Ξ November 11th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |
I was part of a panel discussion titled Freedoms, Rights and Responsibilities at the recent European Wine Blogger Conference (EWBC) in Vienna, Austria. The moderator was wine writer and EWBC co-organizer Robert McIntosh of The Wine Conversation; the panelists, George Sandeman of SOGRAPE VINHOS and, for our purposes, representing the organization Wine in Moderation, yours truly, and Adam Watson-Brown, Head of Sector of the Directorate-General Information Society & Media of the European Commission. The official description of the event was:
“We will discuss the influence wine communicators have had upon the consumer, and how best to encourage the creative exploration of wine for the benefit of all. This discussion will draw on the practical experiences of the Wine in Moderation campaign, the future impact of EU regulations on online wine communication, as well as Ken Payton discussing ethical issues that come from being a ‘citizen wine critic’ .”
A rather raw video of our presentation of our exchange has been posted on the internet for public viewing. What follows here is an expanded account of my remarks and thoughts. And I shall provide only a cursory glance at Mr. Sandeman’s presentation and that of Adam Watson-Brown. The reasons are simple. Out of an abundance of caution I asked to speak last, primarily because I was on the European continent and thought it proper to defer to their collective anxieties; and secondly, I am not a particularly good public speaker, so a little clarification couldn’t hurt; and lastly, though I had a modest prepared text thematically consistent with Wine in Moderation’s well-known positions, I needed to better know the EU’s formal posture.
This proved to be a good decision. For the EU’s Adam Watson-Brown opened with a photographic slide titled ‘The Demon Drink’. His slide show continued with like-minded photos, including that of a car wreck, a painting of a wine-soaked Noah, and a soul disfigured from an automobile fire, who first appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show; pictures perhaps better suited to an audience of high school teens than a room full of industry professionals. Further, it became very clear that the EU’s message for the blogging community was one of fear, a transparent warning of the coming regulatory storm looming on Europe’s horizon. In a very general sense the EU, following the World Health Organization’s lead, has deferred to an ideology of the medicalization all alcoholic beverages, combining them all into a singular threat, a threat to families, community, the health service system, and civilization itself. After all, alcohol is the common demon haunting wine, beer, whiskey, Absinthe, vodka, and Everclear.
So, in the interests of fairness, of evenly distributing social responsibility among producers of all forms of alcoholic beverages, the EU has chosen medicalization, in my view, as a political expedient, a blunt, normative instrument par excellance. Wine in Moderation, by contrast ever reasonable, and fully anticipating probable future political realities, is attempting to stay ahead of the regulatory curve.
Mr. Sandeman’s presentation, seemingly choreographed rather like a WWF tag team, was to lay out a program tailored in particulars to the EU’s nightmare scenario. Strongly implied by both gentlemen in their official capacities was that we as on-line alcoholic beverage writers, principally wine in this instance, need to begin to take note of our position as influencers. But this idea is shadowed by an additional disturbing dimension. Also strongly implied was that we may ultimately be subject to regulation and sanction because of a growing temptation within the EU and beyond to understand alcoholic beverage writers as a subset of the advertisement industry, as themselves potential promoters of alcohol abuse. What would be the value, after all, of a government banning or restricting alcohol advertisement both in traditional and on-line media were it not also to do the same to alcoholic beverage writers? But I am getting ahead of myself.
Supplemental Notes and Observations on Freedom, Rights and Responsibilities
Wine bloggers and independent wine writers generally are the best contemporary goodwill ambassadors of the wine world. They provide context through stories and biographical insight into wine culture and its winemakers. The best of our community are international citizens. They provide badly needed background in a wine world formally driven by life-style ‘advertorial’ nonsense. I think we can all agree such is finally losing its dominant grip on the popular imagination.
Further, on-line wine writers, and those of other alcoholic beverages, are the bellwethers of change and innovation. They are often the first to know and popularize a winery’s new green initiatives, a technological development, harvest reports, novel university research, invasive insect updates, and yes, how a latest vintage from Brand X tastes.
