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A Necessity of Life

By |  June 10 2009

His was a sincere conviction-one to which wine growers (and merchants and journalists) the world over would gladly cling in these times of trepidation. Americans today scarcely take for granted that wine will appear on their tables. Yet, it gets served more and more. At roughly 11 liters per capita, annual consumption has increased steadily for two decades, though that is barely more than half the rising figure for the UK. By contrast, consumption in Europe’s two largest wine-producing countries-France and Italy-has been falling for almost as long, especially in France, prompted lately by prohibitionists. Figures do not explain the extent to which persons of apparently sound mind and body can be said to treat wine as a necessity of life. But they do testify to neglect. For over a century, wine’s place at the table was taken for granted in France. Now it is disappearing. Taking for granted, it seems, can turn into disinterest; wine’s dwindling is eliciting consternation among vintners, restaurateurs, and merchants but mere ripples on the sea of Gallic citizenry.

Wine drinking as social routine- however traditional-always risks unreflective replacement by new habits or fashions. The deepest roots of wine consumption lie not in collective convention but in the souls of individuals. It must have been roots of this sort that Jefferson felt growing in him. Like most Americans today, he came to wine not through tradition or to meet prevailing standards of decorum; he discovered wine, and it enchanted him. The daily enjoyment and fascination of wine became a passion, eventually even a necessity, for the pursuit of happiness-if not literally life itself. Wherever wine growers and merchants hold fast against tides of recession, chances are it will be thanks to such roots among consumers. Wines drunk out of social convention or snobbism are in acute peril of plunging sales. The same is true for wines purchased principally to be collected, stowed away in a cellar, or traded like stocks. True, the vision of wine as commodity dominates public relations and the world of advertising, as well as the headlines, with their periodic proclamations of record prices or spectacular fraud.

But in light of the transient nature of markets, the guarantor of wine drinking lies in deep roots not put down in search of fashion or wealth. To treat wine as a social habit, status symbol, commodity, or collectible is to overlook what is singular, even uncanny, about it and alone can rivet us to it.

To open a bottle means-not just in some romantic sense-to consecrate the meal, its victuals, the day, the pause from labor, and the lives we lead. Wine moves us to self-reflection, weaves a spell, and brings us happiness through an elective affinity that surpasses our understanding. These qualities of wine, our passionate fascination, and our spiritual need have counterparts in music. But fortunately for wine growers and merchants there is a major difference, since to enjoy a wine is to consume it, meaning that it must be replaced. (How many music lovers have proven that they can thrive indefinitely on the capital of long-dead composers, whereas the works of longdead vintners and past vintages must become vinegar and/or auction lots?)

Wine is of course no more needed for survival than any other sort of food or drink (save for water, taken strictly in its chemical sense). Few readers of this journal, luckily, will have experienced that need. Good food, though- appreciated for its taste-is a necessity of life for us, too. And yet, good eating- not in the sense of haute cuisine, but of diversity, freshness, distinctiveness, and the gastronomic ties that bind a family or friends at a table-is widely threatened. In France itself, fast food encroaches steadily, while family eating and home cooking decline. Savoring descends toward subsistence, debasing taste. In America-homeland and bastion of fast food-a striking bipolar condition offers great hope, not merely a symptom of social ill health.

Only a minority is self-consciously interested in eating well, but its members are all the more passionate. And they are the ones who elevate per capita consumption as well as wine’s image-even to the point of perceived necessity.

A great fascination-and at times frustration-lies in wine’s contingency. Fermented grape juice naturally spoils, and nature often spoils the dreams of vintners and wine lovers. So many factors influence a wine’s flavor- from microclimate, to micro-flora, rock structure to cellar construction, with an interactive complexity that eludes our scientific models-that it is no wonder the same wine can never be grown twice, but is perhaps a wonder that things don’t more frequently go awry. What is imperiled today,

though, is not the work of vines or yeasts, but the commerce of wine, and the comportment to wine that breeds faithful consumption. This thing of beauty, natural wonder, and emotional sustenance, and the lives that it sustains-the family farms, vineyard communities, and merchants-are as precarious as the least stable and steepest slopes on which vines grow. To the extent that awareness of this fragility enhances our sense of awe and blessing, and even our relish for wine, there has never in most of our lifetimes been a better time for savoring it. Sustaining that web of wine culture is now a necessity, too.

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