I’ve often written that the best wine is an expression of culture. This is easy enough to understand in historic wine-producing regions, where centuries of local traditions helped to shape the identity of the wines.
But what about more recent wine regions like California or Australia, where decisions about grapes, methods and styles of wine have often been made by individual entrepreneurs motivated by commercial expedience or ego? The cultural antecedents of many wines from the 20th century, made without community involvement, were more difficult to trace.
Over the last 20 years or so, though, the internet and social media have tied people around the world closer and closer together, creating new wine cultures regardless of physical proximity. Growers and producers who might once have been isolated can now be a part of community efforts, perhaps adding to our understanding of terroir and a sense of place.
These communities can share thoughts and ideas, ask questions and discuss solutions regardless of how far apart they might be physically. Natural wine producers in the Adelaide Hills of Australia, for example, have instant access to colleagues in the Loire Valley of France or the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. A syrah producer in Sonoma can get together weekly to kick back or talk business with friends in Cornas.
What is gained by this ability to communicate? Answers to questions, encouragement, guidance, being talked off the ledge — things that come from participating in a community in real time. All of these elements help to improve not only the general quality of wines but the ability to make distinctive wines.
Like-minded cultural groups form in this way, directly influencing the sorts of wines that are made. Let me amplify that with some background.
What constitutes a sense of place, or terroir, to use the all-encompassing French term, has evolved over time. A century ago, terroir referred to the immutable physical characteristics of a place that shaped the identity of a wine.
This included the geology — the soil and bedrock, the altitude and inclination toward the sun. It included the climate, the source of the water necessary for the vines and how that water drained into the earth. It included the flora and fauna of a particular area.
As science has gained a greater understanding of the physical world, this notion of terroir has expanded. Flora and fauna now include the microbial life in a vineyard, both the yeast and other organisms in the air and on the grapes as well as the microorganisms and other life in the soil.
One more element has come to be understood as part of terroir: The people farming the grapes and making the wines, particularly if these people are part of a culture of shared ideas and beliefs.
This culture comprises the traditions of communities defined by geographical proximity, including the grapes that are grown in the area, the viticultural and winemaking techniques, the tools and equipment as well as attitudes and ways of thinking.
This is why you can travel from one part of Italy, for example, to another, even across a valley, and find a different sort of wine, made with different grapes using different methods.
It’s also why, in much of the historic wine-producing world, wines were identified with geographical terms — Volnay or Chinon, say — rather than the names of grapes. The geographical designation was all that was needed to understand that a wine made by the people of Volnay would have a particular flavor, and that the wine of Chinon would offer another.
The culture and upbringing of the vigneron, the person who grows the grapes and makes the wine, shapes their perspective of wine. In this way, good wine can express the culture of a place and its people.
As wine cultures developed locally, they were also exported. The ancient Greeks and especially the Romans brought their ways of thinking about wine to whatever distant places they roamed. In the Middle Ages, monastic communities like the Benedictines and the Cistercians spread the gospel of wine to different parts of Europe.
No place has embraced the intricacies of terroir so much as Burgundy. People there don’t just believe that a Gevrey-Chambertin tastes different from a Chambolle-Musigny, they know it does with every fiber of their being.
All of this makes sense in wine-producing regions with centuries of traditions. But what about newer wine regions without such long histories handed down over generations?
Colonizing missionaries brought vineyards and wine to South America in the 16th and 17th centuries and to California in the 18th century. Many other vineyards in California were planted in the 19th century by immigrants trying to recreate as best they could the traditions of their birth countries.
It would have been interesting to see how these vineyards and winemakers would have evolved, but their development and connection to the modern era effectively ended during Prohibition.
The modern American wine industry that arose after World War II is rooted in commerce and entrepreneurship rather than cultural tradition. Which grapes to plant, where to plant them and how to make the wine were largely business decisions rather than the organic evolution of a way of life.
The element of culture is the most significant difference between Old World and New World winemaking regions. While the Old World-New World construction can strike some as condescending and meaningless today, I think it applies when speaking to cultural influences.
Thanks to the internet, growers and producers are no longer consigned to isolated and insular groups, except by choice. But the creation of far-flung wine communities is not something that happened solely because of the internet. It simply accelerated a process of mental and emotional globalization that has gone on since World War II.
The internet is only the latest in a procession that includes telephones, televisions and jet planes, and of course the postwar prosperity that enabled people to make use of these tools.
Since the 1970s and ’80s, young people going into wine, whether they were the next generation of a winemaking family or new to the wine world, have often traveled to other countries for internships and working stints in other wine cultures. They’ve brought back what they’ve learned and integrated it into their own bottles.
Over the years, perhaps, they were able to maintain relationships and touch base when gathering at festivals and events around the world. Now the internet has enabled this integration to continue, over time and instantaneously.
At one point, globalization in the wine world prompted fear that homogenization was paramount, that the great diversity of grapes and wine styles would dwindle and the world would drown in a stultifying sea of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
Instead, the opposite has occurred. The world continues to embrace and explore the potential of grapes both new and old, from places long esteemed and areas dismissed for generations.
A greater understanding of wine science, increased confidence in local grapes and traditions, greater curiosity among consumers — all are responsible for this current wealth of diverse wines. And so are the new communities that have allowed newer wines to flourish.
I think of the natural wine producer in Australia or the syrah producer in Sonoma. At one point they each might have been outliers in their areas, considered eccentric or iconoclastic. They might have felt isolated, maybe even unable to reach their potential for lack of support.
Now that support is available, and the result is not wines that taste like those halfway around the world but that transmit the singular qualities of where they live and work, their own terroirs.
It’s commerce and connection, and maybe also a new wine culture.