Friday, May 27, 2016

Culture of Luxury

Food and drink are necessary for survival and, more than that, are often forms of small or large luxuries. When we see these consumable luxuries we tend to think of them as fleeting pleasures, things to be enjoyed – perhaps even discussed and remembered – but not as things that are the end result of an established culture.

However, in truth these products are very much the result of a culture that exists within the bounds of the law – for example sanitary laws or laws of regional designation – as well as within the robust and exacting rules of the cultural gatekeepers.  The documentary film Somm: Into the Bottle provides a window on these often unexamined aspects of winemaking and the larger wine industry and how these pieces fit together to form a self-defining culture.

Somm: Into the Bottle is a follow-up to the documentary film Somm, which delves into the world of Master Sommeliers and explores the arduous educational and testing process undertaken by those seeking to attain this most coveted of statuses in the wine world. In itself, Somm presents a unique understanding of a world that is often under-valued or misunderstood by even those who avail themselves of the knowledge provided by sommeliers. Many of the same individuals profiled in Somm return to Somm: Into the Bottle to serve as guides into the world of winemaking and the wine industry, telling the story of the wine product many viewers are familiar with in ways that probe what wine actually is.   

The story unfolds through chapters, ranging from the historical origins of wine to the pouring of the product into barrels. Far from presenting a simple story, the film moves on to examine every aspect of the creation of the product. To do so, the story told focuses on the territory used to grow wine grapes throughout the world, noting the origins of winegrowing as stemming from early colonization, notably Roman colonization, of areas amenable to grapes that yielded certain forms of wine. Inherent in this aspect of the story is the interlinking between the territory and those on it, leading to the creation of multiple generations of families focused on the territory used for winemaking.

In many ways, there are essential similarities between these developments and the creation of kingdoms and modern countries with set patterns of culture and identity. These parallels are furthered with the discussion of laws – some of them quite old – that restrict the ability to use a certain name for a product unless the product actually originates in a given territorial location. Through the seals or other manifestations of origin, bottles of wine – for example those from Champagne – essentially carry their own forms of passports.

The film’s chapters move on to examine the various components of the wine product itself. Perhaps obviously, there is a great deal of focus on the grapes themselves, noting how the environment and experiences of the vines and the grapes as they mature form the identity of the grape for later wine usage. There are unwritten rules as to how to handle vines to train them to produce in certain environments and to function in even challenging climates and seasons. In this way, the film presents aspects of wine growing that are similar to the ways in which society and law regulate the conduct of individuals and teaches future generations.

Similarly, the film emphasizes the many people involved in the creation of wine and how they are governed by tradition as well as law in ways that are similar to the functioning of society and the governing of individual relationships. For example, the length of time in which a wine remains in a barrel and the fermentation agents added to it trains the wine and gives it identity. Even the barrels themselves have a huge impact on the product, with different barrels imparting different identities to the wine.

Ultimately, the film presents the final product of the winemaking process. It also presents the ways in which wine is brought to life. Bringing wine to life is contingent on the existence of a product that is the result of a culture that is self-governing through respect for the product and the components that are involved in it. As the film presents it, this culture is international and constitutes an entity older than current countries in the international system. This culture is preserved through tradition and remains viable through the ability to modernize – a balance many countries cannot strike. At the same time, this culture can work within the national legal systems that apply to the areas in which wine is made and indeed the national legal systems are often used to achieve certain of the culture’s goals, such as protection from predatory outside forces wishing to misappropriate a geographical designation.

Overall, Somm: Into the Bottle informs the audience of the broader context surrounding the bottle of wine it might encounter as a consumer or even a mere bystander. While the film itself is limited to wine it opens a door onto the larger world of culture society and regulation of food and beverages, particularly those that are ubiquitous luxuries to many societies.

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