Award-winning wine journalist Rebecca Gibb explores why we drink wine and the nature of authenticity in an extract from her new book, Vintage Crime
Journalist and Master of Wine Rebecca Gibbs explores the history of wine—and wine fraud—in her engaging and accessible new book, Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud. In this exract, she asks what draws us to wine, and what does it mean for wine to be authentic?
Why do we drink wine? For Christians, wine has religious symbolism: a sip of red from the communion cup during the Eucharist embodies the blood of Jesus Christ. Throughout history, wine has also been prized for its medicinal purposes, whether it was used for cleaning wounds or easing pain. While its health benefits are a source of heated debate today, it has long been viewed as a healthy and civilising beverage rather than the route to alcoholic ruin.
" Pleasure can be derived from wine in different ways"
Beyond its holy and healthy purposes, we drink wine because it gives us joy. Pleasure is “the end result of drinking a good wine” for most wine drinkers. Pleasure can be derived from wine in different ways. Primarily, it is sensory pleasure: putting the glass to your lips and drinking in its heady scent and succulent texture before it gently warms your throat. This experience is available to anyone who wishes to indulge. For example, my mother doesn’t know much about wine, but she can discern an outstanding wine from a bottle of plonk. That’s why there is an empty magnum of 1986 Château Palmer holding open her kitchen door. It is a reminder of a wonderful birthday dinner in 2009, enhanced by a silken, sumptuous red wine that she can still conjure the taste of to this day. Did she enjoy it less than a Bordeaux aficionado who knows the soil types in the village of Margaux, home to Château Palmer, or the grape varieties that created the blend, or the season’s weather conditions?
You don't need to be a Master of Wine to take pleasure from a great wine. However, to wine lovers, the beverage is much more than just a glass of alcohol—it is the people, the places, and the history that seize them and lead to an expensive habit. A trained palate helps identify components within the wine, the origin of flavours and textures, and such stimulation may bring greater joy; it may also detract from the pure, hedonistic pleasure of drinking wine. What’s more, experience can also create a sense of expectation and lead to disappointment when a wine is compared with bottles or vintages that have been enjoyed previously. Ultimately, knowledge may improve your experience of what’s in the glass, but it won’t change the taste, as a former professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University explains: “Most wine knowledge does not directly enhance the pleasures to be had in wine, but rather, enhances one’s ability to discover such pleasures. But the pleasures it gives you are not sensory but cognitive.”
"To wine lovers, the beverage is much more than just a glass of alcohol"
This book should also leave you asking: What is an authentic wine? It’s a slippery question. The notion of authenticity has morphed throughout time as cultural norms have evolved; it continues to mean different things to different people. As far back as imperial Rome, authenticity was desired by those who could afford it: the wealthy enjoyed rare wines from specific origins that reflected their wealth and good taste. Wine, as well as food, became a status symbol rather than simply fuel. Two thousand years later, many individuals still use wine as a means to gain kudos in their social circles. Ego is surely one of the driving forces behind the slew of pictures of the rarest and oldest bottles that a small bunch of elite wine drinkers post on their social media feeds, leaving the humbler drinker with a severe case of missing out. As the demand for fine wine from finite vineyards has grown globally, the world’s wealthiest have seen price as no barrier to having these bottles in their cellars. The rewards for selling fake fine wines labeled as Burgundy and Bordeaux’s best have become greater, while the risks of being caught in the rather chummy world of wine collecting have been rather low.
In this context of high reward and low risk, it is unsurprising that enterprising albeit dishonest individuals have been a driving force in a growing counterfeit culture. Wine shares similarities with the art world: talented artists-turned-forgers have embarrassed many dealers and galleries by convincing these so-called experts that their fake masterpieces are genuine. One of the problems that fine art shares with wine is that “the art world still relies, to a great extent, on the word of individual experts, connoisseurs whose personal opinion can change an artwork’s value by millions.” It is the same with wine. “If the world believes that a work is authentic, then its value is that of an authentic work, whatever the truth may be.” In the most high-profile wine fraud cases in the past 40 years, expert individuals have mistakenly given dubious bottles the thumbs-up, lending the fraudsters and their wine collections an aura of authenticity.
Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud by Rebecca Gibb (University of California Press, £25) is available to buy
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