Category Archives: wine

Size Matters: How Semiotics is Making History in the World of Wine

Kerri Lesh
University of Nevada, Reno

A “historic milestone” for the Spanish wine-making region of Rioja has been making headlines in the wine world. A new labeling strategy was approved that will shape the way producers from Rioja can market their wine after the 2017 harvest. This decision illustrates the efforts that have been made on behalf of the Asociación de Bodegas de Rioja Alavesa (ABRA) to differentiate the wines of the Basque zone of Rioja Alavesa, and will now apply to all producers in the Rioja wine-making Designation of Origen (DOC).

On August 11, the decision was made by the Regulatory Board of Rioja DOC to allow for wines to be labeled by “zona”(zone) and “villa”(town or municipality), as well as “viñedos singulares” or single vineyard wine. This ruling comes after more than forty bodegas had been working to develop a new Designation of Origin (DO), called Viñedos de Álava or, in Basque, Arabako Mahastiak. The latest decision has, then, been made to halt the efforts to create the Alavesa label, and to allow the DOC of Rioja to follow through with its new agreement.

The Vice President of ABRA, Carlos Fernández, commented on the Dastatu Rioja Alavesa blog that, “This began many years ago with the demand for a font size to acknowledge the distinct subzones of the Rioja DOC.” Up until now, the permitted subzones, now simply called “zones,” had to be displayed using a smaller font size than that of the larger “Rioja” DOC indication. The three zones–Alta, Alavesa, and Baja (the latter recently changed to Oriental or “Eastern”)–can now be listed in a font equal in size to that of the larger designation of “Rioja.”

rioja lobel

Bottle label from Ostatu displaying the previous font specifications

Bittor Oroz, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Fishing, and Food Policy for the Basque Government, expands on the importance of making “place” more visible by referencing the concept of terroir, as stated in Noticias de Alava:

“People look for the origin of the wine they consume, they want to link it to the terroir…they are looking for something more than just the quality of the product, but rather the story behind the wine, the histories that lie behind a glass, and being able to focus in on a particular bodega, on the places where it is cultivated and produced.  Because of that, it is important to identify those spaces and give them their due value.”

The importance of this new agreement highlights the challenges of selling wine within various markets, in such a way whereby identity and traceability are not lost. This particular use of semiotics is in part driven by the producers’ and consumers’ desire for a unique, traceable, and well-marketed wine.

A portion of my research in the Basque Country entails the observation of how semiotics and the concept of terroir are implemented in marketing local gastronomic products.  Alongside Anne Lally, I have co-organized and chaired the panel titled Taste and Terroir as Anthropological Matter. This panel will be featured at the annual American Anthropological Association meeting, to be held this November in Washington D.C.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or concerns at

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Filed under AAA 2017 Washington DC, anthropology, Spain, wine

How To Make A Place

David Beriss

I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of food in turning a place into a cultural landmark. This is the mirror opposite of the process through which foods acquire their reputation through a linkage to a place. That, of course, is what we refer to these days as terroir. The implication is that the place, through soil, climate, or traditions, is reflected in the food. The process in either direction seems to require that people be self-conscious about making the link work. This is the work of culture and history, not nature.

This is particularly true when the place in question is a store or restaurant, rather than a farm. In the spirit of such things, I want to call attention to a tale of a New Orleans wine shop and its relatively successful efforts to use wine to make a place. I think this is a particularly interesting process because, in a society in which many things are mostly sold in large big box chain stores, success for small-scale local retailers often draws on place-making strategies. This is true for bookstores, hardware stores, bike shops, and, of course, wine stores and other food-related businesses.

