WINE'S WORLD: NARRATIVE VALUE IN AN AGE OF PLEXED GLOCALIZATION

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on February 10
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marketscale_wine_narrative_marketing_storytelling.jpgGoing Glocal: Globalization has brought new significance to the role and value of place in global markets.  On the one hand, globalization represents a threat to the value of local geographies subsumed into a globally homogenizing tide of commodization.  On the other hand, forces of globalization bring new value to the singular character of regional locales.  Simply put, in an era globalization, places function either as brands or commodities.    

It’s a familiar debate: Throughout the 90s, proponents of globalization saw a new world order united under the progressive growth of global markets.   Critics countered that globalization threatened to homogenize the world by subsuming local cultures into vast collections of MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

The realities of globalization have proved a complex combination of both pro- globalist and localist visions.  Concerns over globaliaztion have led to processes of localization, the attempt to situate products in ways that speak to and retain the unique customs and value of local cultures. And, in the wake of localization, came “glocalization,” the endeavor to find value by operating on both globally and locally at the same time.

No matter where one stands on the issue of globalization, there’s little doubt that global markets have brought new attention to the value (or devaluation) of place.  Often overlooked, however, is the role narratives play in mediating competing visions of place value.  In an era of global/local/glocalization, the value of a place depends on the power of the stories employed to capture that value. Whether the singular value of the local retains its value against foreign commoditization pivots on the stories that link products to geographically specific cultures.  Few sectors demonstrate the critical link between narrative and the value of place as powerfully as the global wine market.

Wine's World

As explored in popular texts like Wine Wars and the successful  2004Mondovino_movie_MarketScale_Wine's_World.pg.jpg documentary Mondovino, the wine trade has become more and more international over the last thirty years and the stresses of international competition have produced some curious effects. Under pressure from the European Community, for example, international wine producers have agreed (after long legal battles and intense negotiations) to phase out the use of ‘traditional expressions' on wine labels, which could eventually include terms like ‘Chateau' and ‘domaine' as well as generic terms like ‘champagne', ‘burgundy', ‘chablis' or ‘sauterne'. In this way, the European wine industry, led by the French, seeks to preserve and defend local differentiators of value by insisting upon the unique virtues of land, climate and tradition (lumped together under the French term ‘terroir') and the distinctiveness of its product certified by a name.

Reinforced by institutional controls like ‘appellation controlée' (‘name control’), the French wine trade insists upon the authenticity and originality of its product, which grounds the uniqueness upon which the value of place can be based.

Australia is one of the countries that agreed to this move. Once known as “Chateau Tahbilk,” the Tahbilk Winery in Victoria obliged by dropping the ‘Chateau' from its label, airily pronouncing that ‘we are proudly Australian with no need to use terms inherited from other countries and cultures of bygone days'. To compensate, they identified two factors which, when combined, ‘give us a unique position in the world of wine'. Theirs is one of only six worldwide wine regions where the meso-climate is dramatically influenced by inland water mass (the numerous lakes and local lagoons moderate and cool the climate).

As Tahbilk describes on the page of its website entitled, “Our Story,” their grapes are grown on soil is of a unique type (found in only one other location in Victoria) described as red/sandy loam colored by a very high Ferric-oxide content ‘has a positive effect on grape quality and adds a certain distinctive regional character to our wines'. These two factors are brought together to define ‘Nagambie Lakes' as a unique Viticultural Region (to be authenticated, presumably, by the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation's Geographical Indications Committee, set up to identify Viticultural regions throughout Australia). Compared to those in France, Tahbilk’s “story” of place thereby establishes a counter-narrative that, like France, bases a value claim on the grounds of the unique mix of environmental conditions in the region where it is situated.  In other words, Australia’s wineries have established their value in ways that parallel and compete with the uniqueness claims of ‘terroir' and ‘domaine' pressed by French wine producers. But we then encounter the first challenge: All wine is tradable and therefore in some sense comparable, no matter where it is from.

Taste Not Grounded in Place

Enter Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate, which he publishes regularly. Parker evaluates wines for their taste and pays no particular mind to ‘terroir' or any other cultural-historical claims. He is notoriously independent (most other guides are supported by influential sectors of the wine industry). He ranks wines on a scale according to his own distinctive taste. He has an extensive following in the United States, a major market. If he rates a Chateau wine from Bordeaux 65 pts and an Australian wine 95 pts, then prices are affected. The Bordeaux wine producers are terrified of him. They have sued him, denigrated him, abused him and even physically assaulted him. Why?  Because Parker challenges the basis of their place value. Claims of place value, we can conclude, are as much an effect of information-narratives as they are a reflection of the unique geographical qualities of the product. Then again, whether you’re talking geography or wine ratings, both come down to narrative value—the stories that differentiate the value of different products.  Parker’s wine reviews have simply replaced the language of ‘terroir' and tradition with a new genre of narrative.

What is this new story? Parker and many others in the wine trade have in recent years invented a language in which wines are described in terms such as ‘flavor of peach and plum, with a hint of thyme and gooseberry'. The language sounds bizarre but this discursive shift, which corresponds to rising international competition and globalization in the wine trade, takes on a distinctive role, reflecting the commodification of wine consumption along standardized, global lines, that remove narratives of place from the value equation.

Wine and Cultural Capital

Then again, wine consumption has many dimensions, all of which serve as rich ground for profitable growth, given the one tells the story effectively. For many it is an aesthetic experience. Beyond the sheer pleasure (for some) of a fine wine with the right food, there lie all sorts of other narrative referents within the Western tradition that track back to mythology (Dionysus and Bacchus), religion (the blood of Jesus and communion rituals) and traditions celebrated in festivals, poetry, song and literature.

Knowledge of wines and ‘proper' appreciation is often a sign of class and is analyzable as a form of ‘cultural capital’—Pierre Bourdieu’s (not Boreaux) term for the value of certain cultural practices, particularly those associated with “high culture.”  Getting the wine right may have helped to seal more than a few major business deals (would you trust someone who did not know how to select a wine?). Style of wine is related to regional cuisines and thereby embedded in those practices that turn regionality into a way of life marked by distinctive structures of feeling (it is hard to imagine Zorba the Greek drinking Mondavi Californian jug wine, even though the latter is sold in Athens airport). The wine trade is about money and profit, but it is also about culture in all of its senses: From the culture of the product to the cultural practices that surround its consumption and the cultural capital that can evolve alongside among both producers and consumers. And all of these inform the potential value offering of a particular wine. 

The perpetual search for the value of place entails seeking out and articulating criteria of speciality, uniqueness, originality, and authenticity in each of these realms. In practice, what we find within the wine trade is a host of competing stories, all with different truth claims about the uniqueness of the product. But, and here I go back to my starting point, all of these discursive shifts and swayings, as well as many of the shifts and turns that have occurred in the strategies for commanding the international market in wine, involve the use of narrative to capture the value of a particular place.

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