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Vignerons as the Mediators of Modernity


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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  1. Depends on what modernity means. If it means questioning and rejecting tradition, as it does in art, then vintners/vignerons are not in that book. Modern culture has very little to do with “creating a sense of order to otherwise overwhelming experiences.” Rather, modernity is about progress, advancement, innovation, moving ahead; at least in the arts. Vignerons are certainly mediators of modern agriculture, but I would hesitate to say modern culture.

    • Hi Patrick, awesome discussion. I think actually if we dig into this further these ideas still come together and make sense. Your point is apt though that we can spend more time investigating what we mean by modernity here, of course! Tomes have been written on the subject after all. Historically modernity arises from and after the late Middle Ages as a rejection of the simple faith and religious dominance of the previous era to demand instead a more self-reflective, investigative engagement with not only the world around us – our environment where ever we may be – but also with ourselves. Rather than assuming god had handed us rules divinely given, which were meant to dictate world order, there was a turn instead to wanting to study the world itself whether god was included in that picture or not. It wasn’t until quite recently that god could simply be excluded from even our more rational studies of the world. The concern in making this move though was that the world itself was simply chaotic with so much information there was no way for us to understand it. The Modern period after the Medieval period arises as an attempt to grapple with and assuage this fear. By the time we get to what you are referring to in Modern art there is a whole scale rejection of traditions prior with the import that we cannot be weighed down by some obligation to the past and instead must create new forms and focus on advancement of ideas, understanding, and innovation. Here is where the view that vigneron are mediators of modernity begins to make sense. True vigneron are always driven to improve their understanding of the world of their vineyard as well as the wine that comes from it into their cellar. They are driven to both make order of the (potentially chaotic) world around them by training the vine, rather than letting it grow wild, and they are also driven to continuously improve their engagement with their vines, and their winemaking by taking up that self-conscious work on themselves and how they approach their work in the vineyard and cellar. The real power of this idea though is in that sharing globally that vigneron do as they travel and pour their wine, and that the rest of us do by traveling in wine thus expanding the conversation. Modernity is also about this sense of mediation in that at its core Modernity is a way of understanding culture(s), the conditions in which we live – how they are given both by nature and culture in a dynamic co-creative process – and our own existential experience of that situation in which we find ourselves.

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