On Oenological Authenticity: Making Wine Real and Making Real Wine

David Inglis



In the wine world, authenticity is not just desired, it is actively required. That demand comes from a complex of producers, distributors and consumers, and other interested parties. Consequently, the authenticity of wine is constantly created, reworked, presented, performed, argued over, contested and appreciated.

At one level, such processes have clear economic elements. A wine deemed to be an authentic “expression” of something—the soil and micro-climate in which it was grown, the environment and culture of the region from which it hails, the genius of the wine-maker who nurtured and brought it into being, the quintessential characteristics of the grape variety it is made from—will likely make much more money than one deemed inauthentic. In wine, as in other spheres, perceived authenticity is a means to garner profits, both economic and symbolic (Beverland).

At another level, wine animates a complicated intertwining of human tastes, aesthetics, pleasures and identities. Discussions as to the authenticity, or otherwise, of a wine often involve a search by the discussants for meaning and purpose in their lives (Grahm). To discover and appreciate a wine felt to “speak” profoundly of the place from whence it came possibly involves a sense of superiority over others: I drink “real” wine, while you drink mass-market trash (Bourdieu). It can also create reassuring senses of ontological security: in discovering an authentic wine, expressive of a certain aesthetic and locational purity (Zolberg and Cherbo), I have found a cherishable object which can be reliably traced to one particular place on Earth, therefore possessing integrity, honesty and virtue (Fine). Appreciation of wine’s authenticity licenses the self-perception that I am sophisticated and sensitive (Vannini and Williams). My judgement of the wine is also a judgement upon my own aesthetic capacities (Hennion).

In wine drinking, and the production, distribution and marketing processes underpinning it, much is at stake as regards authenticity. The social system of the wine world requires the category of authenticity in order to keep operating. This paper examines how and why this has come to be so. It considers the crafting of authenticity in long-term historical perspective. Demand for authentic wine by drinkers goes back many centuries. Self-conscious performances of authenticity by producers is of more recent provenance, and was elaborated above all in France. French innovations then spread to other parts of Europe and the world. The paper reviews these developments, showing that wine authenticity is constituted by an elaborate complex of environmental, cultural, legal, political and commercial factors. The paper both draws upon the social science literature concerning the construction of authenticity and also points out its limitations as regards understanding wine authenticity.

The History of Authenticity

It is conventional in the social science literature (Peterson, Authenticity) to claim that authenticity as a folk category (Lu and Fine), and actors’ desires for authentic things, are wholly “modern,” being unknown in pre-modern contexts (Cohen). Consideration of wine shows that such a view is historically uninformed. Demands by consumers for ‘authentic’ wine, in the sense that it really came from the location it was sold as being from, can be found in the West well before the 19th century, having ancient roots (Wengrow). In ancient Rome, there was demand by elites for wine that was both really from the location it was billed as being from, and was verifiably of a certain vintage (Robertson and Inglis). More recently, demand has existed in Western Europe for “real” Tokaji (sweet wine from Hungary), Port and Bordeaux wines since at least the 17th century (Marks).

Conventional social science (Peterson, Authenticity) is on solider ground when demonstrating how a great deal of social energies goes into constructing people’s perceptions—not just of consumers, but of wine producers and sellers too—that particular wines are somehow authentic expressions of the places where they were made. The creation of perceived authenticity by producers and sales-people has a long historical pedigree, beginning in early modernity.

For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, wine-makers in Bordeaux could not compete on price grounds with burgeoning Spanish, Portuguese and Italian production areas, so they began to compete with them on the grounds of perceived quality. Multiple small plots were reorganised into much bigger vineyards. The latter were now associated with a chateau in the neighbourhood, giving the wines connotations of aristocratic gravity and dignity (Ulin). Product-makers in other fields have used the assertion of long-standing family lineages as apparent guarantors of tradition and quality in production (Peterson, Authenticity). The early modern Bordelaise did the same, augmenting their wines’ value by calling upon aristocratic accoutrements like chateaux, coats-of-arms, alleged long-term family ownership of vineyards, and suchlike.

