Mixed news last week for wine drinkers. Research by scientists at Rush Medical Center in Chicago claims that a glass of red with dinner could slash your risk of developing dementia. Just don’t start too young, say rival researchers at the Uniformed Services University in Maryland, who claim that children who are given even a sip of l’eau rouge – water reddened by wine – are more likely to end up with addiction problems.
Perhaps the answer, then, is for the children to drink natural wine, which might be at least good for their digestive system, according to another study. Or barolo, the preferred grape of “emotionally stable” drinkers, according to an investigation into links between wine preference and personality by researchers at Italian universities. Either way, if you are among the 60% who are now “sober curious” – intention, rather than action, being the operative here – the chances are you’ll be decanting your cellars into your moisturiser, as Brad Pitt does with his new wine-inspired skincare line, Le Domaine. So long as everyone avoids Buckfast wine. Sales are up in Scotland, leading some to (incorrectly) fear an increase in crime. Happy fortified wine season, one and all.
These are all reports from the news last week. Reports that might lead you to need a glass of chablis if only to offset the last item. Because there are few things that capture the British imagination like the pros and perils of drinking wine. There may well be something in the often contradictory science, but the fact it’s investigated in the first place suggests there’s a market for the results. Gin might be mother’s ruin, but it’s wine that will finish off the rest of us.
“Wine pushes people’s buttons,” agrees Aaron Ayscough, a well-regarded American wine writer living in Paris. “Readers tend to have an emotional response to it. Probably because [it is] laden with two, often contradictory associations: that of luxury, and that of a rural, pastoral milieu. When we examine wine as a dietary component, we are making an implicit appeal to the wisdom of a [lost] rural past.”
“Everyone is chasing a notion of pastoral lifestyle purity that has become immensely valued today precisely because it has mostly vanished in contemporary society,” says Ayscough. Wine’s centrality to that vision of a lost idyll is part of its symbolic potency. And if you like drinking wine and see the drinking of wine as being part of your character, you’re not going to like being told you shouldn’t be doing it.
My generation grew up with Lambrini girls, while Gen Z apparently prefer Whispering Angel
Last year, the UK produced 67,097 hectolitres (one hectolitre equals about 133 bottles). Italy, however, produced more than 50 million. Climate change might alter this. But wine, on these northern isles, is still a symbol of the other, the exotic.
It’s the stuff of rural holidays and European dining, but there’s also an idea that it’ll get you drunk in an acceptable, but cleansing way. For some middle- and upper-middle-class baby boomers, this is pretty much a philosophy to live by. “Wine, and particularly natural wine, has become a potent symbol within this cultural phenomenon,” Ayscough says.
It’s also, increasingly, pan-generational, recently acquiring a sort of millennial/hipster following. Annabel’s, which calls itself “one of the most elegant clubs in the world”, has just launched wine nights for younger clients. @dalstonwineclub, a fun women-led initiative, run Beaujolais nights and feature shots of wine bottles on its Instagram, run through a soft filter. There’s a wine shop down the road from me whose name is written in bubble writing but which I’m too intimidated to enter, despite being its target audience.
Class-association is the thing that no one wants to talk about. My generation grew up with Lambrini girls, while Gen Z apparently prefer Whispering Angel, a sparky rosé Adele raves about. My friends and I dabbled in both. But Whispering Angel is not cheap. It just positions itself as fun rather than earnest.
Wine might be widely drunk, but there is still an idea, however old-fashioned, that it’s bourgeois to drink it. The idea of the wine connoisseur who sniffs the bouquet and knows the pH has been a staple comic figure for decades. “Americans, in my experience, have way less class anxiety when it comes to wine. We’re indoctrinated with a vast sense of consumer entitlement. If it’s for sale, it’s not above our station in life,” Ayscough says.
That it’s become the acceptable face of drinking is bound to invite tabloid hand-wringing. Despite the closure of bars and pubs, we purchased as much alcohol during the pandemic as before it. It’s a logic that got filtered through our collective desire to keep calm, and carry on drinking, so long as it’s a full-bodied red from the mid-90s viticulture Napa boom. Yet the cultural veneration of wine tends to mean that hitting wine bottles is seen as more acceptable than hitting cans.
Ayscough says it’s best to ignore the press: “I find most of it riddled with sneering class distinctions,” he says. “It feels like spectating on a sad dinner party composed of people who dislike one another.”