Wines, Worlds, Wastelands: Shifting Apocalyptic Temporalities
Wine might, at first glance, seem like a bit of a weird drink to think through and with world endings. But the significance of viticulture, history, empire, politics, and apocalypse all swill together in their altogether often unaware entanglements of a desire to cultivate, produce, sustain, encapsulate, and capture life. Wine, not in the way that we now know it but nevertheless fermented grape juice – most likely with a few extra additions of tree resin, pepper, cinnamon, honey, and even capers – outdates written records. Before Hemingway could even contemplate writing drunk and editing sober, there was wine. The oldest bottle of that even more extremely ancient beverage in existence is from the fourth century and remains unopened to this day. Wine, in its state as capsule collection item or museum piece, offers us up relics; an antique testament to what Shelley called “antique land”[i] in his powerful poem on the futility of empire Ozymandias. It’s easy to assume that these relics, wine jugs (amphora or Qvevri; the oldest winemaking method in the world), that are over one thousand five hundred years old, have been excavated, gone through chemical analysis as well as compared against historical and archaeological records, plant remains, and design features are synonymous with culture and credence and are the defining feature of the Roman Empire; wine having been what Batycka (2022) calls “divinely ubiquitous, available not only to aristocrats and emperors, but also to slaves, peasants, and men and women alike.”[ii]Despite the multitude of atrocities committed by the Roman Empire, especially towards the Jewish population in Jerusalem, wine remained the pseudo-utopian relic of faux equality. While reading this, Monty Python’s infamous ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’[iii] sketch in The Life of Brian (1979) might just come to mind and the ghostly voices of canned laughter may let themselves loose upon your imagination; although the alcohol in that ancient ‘bottle’ of wine is, sadly – yet, after all, thankfully – long gone, the relic remains.
Looking back, briefly, even further than the Roman Empire and thinking with wine in relation to the cultural imagery of apocalyptic omens, wine prevails in odd and oddly uncanny ways. The grapes harvested from an inconspicuous organic winery in Southern France, in the Haut-Languedoc national park, Domaine du Météore, carry with them the taste of terror felt from a meteorite sighting that happened most likely in the last 10.000 years. At the heart of the vineyard, vines grow in and around a crater site. The iron rich levels of the terroir carry over into the abstract realm of taste, and so do the stories of endings we tell ourselves. While, simultaneously, the act of collecting wine tells us a lot about living and dying as well as history (the grand narrative project as well as our own lives lived) and is, in and of itself, an immortality project; one that is undoubtedly less harmful than say cryogenics, AI uploaded consciousness, and billionaire playboy space colonisation enacted via an affectual white machismo. Nonetheless, wine kept in a cellar will, objectively speaking, get better, it has a peak, it has a point of no return, and, ultimately, it can oxidize and die. However, keeping a special bottle of wine for unaware, unborn children in a cellar somewhere, often ignores the very real possibility of expiry (both of the self and the wine) or that the cellar may fall in to ruinous rubble; still in the vague and distant hope that said markers of futurity may think of you while raising a toast to the past in the future.