Such early modern entrepreneurial efforts remain the foundations of the very high prestige and prices associated with elite wine-making in the region today, with Chinese companies and consumers particularly keen on the grand crus of the region. Globalization of the wine world today is strongly rooted in forms of authenticity performance invented several hundred years ago.

Enter the State

Another notable issue is the long-term role that governments and legislation have played, both in the construction and presentation of authenticity to publics, and in attempts to guarantee—through regulative measures and taxation systems—that what is sold really has come from where it purports to be from. The west European State has a long history of being concerned with the fraudulent selling of “fake” wines (Anderson, Norman, and Wittwer). Thus Cosimo III, Medici Grand Duke of Florence, was responsible for an edict of 1716 which drew up legal boundaries for Tuscan wine-producing regions, restricting the use of regional names like Chianti to wine that actually came from there (Duguid).

These 18th century Tuscan regulations are the distant ancestors of quality-control rules centred upon the need to guarantee the authenticity of wines from particular geographical regions and sub-regions, which are today now ubiquitous, especially in the European Union (DeSoucey). But more direct progenitors of today’s Geographical Indicators (GIs)—enforced by the GATT international treaties—and Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs)—promulgated and monitored by the EU—are French in origin (Barham). The famous 1855 quality-level classification of Bordeaux vineyards and their wines was the first attempt in the world explicitly to proclaim that the quality of a wine was a direct consequence of its defined place of origin. This move significantly helped to create the later highly influential notion that place of origin is the essence of a wine’s authenticity. This innovation was initially wholly commercial, rather than governmental, being carried out by wine-brokers to promote Bordeaux wines at the Paris Exposition Universelle, but was later elaborated by State officials.

In Champagne, another luxury wine-producing area, small-scale growers of grapes worried that national and international perceptions of their wine were becoming wholly determined by big brands such as Dom Perignon, which advertised the wine as a luxury product, but made no reference to the grapes, the soil, or the (supposedly) traditional methods of production used by growers (Guy). The latter turned to the idea of “locality,” which implied that the character of the wine was an essential expression of the Champagne region itself—something ignored in brand advertising—and that the soil itself was the marker of locality. The idea of “terroir”—referring to the alleged properties of soil and micro-climate, and their apparent expression in the grapes—was mobilised by one group, smaller growers, against another, the large commercial houses (Guy). The terroir notion was a means of constructing authenticity, and denouncing de-localised, homogenizing inauthenticity, a strategy favouring some types of actors over others. The relatively highly industrialized wine-making process was later represented for public consumption as being consonant with both tradition and nature.

The interplay of commerce, government, law, and the presentation of authenticity, also appeared in Burgundy. In that region between WWI and WWII, the wine world was transformed by two new factors: the development of tourism and the rise of an ideology of “regionalism” (Laferté). The latter was invented circa WWI by metropolitan intellectuals who believed that each of the French regions possessed an intrinsic cultural “soul,” particularly expressed through its characteristic forms of food and drink. Previously despised peasant cuisine was reconstructed as culturally worthy and true expression of place. Small-scale artisanal wine production was no longer seen as an embarrassment, producing wines far more “rough” than those of Bordeaux and Champagne. Instead, such production was taken as ground and guarantor of authenticity (Laferté). Location, at regional, village and vineyard level, was taken as the primary quality indicator.

For tourists lured to the French regions by the newly-established Guide Michelin, and for influential national and foreign journalists, an array of new promotional devices were created, such as gastronomic festivals and folkloric brotherhoods devoted to celebrations of particular foodstuffs and agricultural events like the wine-harvest (Laferté). The figure of the wine-grower was presented as an exemplary custodian of tradition, relatively free of modern capitalist exchange relations. These are the beginnings of an important facet of later wine companies’ promotional literatures worldwide—the “decoupling” of their supposed commitments to tradition, and their “passion” for wine-making beyond material interests, from everyday contexts of industrial production and profit-motives (Beverland). Yet the work of making the wine-maker and their wines authentically “of the soil” was originally stimulated in response to international wine markets and the tourist industry (Laferté).