Wine writers, but also beer and Saki writers, too, remove alcoholic beverages from something to merely drink and place them into a wider, more expansive context, into a timeline of cultural work. Because such writers, those who have been at it for years, are now realizing that they, too, are creating autobiographical histories of a sort, not only of their drinking enthusiasms but of their cultural experiences as well. Responsibility is found (or discovered) exactly here. Moderation is built into vinous thinking and conversation itself. For the internet is no longer a space for immediate, transitory writerly gratification, but in fact persists, endures over time. There are consequences large and small. The Library of Congress, for example, is in the process of preserving and cataloguing ALL tweets from Twitter for, one assumes, future anthropological research. So, a kind of permanence, a legacy, is beginning to dawn on the on-line community. Given the proper archiving tools, a wine writer’s on-line work may now be safely rescued from oblivion. Of course, public indifference is another form of oblivion, but at least it is consistent with a properly human scale of things, our primordial right to forget, as it were.
And speaking of the primordial, advertisement and alcohol now produced on an industrial scale have both played a role in deracinating our ancient relation to alcoholic beverages. Indeed, archaeological and anthropological evidence amply demonstrates our intimate history with inebriation. Dr. Patrick McGovern is the most recent author to expand upon the thesis that farming and human settlement may very well have followed upon Homo sapien’s (or Homo biben’s?) discovery of fermentation. In short, before ‘demon’ drink, there was ’sacred’ drink; alcoholic beverages and intoxication brought the divine to earth in a very real way. Social bonding was enhanced, whether through the agency of the shaman or of a collective miraculously birthed by the experience of inebriation itself.
For this reason I will insist that it is profoundly ill-advised to resort to the ‘medicalization’ of ALL alcoholic beverages. It may be a necessary socio-political maneuver, but it is woefully insufficient, if not nihilistic; along with advertisement and mass-produced alcohol, such a politics further removes us from a lively, informed understanding humanity’s obsession with alcohol. Make no mistake. Medicalization, whether of the mad, women’s bodies, homosexuality, or of undesirable ethnicities, has always enjoyed a policing dimension. Databases, surveillance, ‘public service’ propaganda, legal sanction, therapeutic incarceration, all are ever-present instruments of the state.
And political considerations are of some moment here. Our European Wine Bloggers Conference narrowly missed being held in a Vienna with the fascist Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache as mayor. Indeed, we in the United States may damage our international reputation with the imbecilic ramblings of ‘mama grizzly’ Sarah Palin, but nothing (yet) under American political skies is quite the equal of the loathsome ‘Reich Mother’, Barbara Rosenkranz. Taking the wine sector as an example, the painful reality is that Austria has suffered multiple setbacks regarding wine exports over recent years owing to internal political developments, these quite apart from the ‘wine doctoring scandal’ of the mid-eighties.
While I would not expect the advertisement industry to miss a beat whomever was in power – money speaks all ideological languages – it is in this connection that the wine blogging community may play its most powerful role. Now, surely wine writers are, in my experience, a surprisingly conservative bunch, at least their public faces. None wants to squander social capital on exclusively political matters. However, it is my opinion that this vulnerability is displaced, in part, by discussions about oak, cork versus screwcaps, natural and industrial wines and so on. These highly metaphorical substitutions hint at broader themes. (I’ve come to believe that virtually all talk about wine is ultimately indirect, confused prayers about the survival of our world.)
So, when speaking with Dr. Rudolf Kracher about his departed brother, Alois, one hopeful refrain sang through loud and clear: It remains a durable strength of Austria’s wine producing community that they have reached out to the international community. In his own way, Alois Kracher was as fine an ambassador as Austria has known. And it is we, as wine bloggers and on-line writers, who can stand as guardians of this larger truth. Despite political vicissitudes a nation might be destined to suffer, it is our community which shall stand side by side with those whose hearts we know. Wine writers must insist on this freedom, this right, and this responsibility.
Let us continue to work to preserve them.
For further reading please see:
An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm
EU citizens’ attitudes towards alcohol
Alcohol in Europe, A public health perspective