From relics as ancient objects to the romance of relics and ruins, it’s an interesting time to think about wine and apocalypse precisely because, as Bob Dylan famously sung, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.[iv] As Anna Tsing has aptly noted, the very Christian masculinity which separated Man from Nature is undermined by “women and men from around the world [who] have clamoured to be included in the status once given to Man.”[v] Historically speaking, since the enlightenment, nature has been seen by Western philosophers as “grand and universal but also passive and mechanical”[vi] and maybe nowhere greater is this grand, yet mechanical agriculture seen than in the world of wine. Where the very acts of cultivation and determination lead us to believe that a minuscule amount of nature has been momentarily tamed and trapped, and remains, nonetheless, entirely volatile. Fermentation is the process of prolonging. This aestheticization yet nonetheless mechanization of nature makes, historically speaking, perfect sense from an agricultural standpoint when, upholstered with a philosophical and spiritual sense of human/non-human hierarchies, one takes from nature what is needed because there is an abundance of bountiful product and one’s place on the earth, with a wary, wandering, and wasteful eye for purity, is cemented as ‘superior.’ This already problematic worldview, set to exacerbate by the projects of colonialism and the one world capitalist megamachine, alters when said worldview long becomes the stimulus of the continuing climate crisis experienced via post-apocalyptic environmentalism in the days of the contested Anthropocene; and as Vettese and Pendergrass have aptly noted said exacerbation has reached a precarious peak: “Capitalist agriculture has created a world where 60 per cent of the total terrestrial mammalian biomass is livestock; only 4 per cent is wild mammals, while humanity composes the remaining 36 percent.”[vii]
While pigpens and battery cage chicken farms extend evermore outward the world’s vineyard acreage has been slowly declining for several years. Not only has it been decreasing ever so slightly, it’s becoming harder and harder to grow certain grapes in certain regions while, at the same time, and precisely because of a warming planet, new and interesting horizons are being hailed. Wine’s decline, is exactly what makes now an interesting moment to reflect on the entanglements of wine and ecocide – from the pesticides that continue to haunt us all in ways we can’t directly see, to the monocultures single vineyard winegrowers offer up, and the CO₂ impacts of glass bottles – it has an undoubtable effect on our ecosystem; especially at the scale it is produced and consumed. Many winemakers have adopted the new found, yet entirely ancient, philosophy of ‘nothing added, nothing taken away’ in an artisanal antecedent to this ever-accelerating impact. Despite this seemingly obsessive focus on an insignificant aspect of a much larger problem, it’s also just as important to zoom out collectively because, as Amitav Ghosh suggests, “the scale of climate change is such that individual choices will make little difference unless certain collective decisions are taken and acted upon”[viii] especially when faced with the prospect of apathetic policy making after the revelation of the latest IPCC reports which suggests mitigation rather than actual action. While we wile away our days discussing how to think with this specific, and specifically alluring, relic, Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) takes the incredibly expensive Matsutake mushroom as a relic of something that can grow in the ruins that ‘we’ have created and their role in helping to fight against the unevenly experienced effects of climate change and a world based on supply chains and profits; not humanitarian coexistence. “Matsutake,” she says “help peasant forests remain in the working landscape. With high prices, the mushroom sales alone pay the taxes for the land and support maintenance.”[ix]This shouldn’t be confused with a rollicking romanticism, there are, unfortunately, very few mushroom pickers, and governance isn’t always as protective of mushrooms as they are of timber profits (let alone wine), however, what grows in the ruins can often tell us more about how to accept and embody new earthly entanglements than, perhaps, anything else.
New worlds open up to the adventure of wine in the wake of world endings in the form of climate change. English wine regularly wins record numbers of awards in tasting competitions. The unspeakable has happened: English wine is finally good. Even more unthinkable perhaps: Taittinger has purchased two hundred and fifty acres of English sparkling grape varieties in Kent. In 2024 they will launch an English sparkling wine. Old allegiances and advocacies aside, the south and southeast coast of Britain have become a hotspot for sparkling wines, as well as some more than noteworthy still and natural wines; which is unsurprising considering the historical yet often overlooked English influence on sparkling Champagne. Westwell, Tillingham, Simpsons, Chapel Down, and Gusbourne are just a few of the New New (old) world wineries who are not only tilling new earth and breaking new ground in consumer habits but also in terms of winemaking methods. The UK’s wine scene has exploded in the last few years with an average rise of twenty wineries per year. This is absolutely phenomenal progress when you consider how small the islands are and, at the same time, that the UK is a country dominated by beer drinkers. While, simultaneously, Poland is set to become a leading global wine producer by 2050 as many flagship varietals slowly disappear or themselves become exports; for example, from their native Italy and Spain, no longer able to thrive in their native soil. In this way, wine can be a taste tangible measurement of climate change under the auspicious of plural apocalyptic temporalities and futures while traditional practices change and emergency varieties are planted for a now very known, tangible climate changed future, as well as ongoing present. While tests are undertaken to determine which grapes have the appropriate properties to deal with the most detrimental of weather conditions, Jacques Rousseau head of vineyard services for the Institut Coopératif du Vin, after having tested a lengthy list of well-known varieties such as Alvarinho and Verdejo in the whites and Primitivo, and Montepulciano in the reds, declared in 2022 that “[t]here is no miracle variety.”