Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Gallo, Red Bicyclette, Pinot Noir and reality

A wine label is a world of signs. All words and images upon it confer a meaning that is beyond what is in the bottle. 'E&J Gallo', for instance, indicates the security and confidence of a brand (more significant that the 'E &J' implies a family business); 'Red Bicyclette' singifies a pastoral French lifestyle, a better world, without cars, where Bernadette can prop her bike up against a tree and run down to Gérard on the riverbank; and 'Pinot Noir' is the fashionable grape of finesse, of the cinema, of the moment, and it seems no-one at Gallo - or any one of the thousands of people who bought their bottles - know what it tastes like.

Because at all levels of wine I would posit that none of us actually take it for what it is. We all, to greater or lesser extents, rely on the complex formulae of signs on the label. What we taste is not wine but the accumulation of previous understanding. I would also add that we are complicit in this obfuscation of the grape. We require a label, a form, something other than pure wine.

Why? Because we buy it. There is, again, a parallel in literature. It is no coincidence that, as the renaissance took hold of Europe, as the mercantile class emerged, so the importance of who wrote the book became paramount. Previously, authors were relatively unimportant because they did not rely on the sale of their work.

So the same is true of the wine and its label. It performs that amazing function that, in forcing us to provide a mythical space around the wine, we both identify with it and forgive its faults.

I'm not saying we should return to the age of the Medicis but I am saying that within this 'Red bicyclette' scandal, there are no innocent parties (including us).

[Although I do feel sorry for the actual grapes which, were I given to anthropomorphism, I would say have been treated like an ugly rent boy forced to wear a George Clooney mask. And no-one spotted his duplicity until someone checked the pimp's accounts...]

But it doesn't just stop there. As I've pointed out, the semiotics (signs) of a wine label evoke just about everything but the wine. They are, if I want to be controversial, the very definition of 'Terroir'.

'Château Latour, Grand Cru Classé, Pauillac, Bordeaux' evokes feudal splendour, heritage, the earth, the region, the pedigree of the estate - even the symbolic nature of Bordeaux as a region - and everything (even the understanding of the grapes that are part of this 'terroir') is swallowed by our minds before we taste the wine.

This notion even stretches to having an all-natural wine or a Demeter stamp somewhere on the label.

Now I'm not making an argument for clearskin bottles, all I am saying is that our desire to evoke this quasi-mystical space around the wine has to be treated and analysed in a similar fashion to the wine itself.

  • NB: It is perhaps interesting that Masters of Wine tasting exams and many blind tastings are the reverse of this process. For instance, in the MW tasting candidates have to show their method of deduction to reach the conclusion that identifies the wine. Thus one takes the pure wine and tries to reconstruct the appropriate mythology. According to the Institute, one must 'Identify the most relevant criteria, and provide a concise summary of the evidence' [emphasis is mine].

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