Against this background, in 1935 the French government enacted legislation which created theInstitut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) and its Appelation d’Origine Controlle (AOC) system (Barham). Its goal was, and is, to protect what it defines as terroir, encompassing both natural and human elements. This legislation went well beyond previous laws, as it did more than indicate that wine must be honestly labelled as deriving from a given place of origin, for it included guarantees of authenticity too. An authentic wine was defined as one which truly “expresses” the terroir from which it comes, where terroir means both soil and micro-climate (nature) and wine-making techniques “traditionally” associated with that area. Thus French law came to enshrine a relatively recently invented cultural assumption: that places create distinctive tastes, the value of this state of affairs requiring strong State protection. Terroir must be protected from the untrammelled free market. Land and wine, symbiotically connected, are de-commodified (Kopytoff). Wine is embedded in land; land is embedded in what is regarded as regional culture; the latter is embedded in national history (Polanyi).

But in line with the fact that the cultural underpinnings of the INAO/AOC system were strongly commercially oriented, at a more subterranean level the de-commodified product also has economic value added to it. A wine worthy of AOC protection must, it is assumed, be special relative to wines un-deserving of that classification. The wine is taken out of the market, attributed special status, and released, economically enhanced, back onto the market. Consequently, State-guaranteed forms of authenticity embody ambivalent but ultimately efficacious economic processes. Wine pioneered this Janus-faced situation, the AOC system in the 1990s being generalized to all types of agricultural product in France. A huge bureaucratic apparatus underpins and makes possible the AOC system. For a region and product to gain AOC protection, much energy is expended by collectives of producers and other interested parties like regional development and tourism officials. The French State employs a wide range of expert—oenological, anthropological, climatological, etc.—who police the AOC classificatory mechanisms (Barham).

Terroirisation Processes

French forms of legal classification, and the broader cultural classifications which underpin them and generated them, very much influenced the EU’s PDO system. The latter uses a language of authenticity rooted in place first developed in France (DeSoucey). The French model has been generalized, both from wine to other foodstuffs, and around many parts of Europe and the world. An Old World idea has spread to the New World—paradoxically so, because it was the perceived threat posed by the ‘placeless’ wines and decontextualized grapes of the New World which stimulated much of the European legislative measures to protect terroir (Marks).

Paxson shows how artisanal cheese-makers in the US, appropriate the idea of terroir to represent places of production, and by extension the cheeses made there, that have no prior history of being constructed as terroir areas. Here terroir is invented at the same time as it is naturalised, made to seem as if it simply points to how physical place is directly expressed in a manufactured product. By defining wine or cheese as a natural product, claims to authenticity are themselves naturalised (Ulin). Successful terroirisation brings commercial benefits for those who engage in it, creating brand distinctiveness (no-one else can claim their product expresses that particularlocation), a value-enhancing aura around the product which, and promotion of food tourism (Murray and Overton).

Terroirisation can also render producers into virtuous custodians of the land who are opposed to the depredations of the industrial food and agriculture systems, the categories associated with terroir classifying the world through a binary opposition: traditional, small-scale production on the virtuous side, and large-scale, “modern” harvesting methods on the other. Such a situation has prompted large-scale, industrial wine-makers to adopt marketing imagery that implies the “place-based” nature of their offerings, even when the grapes can come from radically different areas within a region or from other regions (Smith Maguire). Like smaller producers, large companies also decouple the advertised imagery of terroir from the mundane realities of industry and profit-margins (Beverland).

The global transportability of the terroir concept—ironic, given the rhetorical stress on the uniqueness of place—depends on its flexibility and ambiguity. In the French context before WWII, the phrase referred specifically to soil and micro-climate of vineyards. Slowly it started mean to a markedly wider symbolic complex involving persons and personalities, techniques and knowhow, traditions, community, and expressions of local and regional heritage (Smith Maguire). Over the course of the 20th century, terroir became an ever broader concept “encompassing the physical characteristics of the land (its soil, climate, topography) and its human dimensions (culture, history, technology)” (Overton 753). It is thought to be both natural and cultural, both physical and human, the potentially contradictory ramifications of such understanding necessitating subtle distinctions to ward off confusion or paradox. Thus human intervention on the land and the vines is often represented as simply “letting the grapes speak for themselves” and “allowing the land to express itself,” as if the wine-maker were midwife rather than fabricator. Terroir talk operates with an awkward verbal balancing act: wine-makers’ “signature” styles are expressions of their cultural authenticity (e.g. using what are claimed as ‘traditional’ methods), yet their stylistic capacities do not interfere with the soil and micro-climate’s natural tendencies (i.e. the terroir’sphysical authenticity).