[x] Even if there was a miracle grape that could miraculously mould the molecular resilience of the epicurean’s favourite fruit, planting monocultures would actually exacerbate the problem as, according to John Williams a Napa Valley winemaker, “[c]onventional farming systems are about pushing life out of vineyards. We need to talk about bringing life back in.”[xi]
Looking forward then, and to the pressing present of days defined by climate mitigation in the problematically universalistic Anthropocene or its more just climate culpability cognates – which express a deep uncertainty about the universalistic grammar of this epoch – Chthulucene, Capitalocene, or Platantionocene, wine is both a tangible consumer product with which to trace our changing climate and the classism of aesthetic experience, as well as a geopolitical act of resistance. Very old world wines for instance, such as Lebanese wines, but more pertinently Syrian wines, like those produced from limestone soil of the coastal mountain range at Château Bargylus (or more appropriately said the winery of Domaine de Bargylus) which has – in a somewhat sensationalist sense – been dubbed by The Telegraph, The Mirror, and The Irish Times the “most dangerous wine in the world” are, according to the two brothers growing these grapes in exile, “an act of perseverance despite the odds.”[xii] Despite their humble dedication to winemaking passion and rebellious defiance, the wine has found its way into Michelin star restaurants where the rich can get a taste of the terroir of turmoil from a safe and sanitary distance. The wine, and the name it carries, so well received, is made to the same standards as some of the best Bordeaux wines, another ongoing uncanny relic of French colonial rule. Despite its extremely difficult creation, as well as appropriation into the conservative wine world, you can get a bottle of Bargylus for the, more or less, affordable 25 to 30 Euros; unlike some of the classic wines from old Bordeaux houses where they start at triple the price of said ‘worldly’ wine. Looking past specific war-torn countries, wine is a geopolitical product, as well as, what Antonio Tabucchi in his final love letter to Portugal calls the ancient recipe of a certain Portuguese dish of pig blood and red wine stew, “a first class lesson in material culture.”[xiii]
It defines borders, traditions, people, and places simply by existing in certain autonomous regions of the world. While the classist traditions of winemaking continue to show that although the wine world is predominately dominated by white men, it is most certainly still literally and metaphorically propped up by low wage seasonal workers who exist in a precarious limbo relationship to the priced-up bottle of grape juice sold at the other end to other, mostly white, male consumers; for many of whom the utopian strive to reach the upper echelons of aestheticism in-clubs informs their habitual consumer habits. With Bob Dylan’s nasal nostalgia ringing once again in my ears, however, the times most certainly are changing and the last decades have seen a huge boom in female winemakers who, interestingly enough, found their foothold in the natural wine making world. Although the shift isn’t necessarily a bold act of ecofeminism, it is most definitely a way to review the unsustainable that is undoubtedly always linked to male mismanagement.
Wines – like peoples – are varied and continue to be geopolitical in that they are either Indigenous or imported; while some varieties almost becoming entirely extinct. Arneis, a beautifully floral summer white wine from Piedmont one of the various wines that almost ended in extinction in the 1970s, is, today, again a popular white wine and the defining counterpart to the regions more famous red wines such as Barolo, Nebbiolo, and, Barbera. In the case of Arneis, consumer habits led to its almost extinction. In the vineyard, Arneis was often planted with Nebbiolo in a field blend with the aim of having the sweet scent of ripe Arneis berries attract birds and keep them away from the more valuable Nebbiolo clusters and, due to the high demand and popularity and praise of its red grapes, Arneis was often, like a multitude of people living with and amongst sites of earthly extraction and its aftermaths, overlooked.
Like the sparkling bubbles in the bottle of a very old yet simultaneously very new wine art form Pet Nat (pétillant naturel) mistakes – which is often the case in winemaking – become tradition. Petulant and pétillant don’t only sound similar, they also share lexical and semantic similarity. Bubbling implies aggression and wilderness, while petulant implies impatience: a readiness to explode at any opportune moment. The attempts to ‘cultivate’ the Edenic landscapes of the ‘new’ world in the form of colonial cruelty share a similar logic to attempting to trap the tears of nature in a glass blown bottle. Capture is at work, but shifts in natural winemaking suggest a rejection of filtration, an overbearing obsession with purity, and additives and correctives. Most natural wines are alive and they will keep developing over a matter of days if left opened but corked again in a cold place. Natural wine, although a microconsumerist trend, might well be a return to a dark romanticism and ecoGothic that accepts the natural and more-than-human world for what it is: entirely and utterly unpredictable.
