I see vignerons as the mediators of modernity. – Professor Marion Demossier
Marion is an anthropologist who works on wine culture of Burgundy, here standing in the partially restored 11th century Abbaye St-Vivant de Vergy, speaking to top producers of both Burgundy and Central Otago during the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange ten-year anniversary celebration last month.
It is difficult to translate the profundity of a moment like this to the page. The Abbaye of St-Vivant de Vergy is the site at which our contemporary understanding of wine began. Its notions of site expression, classifications, Pinot Noir’s ability to carry where it is grown into the wine, and, yes, terroir, all originated when, in the 10th century, monks of France fled the kings who were persecuting them and were given land in the 11th century by the Dukes of Burgundy in, what we now know as, Vosne-Romanee. The region already included vineyards but they were planted to a melange of varieties. Settling into the area, the monks began focusing specifically on Pinot Noir. With it, they also began to build the carefully wrought system of interpreting and studying not only how vines interact with their environment, but also of how we interact with the vines. In this way, they started modern viticulture, as well as reverence for wine.
Today, even as viticulture has evolved and adapted to environments around the world, what the monks started is the basis through which Pinot Noir certainly, though other varieties too, is grown and understood throughout the world. Wine growing is one illustration of modernity, with its ordered understanding of the world, its interpretations and questioning of our surroundings, and its dependency on technology. That insight is implicit in the moment of drinking wine itself, though different people do also have differing levels of recognition of it. In this way, when sharing what we take to be a simple glass of wine, people also share an encounter, a moment of recognition that includes often unsaid information, and levels of understanding of each other. It is partially because of this that Marion can make the claim that vignerons are mediators of modernity. Their work is an expression and enactment of modern culture, and it becomes a means through which our encounters with each other can be mediated too.
Modernity, as a concept, refers to a way of interacting with and interpreting the world around us that arose out of Medieval Europe and continues today. As a notion it includes ideas of critically engaging with our environment, with each other, and with our own experience, in order to probe for meaning, and in that way create a sense of order to otherwise overwhelming experiences. The vigneron works with a plant that on its own grows wild, literally reaching in all directions on a hunt to cover ground, and climb its surroundings, to instead shape it and farm its fruit. By studying how the vine grows, the vigneron interprets nature. In sharing that knowledge, a sharing of information is born. But that sharing of information is also a moment through which, much like the vine, culture is both formed, and spread. In this way, wine encircling the globe as it has, has acted as a vehicle for a meeting of the minds. It has created the opportunity for not only the sharing of cultures but also the transforming of them. Wine has simply been the vehicle. Vigneron, in their way, have mediated – that is, acted as both the means, and the mechanism through which such transformation has occurred. When we enjoy together a glass of wine we are participating in these moments of sharing, and of changing each other’s understanding of the world around us, even when it otherwise seems as if we are not talking about much.
So, imagine now the cacophony of elements all chiming together in this moment. One Sunday morning in October, some of the best vigneron of Burgundy, along with many of the best winemakers of Central Otago – a region exactly on the opposite side of the world from where we stand there in Burgundy that is now celebrated too for its quality Pinot Noir – and a handful of wine writers from France, the UK, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, together there in an 11th century abbey where the origins of contemporary wine culture can be found, listening to an anthropologist (anthropology itself a symptom of modernity too) speak to us about the import of sharing across cultures via the vehicle of wine, and reflect on that idea of mediation – that, through a glass of wine shared, we are ourselves translating our own cultures to each other simply by drinking that wine together and sharing the moment. For even when little speaking is involved, the simple act of being present together brings with it deeper understanding and recognition across cultural differences, and in that way also generates change, even if that understanding, recognition, and change are otherwise ineffable.
By reflecting on this idea, Marion spoke of how programs like the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange offer a solution on how to face and change the political and social struggles of our world today. It is through that ineffable recognition and understanding the empathy and care needed to choose and legislate for humanity, rather than political gain can be founded.
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