Monday, April 4, 2011

The Myth of an American Wine Culture

In an article posted on The Huffington Post on March 30, Mary Orlin asks the question "... does America really have a wine culture all its own?"  And she goes on to answer emphatically "Yes we do."  I beg to differ.

Culture, as used by anthropologists, refers to the "full range of learned behavior patterns" and assumes inter-generational learning as the key "culture-transmission" vehicle.  This over-arching definition of culture is the most significant argument against the existence of an American wine culture as we have not been drinking wine long enough to have the multi-generational transfer of habits, practices, and rituals associated with a "wine culture."  Secondly, a cultural trait tends to cross-cut societal boundaries and that is definitely not the case with wine in the US.  While wine drinking is no longer reserved for society's upper crust, there are still large geographic and soci-cultural swaths of the country that remain oblivious to the pleasures of wine drinking.

In an article, Janice Fuhrman points out the issues faced by Spanish winemakers as they try to sell into the US market.  According to one of the interviewees, when dining in Spain, someone at the table would ask "white or red" and that would be the last time the wine would be referred to except it were bad.  In the US, according to this interviewee, once the wine is ordered, everyone has to comment on it.  This amused the interviewee because it was "only wine."  Another interviewee remarked about wine being as a much a part of the meal as the food items on the table. According to Miguel Torres, leading Spanish wine producer, and another of the interviewees, "a wine culture 'comes with thousands of years of tradition, with our ancestors, with wine drinking as an everyday part of life.'"

So how did Mary Orlin arrive at the conclusion that America has a wine culture?  In the first paragraph of her article, she points out that in 2010, Americans drank more wine than did the French.  It is not directly stated but the implication is that the French have a wine culture so if we are drinking more wine than they are then we must have a wine culture also.  Next the author turns to a SFMOMA exhibit which, she states, is premised on an American wine culture originating in 1976 with the Judgement of Paris.  Now I have not seen this exhibit but its web page seesm to hint at a broader coverage than just US wine culture. But if this museum is pushing the concept of an identifiable start date to a non-existent American wine culture then I say shame on them.


  1. The whole premise of this post is based on this definition you've given of anthropology. You didn't site a source for that definition though. If you read the wikipedia entry:

    It has a pretty different definition. It says the word means many different things, and in reference to anthopology:

    "In the twentieth century, 'culture' emerged as a concept central to anthropology, encompassing all human phenomena that are not purely results of human genetics. Specifically, the term "culture" in American anthropology had two meanings: (1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and (2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively."

    It doesn't say anything about inter-generational learning there, and I don't see how that has to be a part of a culture. As far as cutting across societal boundaries, that doesn't make any sense to me. There are hundreds of examples of cultures that exist only among one societal group. What about the culture of wealthy prep school kids? Or of Wisconsonites that do crystal meth? One could go on and on.

    I don't think it's possible for America not to have a wine culture. It might not be particularly *cultured*, like it might involve playing slap bag with Franzia, or being super pretentious and haughty, but that's a culture nonetheless.

  2. Nick, first, sorry about the lack of citations for my definition. Please see below for a few of the many writings on the definition of culture:

    E.B. Tylor, The Science of Culture in Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, Paul Erickson and Liam Murphy eds., 2006, pp. 29-41 (Ontario: Broadview Press)

    Ruth Benedict, The Individual and the Pattern of Culture in Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, Paul Erickson and Liam Murphy eds., 2006, pp. 130-143 (Ontario: Broadview Press)

    Clifford Geertz, 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books)

    Edward Sapir, The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society in Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, Paul Erickson and Liam Murphy eds., 2006, pp. 247-258 (Ontario: Broadview Press)

    Roger M. Keesing, 1974, Theories of Culture. Annual Review of Anthropology, 3, 73-97.

    Nick if you need any help in gaining access to the above writings please let me know.

    Second, Wikipedia is not recognized as a citable source in scholarly circles.

    Third, anthropology sees two forces acting on an individual upon his/her entry into the world: genetic and cultural. The cultural influences act to socialize the individual towards that society's norms. According to Ruth Benedict, "The vast proportion of all individuals who are born into any society always and whatever the idiosyncrasies of its institutions, assume, as we have seen, the behavior dicated by that society" (2006:131). A society is comprised of a number of mini-societies. An individual can be socialized to one of these mini-societies while still being socialized to the larger society (culture). So it is not contradictory to be part of a prep-school culture while still being a part of the American culture. The prep school population is a subset of the larger US population and exerts its influences on its populace. If you talk about an American wine culture, you are looking at the entire US population and you are making the claim that there is a widespread set of practices and ritual associated with wine which people born into the society are exposed to and are likely to adopt. I am saying that that is not the case in our country today. Do a number of people drink wine? Yaeh. Do they enjoy it? Yeah. Are they trying to convert everyone that they can to this lifestyle? Yeah. But wine is not second-nature to us today in the same way that it is to the French and Italians and Spanish. We will get there someday, and it may be a different kind of enculturement, but we are not there yet.