Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Wine and guilt

"When, after long years of discipline and fantasising about the transgressive pleasures of the outside world, the adolescent Amish are, unprepared, thrown into this world, they, of course, cannot but indulge in extreme transgressive behaviour and throw themselves into a life of sex, drugs and drinking. And since, for such a life, they lack any inherent limitation or regulation, this situation inexorably backlashes and generates unbearable anxiety."

Slavoj Zizek's examination of 'enjoyment as a political factor' has similar repercussions in wine. Why, for instance, are we becoming increasingly obsessed with low-alcohol wine and reducing our alcohol consumption? I believe it is because we have reached our very own situation of 'unbearable anxiety'.

Does this anxiety strike us when we have that 'one glass too many'? Does it stalk a well-lubricated dinner party like a Shakespearean ghost? Perhaps. I believe that, in an effort to at least appear progressive and understanding of today's issues, many of us are forcing ourselves to take seriously the 'problems' associated with our own enjoyment.

We are already concerned with de-caffeinated coffee, non-alcoholic beer, virtual sex, and so on. I have already addressed some of this in my wine and health blog.

Thus we get 'de-alcoholised wine', made in Spain and aimed at an Italian market.

This article touches on several major issues within this debate. The first is in the headline: 'Dealcoholised wine launched to combat alcohol abuse'. Again and again in the health lobbies, wine is equated with alcohol. This lumping together of the two is partly academic in the sense that wine is an alcohol, alcohol is dangerous, therefore wine is dangerous.

Even arguments that wine is a cultural beverage and therefore exempt from being lumped with all alcohols does not stand scrutiny, I'm afraid, for the simple fact that all alcoholic beverages are, or were, cultural. The major issue here - one that very few people want to address - is that commercialisation is the problem.

There is also the problem that while every article that bemoans the dangers of alcohol calls for tighter control of alcohol consumption, the articles that proclaim the benefits of alcohol do not push increased consumption. That, of course, would be irresponsible.

Another point is that, at a time when we are more and more concerned with the 'natural' aspect of wine, of trying to keep intervention to a minimum, this low-alcohol wine is 'vacuum distilled'. Even Torres' low-alcohol wine takes absurdity to a new level in this domain by calling itself 'Natureo'.

There is further absurdity here:
'We're not in competition with traditional wine. It's a new drink, equal to decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer,' Bertolini said.
To which the retort: why call it wine?

And part of the answer to that comes in looking at who this 'non-alcoholic wine' is marketed at: the under-aged - 'young people' as they are called in the article.

This is the most terrifying aspect of all. While the 'wine' ticks all the 'modern' boxes of making a trendy, healthy alternative to wine, it is essentially marketed at your children.

And once again, we face the issue of rampant commercialisation (this time taunting our children with 'wine') while we are unable to find a logical, coherent argument as to why this is bad.

We now live in a world where, as long as we can consume something called wine (although not necessarily real wine), drink it without anxiety and keep wine companies in business, everyone will be happy.

Or will they? As Zizek states, although 90% of Amish offspring come back to the fold, have they really been given a proper choice of freedoms? Thus are we giving ourselves the right parameters to judge what is healthy about our wine consumption?

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Wine and health

More than ever, we live in a world of symbols. In a strange form of metonymy, our interpretation of what goes on around us often takes the radical part to symbolise the whole. Artists are a crazy bunch of pig-tattoists, Muslims are all potential terrorists, and all wine drinkers are alcoholics.

Alcohol abuse now has to stand for everything, from a few beers down the pub, to a Valentine's day bottle of fizz, to dropping neat vodka into your eyeballs. Soon, all bottles of wine will carry health warnings - along with anything else that contains alcohol. Like the whole school being kept in an assembly until someone owns up to breaking a window, it has become not only academic to group all alcohol together in one massive social problem, it has become imperative to punish everyone for it.

Health warnings are an unusual thing in that, because they feature on a product one takes home, they represent an attempt to regulate our private lives. For health warnings not to be so duplicitous, they would have to be inscribed in wine glasses in bars and restaurants.

In a bizarre compromise to the foundation of our society (business), health warnings do not prohibit one from buying such a dangerous product, they merely invest us with a feeling of guilt once we have done so.

And here we enter into Slavoj Zizek territority. The Slovenijan cultural critic claims that the freer we are, the more we want to censure our freedom.

From whence we get butter without fat, laxative chocolate, virtual sex, and, yes, you guessed it: low-alcohol wine.

Here another aspect comes into play: the need in our society to be seen to be doing the 'right' thing. Low-alcohol wine is the talk of wine journalism at the moment because it combines the enjoyment of wine without the guilt of alcohol. That would be great if we were all going out to buy German Riesling, but we're not. Big producers are getting the Reverse Osmosis machines out, and while we try to do better by ourselves we de-naturalise the very thing we love.

Unnaturally low-alcohol wine is a horrible con, perpetuated by our desire to be seen to be 'doing something'.

And who are we doing it for? Denis Saverot, editor of the French wine magazine La Revue de Vin de France' argues in his book In Vino Satanas that the health lobbies and scientists, responsible for making clear the dangers of wine, are mostly funded by large pharmeceutical groups. It is no coincidence, says Saverot, that wine consumption in France has declined, while the taking of pills and drugs (a massive phenomenon in France) has increased. Essentially, he says, its drugs versus drink.

Saverot might be overstating the case, but it is worth remembering that much scientific (health) research is paid for, often indirectly, by pharmaceutical companies. I doubt I need to make a case against these massive businesses, but it is worth remembering that while the likes of Alice Feiring may despair at the state of the wine world today, she has no compunction about divulging which pills she drops to get through a long-haul flight.

So, as we watch our pleasures getting driven indoors by the health police, it might be time to wonder if we really should be listening to those who tell us they know best. It might be worth bearing this in mind:

"The state is based on this contradiction. It is based on the contradiction between public and private life, between universal and particular interests. For this reason, the state must confine itself to formal, negative activities."

Karl Marx

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Monday, 3 August 2009

Here's to your health, Fleming and Hassan

‘If penicillin can cure those that are ill, Spanish sherry can bring the dead back to life.'

So said Sir Alexander Fleming, who obviously watched too many zombie films with a bottle of Oloroso by his side.

But he’s got a point. While medicine can cure us of our ailments, science can tell us how to avoid getting ill, and doctors can strive hard to keep us going while we fall apart, we insist on attempting to adapt the functioning of our mortal coil. Some of us inhale smoke, some of us go vegan, some of us shove silicone under our mammary glands, some of us want biceps like Arnie, some of us pump a gram of class I opiates into our bloodstream.

The thing is: we’re a social and metaphysical beast. Our interaction with other humans causes us to be unhappy with our condition, or to want to alter it slightly/greatly. Imagine if we were to ignore our desires and do what the doctors say.

In the Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down, Abdullah Hassan, a Somali militiaman, talks to downed helicopter pilot Michael Durant and offers him a cigarette. Durant declines and Hassan says this:

‘You Americans don't smoke anymore. You live long, dull and uninteresting lives.'

Now, I understand that science has told us to disinfect our wounds, boil water before drinking it, told us wine is both good and bad for us, depending on the wind, and it’s told us that we can’t fly, and we’ll hurt ourselves if we try to.

Sometimes, though, we want to fly.

And can we please stop all these bloody ridiculous wine and health stories. Let’s all drink wine moderately, enjoy it, and leave it at that. Even the wine industry banging on about how good wine is for you, latching onto every single positive story and ignoring the rest, is getting on my (unaltered) tits. We’ve got far more pressing concerns. Like zombies.

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