. Looking forward to histories histories. Although I must say there are a few good stories about cider in Norway too….Say no more.

    Like

  5. What a terrific idea! The history of wine is such a rich topic.

    Just last night I was drinking an Australian Sangiovese with dinner, and we got talking about the name – Jove’s blood. How far back does the name go? Does it predate the Eucharist? And what’s the link between Jove and Jehovah? And so on… All the world in a label, not even in the glass itself.

    Best of luck with the blog.

    Like

    • Yes; all the world in a label, it’s true. I haven’t heard before that Sangiovese is known as jove’s blood, so it’s terrific that you’ve drawn attention to this. I’d have to ask a classicist whether the Romans worshipping Jove/Jupiter used transubstantiation before Christians. Makes sense really that they would have since Christianity has so many borrowed traditions. I do know that Jove was Bacchus’s dad (Bacchus being the Roman god of wine, anyone reading this who is not a wine tragic); so your Sangiovese label is a lovely subtle reference to wine and blood relations. Seems to suggest Sangiovese is a wine of primary, ancient importance.

      Like

  6. Fay Arrance says:

    Wine glasses that are made of borosilicate glass are the best because they last longer. ..

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    • Martin hayes says:

      Hi,
      I saw your book in the Co-op bookshop at ANU. Since I came across Campbell Mattinson’s book Why the French… In an op shop, I’ve also thought about wine, as a history, as a commodity, as part of popular history. And I’ve also come across two of Max Lake’s books. His writing style is beautiful, in that 1950s way, but a long way for the scholarship I gleaned from scanning your book a fortnight ago. Yet last winter, here in Bathurst, I had some Hunter Valley reds that seemed thin to my taste. I realise that I have to take things at face value, as well. Regarding the Dupain photos, you should contact Eric Seirins. He owns much of Dupain’s negatives, and is a very nice person, if you need to know any more about the negatives that Dupain gifted to the Hunter Valley winemakers you mention on your blog. I’ve also read a few hIstories of Australian wine, and the record is so dense, as I’m sure you know. Good luck with the book(I’ll get a copy sooner or later), till I next send you a missive, or just a thought or two.

      Regards

      Martin Hayes

      Like

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