The wine-making process is a case par excellence of a network of humans and objects, or human and non-human actants (Latour). The concept of terroir today both acknowledges that fact, but occludes it at the same time. It glosses over the highly problematic nature of what is “real,” “true,” “natural.” The roles of human agents and technologies are sequestered, ignoring the inevitably changing nature of knowledges and technologies over time, recognition of which jeopardises claims about an unchanging physical, social and technical order. Harvesting by machine production is representationally disavowed, yet often pragmatically embraced. The role of “foreign” experts acting as advisors —so-called “flying wine-makers,” often from New World production cultures —has to be treated gingerly or covered up. Because of the effects of climate change on micro-climates and growing conditions, the taste of wines from a particular terroir changes over time, but the terroir imaginary cannot recognise that, being based on projections of timelessness (Brabazon).

The authenticity referred to, and constructed, by terroir imagery must constantly be performed to diverse audiences, convincing them that time stands still in the terroir. If consumers are to continue perceiving authenticity in a wine or winery, then a wide range of cultural intermediaries—critics, journalists and other self-proclaiming experts must continue telling convincing stories about provenance. Effective authenticity story-telling rests on the perceived sincerity and knowledgeability of the teller. Such tales stress romantic imagery and colourful, highly personalised accounts of the quirks of particular wine-makers, omitting mundane details of production and commercial activities (Smith Maguire). Such intermediaries must seek to interest their audience in undiscovered regions and “quirky” styles, demonstrating their insider knowledge. But once such regions and styles start to become more well-known, their rarity value is lost, and intermediaries must find ever newer forms of authenticity, which in turn will lose their burnished aura when they become objects of mundane consumption. An endless cycle of discovering and undermining authenticity is constantly enacted.


Authenticity is a category held by different sorts of actors in the wine world, and is the means by which that world is held together. This situation has developed over a long time-frame and is now globalized. Yet I will end this paper on a volte face. Authenticity in the wine world can never be regarded as wholly and simply a social construction. One cannot directly import into the analysis of that world assumptions—about the wholly socially constructed nature of phenomena—which social scientific studies of other domains, most notably culture industries, work with (Peterson, Authenticity). Ways of thinking which are indeed useful for understanding the construction of authenticity in some specific contexts, cannot just be applied in simplistic manners to the wine world. When they are applied in direct and unsophisticated ways, such an operation misses the specificities and particularities of wine-making processes. These are always simultaneously “social” and “natural”, involving multiple forms of complex intertwining of human actions, environmental and climatological conditions, and the characteristics of the vines themselves—a situation markedly beyond beyond any straightforward notion of “social construction.”

The wine world has many socially constructed objects. But wine is not just like any other product. Its authenticity cannot be fabricated in the manner of, say, country music (Peterson, Country). Wine is never in itself only a social construction, nor is its authenticity, because the taste, texture and chemical elements of wine derive from complex human interactions with the physical environment. Wine is partly about packaging, branding and advertising—phenomena standard social science accounts of authenticity focus on—but its organic properties are irreducible to those factors. Terroir is an invention, a label put on to certain things, meaning they are perceived to be authentic. But the things that label refers to—ranging from the slope of a vineyard and the play of sunshine on it, to how grapes grow and when they are picked—are entwined with human semiotics but not completely created by them. A truly comprehensive account of wine authenticity remains to be written.


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authentic; authenticity; authentication; wine; wine-making; agriculture; production; consumption; France; terroir; classifications

Copyright (c) 2015 David Inglis

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