Amongst the mess of the moderns, all of these temporalities entwine around the prickly vine of time. From the historical imaginary and biblical mythology of wine as life source, metaphors for blood, the weird and wonderful world of English wine, hybrid varieties – otherwise known as Pilzwiderstandsfähige Rebsorten (disease resistant grape varieties) such as Souvignier Gris – that reject the uncanny presence of petrochemical capitalism in their independence from needing to be sprayed, to a product of geopolitical rebellion, wine interacts with us beyond intoxication. Michelle Neely suggests that “the human body is a space where various scales, forms, and temporalities of consumption come together, and such consumption affects producers as well as consumers; it affects here and there, now and then (past as well as future).”[xiv] As such, Thoreau’s infamous concerns around a consumption of frugality seen in Walden reveals our interdependence to nature and although we are so impossibly far away from what Ralph Waldo Emerson called an “intimate Unity”[xv] to the natural non-human world if ever we experienced said relationship it’s not only important but necessary that we think about the wine worlds, as well as wet-bulb wastelands, while still sipping the tipple that transcends time. Wine is a revelator; it’s said that through inebriation the true essence is revealed and, as such, the metaphor of God as Vintner found in Jeremiah 48:11-1, as well as wines significance as the first miracle product produced, make infinitely more sense as a biblical analogy for squeezing the moral manifestations out of a people because Moab, as grape juice, was supposedly placed by God, the winemaker, into a vessel for purification. While this suggests that perhaps society and soil have a lot more in common than we might, at first, think; especially in terms of toxicity, microplastics, and other synthetic entanglements (Rachel Carson being one of the original environmental apocalyptics to have established the potency of pesticides), it also underscores issues of purity, race, and who (and why) are the chosen ones who get to live on what David Wallace-Wells has called an Uninhabitable Earth[xvi] (2019) amongst intermittent apocalyptic fractures. The unsustainability of many wines also offers us a product with which to think about unsustainability more generally; especially when almost all countries in the West’s Earth Overshoot Day plotted this year, 2023, as it is most years, as shockingly early as spring and summer. And although, as Goethe once famously said, “Das Leben is zu kurz, um schlecten Wein zu trinken [Life is too short to drink bad wine],” we should, today, in the pernicious present, while the silky tannins, good grip, and earthy oak squeezed from the umbilical cords of the ground touch our tongues, ask ourselves to drink and thus think briefly about the very real possibilities of ‘bad’ wine in the face of a shifting wine world.
Michael Dunn is a research associate at the Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and PostApocalyptic Studies (CAPAS), Heidelberg University where he works in publication management. He is currently a PhD candidate at Heidelberg University working on the framing of ecological apocalypses in modern classic literature. His research interests focus on climate culpability and justice, the ecologically uncanny, literary vampires, and earthly ends. He is also a poet, writer of fictions, and songwriter performing under monikers M. P. Dunn or The Earl Grey. His new album Mercury Mouth (2023) is available on all streaming services.
[i] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in An Anthology of World Poetry, ed. Mark van Doren (London: Cassel and Company Ltd, 1939), 1085, at 1085.
[ii] Dorian Batycka, “Analysis of 1,500-Year-Old Wine Jugs Reveals Surprising Information About How Ancient Romans Kept Their Libations So Delicious,” Artnet, June 30, 2022, accessed May 23, 2023. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ancient-roman-wine-2139243.
[iii] The Life of Brian, directed by Terry Jones (Paramount Pictures, 1979).
[iv] Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Track 1 on The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Columbia Records, 1964).
[v] Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015), vii.
[vi] Tsing, The Mushroom, vii.
[vii] Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, Half-Earth Socialism (London: Verso, 2022), 77.
[viii] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 133.
[ix] Tsing, The Mushroom, 262.
[x] Vitisphere, “No Miracle Grape Variety meets all the Challenges of Climate Change,” Vitisphere, June 30, 2022, accessed May 23, 2023.
[xi] The Porto Protocol, “Monoculture wars – the vineyards killing ecosystems,” The Porto Protocol, November 6, 2020, accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.portoprotocol.com/monoculture-wars-the-vineyards-killing-ecosystems/.
[xii] Jenny Duggan, “Fractious vintage: ‘The most dangerous wine the world’,” The Irish Times, April 22, 2017, accessed May 23, 2023.
[xiii] Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem: A Hallucination, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (London: Penguin, 2021), 23.
[xiv] Michelle C. Neely, Against Sustainability (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 71.
[xv] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 30.
[xvi] David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (London: Penguin, 2019).