The wine shop in this instance is Bacchanal Wine, which is located in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward, also known as Bywater. It was started in 2002 by Chris Rudge in what was then a slowly (perhaps even very slowly) gentrifying neighborhood in a ramshackle building. I visited a few times back then, mostly because it was near the original location of The Joint, which was a similarly ramshackle barbecue joint just up the street. I visited more often after the 2005 hurricane and floods, when Bacchanal became a bit more than a wine store. There was music in their courtyard, chefs cooking creative foods in an outdoor “kitchen” of sorts, sometimes food trucks. It was a lively and, it turns out, somewhat illegal scene and a sure sign that the neighborhood was changing much more rapidly. Having sorted out their legal issues a few years ago, the shop had to deal more recently with the death of the founding owner.

The wine store remains a lively scene. There is, of course, retail wine for sale in the store. And like a number of other New Orleans wine shops, Bacchanal also serves drinks at its own bar. There is also food, some of which is quite ambitious. And there is live music in their courtyard nearly every evening. There are other wine shops in New Orleans that engage in similar strategies (Swirl and Pearl, for instance), although Bacchanal’s full program may be a bit more ambitious than most (Do wine shops do this in other cities? Tell us about it in the comments.).

In just the last week, the store has added another element in what seems like a distinct effort to create what might be their very own terroir, if such a thing can exist in this sort of setting. They released their own wine, which Rudge and his partners had blended on a trip to California. They have also made a short documentary celebrating both Rudge and the history of the shop. The whole story has been told in interesting detail by Brett Anderson, on the website.

All of this comes together, then, to make a distinct place. Terroir is really not the right word, but it is perhaps the right spirit. Clearly, much of this is self-conscious place-making by the owners of the shop. Given their success, it seems like they have hit upon a strategy that resonates with people in New Orleans and beyond, as this article and video makes clear. This success also raises questions about what this signifies for the neighborhood and the city in general, since there are no doubt those who would prefer a different kind of place making. Yet the process of self-conscious place making itself is fascinating. How else can a small retail store succeed when the very thing they sell is easily available in big grocery stores? By selling place, rather than just wine.


Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, New Orleans, wine

11th Annual Wine Economics Conference

We recently received the following announcements, which may be of interest to all of you wine anthropologists:

The 11th Annual Conference of the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) will be held from Jun 28 – Jul 2, 2017 in Padova/ItalyWe consider all wine topics related to economics, statistics, and business including submissions that overlap with adjacent fields such as (but not limited to) psychology, neuroscience, history, linguistics, viticulture, law or oenology. Submission Deadline: Dec 15, 2016(Details).
AAWE is offering 3 Research Scholarships. Each Scholarship pays US$1,500 and grants free admission to the Annual AAWE Conference in Padova/Italy. Submission Deadline: Nov 15, 2016. (Details)
From 2017 on, the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) will publish a new Journal called “Journal of Wine Economics: Selected Proceedings”. JWE:SP will appear once a year, immediately after AAWE’s  annual conference, and will draw on selected conference papers, which are typically short (up to 3,000 words) and may be non-technical. For JWE:SP, the editors will consider single papers as well as entire sessions. 

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Exploring Wine Value

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Experienced wine political-economist Mike Veseth asserts there is no sure relationship between price and quality.  This is because wines in recent decades have been blended so that even cheap wines are palatable instead of “plonk,” and individual tastes for wine also vary with personal genetics and experience.  A third factor is wine-producer and -marketer pricing and distribution strategies for global markets, which are stratified.  This means that some very good wine (“seconds”) reach buyers at a relatively low prices.  At the other end of the price scale, some distributors set values according to what they think the market will bear.  Buyers are hoodwinked into paying higher prices for lower quality wines because they don’t have reliable guidance telling them what each wine is worth, and also, they don’t want to appear stingy when bringing a guest bottle that others may comparatively price at local wine shops.  Snob appeal has its price but not always substance.

