Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The glass of wine: what makes wine 'authentic'?

This is not your average glass of wine. It’s a glass of natural wine, served in a natural wine bar, by a bartender who has shared a quirky anecdote about the winemaker and compared the wine to a Hermès scarf; a hand-crafted product made with passion, skill and tradition. Of course, all wine has natural properties, in that it begins as a crop in a vineyard. But unlike most mass market wines, ‘natural wine’ tends to be made at a small scale of production, with minimal intervention in the vineyard and cellar, using methods that predate the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. This isn’t just wine, says the bartender; ‘It’s an artisanal expression of place, straight from grape to glass.’

Social science research tells us that people associate many of these characteristics with authenticity. Authenticity does not exist as a property inherent in an object; rather, it is a quality attributed to an object—such as one that is hand-made, traditional, natural—because of its difference from mass-produced, standardised, commercial alternatives. From this point of view, we can see that authenticity is a social construction, accomplished by cultural producers and consumers whose recognition, and valuing, of the authentic goes hand-in-hand with today’s globalised consumer marketplace. The glass of natural wine offers the promise of a tangible anchor to somewhere and someone, amidst a deluge of standardised, homogenised wines from anywhere and anyone.

Furthermore, research suggests that whilst the taste for small-scale, local provenance goods is particularly pronounced for those consumers with higher levels of education, cultural capital and economic capital, consumers generally have an interest in where things come from and how they are made. It is little wonder, then, that product pedigree is an increasingly significant aspect of market competition, not only for premium goods such as natural wine, but in the mainstream market as well. Major retailers are starting to highlight the traceability and sustainability of fish, eggs, clothing, jewelry and other items. Thinking in this way helps to differentiate between multiple, partially overlapping markets. Natural wine, for example, exists in both the wine market (in which it competes with other wines) and the authenticity market (in which it competes with artisanal fashion goods made from recycled textiles, pop-up restaurants serving locally foraged food, and other provenance-oriented goods and services).

Provenance products are always valued for more than the thing itself; they are accompanied by, and prized for, the stories about where they were made, by whom, how and when. Hence, centrally important to the authenticity market is the symbolic work of storytellers, who mediate between an object’s actual conditions of production and its reception by the end consumer. In the premium wine market, for example, sommeliers, wine writers and retailers draw on personal knowledge and experience to construct narratives that rescue select wines from a rationalised, impersonalised marketplace and re-enchant them as knowable, genuine and thus more worthy than other wines. Through descriptions of a memorable visit to a centuries-old winery, an eccentric winemaker’s personal philosophy, or the specific challenges of a singular vintage, the glass of natural wine is symbolically augmented by the storyteller: it becomes a chance to connect to ‘the real.’

Professor Jennifer Smith Maguire 

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