The fourteen chapters are relatively short, and grouped into four headings: “Buyer Beware!”, “Get a Clue. Searching for Buried Treasures”, “A Rose is a Rose? Money, Taste, and Identity,” “What Money Can (and Can’t) Buy”.  The author, as do I, finds that “Sometimes the Best Wine Is a Beer (or a Cider!)” This is the case particularly at receptions that have limited budgets for wine, but offer tasty, often local, craft beer selections that are cheaper than wine.  He illuminates this emergent culinary world of craft beers and ciders, some of which straddle the border with wine because they incorporate grapes. Whether one finds them intriguing, delightful or distasteful depends on individual tastes. For those who are overwhelmed by the hundreds of choices now offered in big box stores, supermarkets, and wholesale liquor stores, this volume comfortably unpacks and offers reasonable guidance on how to navigate selections.  Expect surprises and complicated stories, and by all means enjoy the process and the products.  The author teaches political economy and is at his best when analyzing pricing of production, processing, and promotion in detail.  I might integrate parts of Chapter 7, “Bulk Up. Big-Bag, Big-Box Wines,” into instructional materials on food-value chains, especially pp.73-77.  There, the author demonstrates how to translate transport and marketing of large-scale wine commerce into “Green” economics, which in the case of wine means that vintners and wine merchants are using innovative packing and shipping technologies to lower costs related to food-miles and packaging. To reduce spoilage and waste, they also have developed bag-in-cardboard box as replacement for glass bottle, and added a spout that can eliminate oxidation and preserve flavor value. This globalization of wine story is quickly followed by a page describing globalization of apples and the economics of juice boxes, as a comparison for studying technological contributions to industrial scale-up of beverage products

Veseth, Mike 2015 Money, Taste, and Wine. It’s Complicated.  New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

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Call for Contributors: Anthropology of Wine

Call for Contributors

Anthropology of Wine: Ethnography from the vineyard to the glass

Wine has received some attention as a historical and archeological subject; however, there is little recent scholarship by anthropologists that deals with the topic of wine. This may come as a surprise given the cultural and economic importance of wine in much of the world today. Alcohol Studies has generally approached wine consumption within the framework of disease prevention, often leaving out the cultural and social aspects of alcohol consumption. While the Anthropology of Food flourishes, wine has largely remained peripheral to this scholarly table. The study of wine finds itself in an awkward position–caught between the writings of amateur wine lovers, industry and critics and the anecdotal attention of scholars. The goal of this proposed volume of collected essays is to bring together current anthropological perspectives on wine and to create a place for the study ofwine within the larger body of ethnographic and theoretical work in cultural anthropology and the anthropology of food.

How can anthropological fieldwork contribute to the study of wine? How does a cultural perspective contribute to an understanding of production and consumption? How does the concept of distinction illuminate the study of wine? What are the larger social and economic themes at play in the making and drinking of wine? Essays in this volume will investigate wine from cultural, social, political and economic perspectives. Ethnographic methods and anthropological theory will frame and inform discussions of wine from the growing of grapes to the sensory perception of wine in the glass. All essays should be ethnographic or historical but with an anthropological scope. Possible themes and topics include:

·       Cultural concepts of terroir, place and locality
·       Sensory perceptions and the wine tasting experience
·       Taste memory
·       Wine education
·       Agricultural organization and the cultivation of grapes
·       Labour and working conditions in the wine industry
·       Gender and wine
·       Class and wine
·       Biodynamic and organic wine production
·       Geography of wine, the construction of place through viticulture and oenology, the emergence of new wine regions and markets such as China
·       Changing relationships between wine and food
·       Wine as food
·       Technology, techne and craft in wine production
·       Perceptions of nature in wine production and consumption
·       Home winemaking practices
·       Wine bars and tasting rooms
·       The role of the sommelier and the wine expert
·       Wine writing, wine criticism and authority
·       The wine business, emerging markets, consumer education & communications
·       The impact of legislation on wine production and consumption

Interested contributors should submit a 200-300-word summary of their proposed essay, a CV and short bio to Dr. Rachel Black (rblack (at) by January 28, 2011. Full-length submissions (20-35 pages) will be requested for early September 2011.

Potential contributors should indicate their interest in participating in a panel on the Anthropology of Wine for the ASFS conference (Missoula, June 2011) or the AAA conference (Montréal, November 2011).

Posted by Rachel Black

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