The Washington Post
Wine vocabulary is Eurocentric. It’s time to change that.
Do we need to change the way we talk about wine? Are our vocabulary, standards and perspectives of wine too Eurocentric for a modern, globalized world? Some say yes, and their arguments echo recent shifts in the way we view our past and present society.
When we talk of wine’s role in history, culture and religion, we, of course, mean Western history and culture and the JudeoChristian tradition. Wine’s path through time began in the Caucasus and spread to Mesopotamia, and when Western civilization took root, wine went with it. Grape vines spread westward across the Mediterranean with Greek traders and, later, Roman legions. (This is time-lapse, for sure.)
Centuries later, Spanish missionaries and conquistadors introduced European vinifera vines to the Americas, Dutch traders planted vineyards in South Africa, and British colonists brought vines to Australia and New Zealand.
Modern wine, as we know it, is inextricably intertwined with European colonialism, and its culture — rituals, standards and lingo — reflects that heritage.
No one’s trying to cancel that history, at least that I’ve heard. But in a country where people of direct European ancestry are a shrinking portion of the populace, there are calls to make wine more relatable for people of Asian and African heritage, for example. This is a natural outgrowth of the wine community’s efforts since 2020 to diversify and attract more people of color as consumers and professionals.
“The language of wine needs a reboot,” said Meg Maker, a wine writer, educator and author of the blog Terroir Review. Maker moderated a panel discussion in late January at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, an annual trade fair in Sacramento, titled “A New Lexicon for Wine.” Her fellow panelists were Erica Duecy, a wine consultant and editor, and Alicia Towns Franken, executive director of Wine Unify, an organization that promotes minority representation in the wine industry.
Their critique was straightforward: Wine is Eurocentric, and we tend to talk about it using analogies and metaphors centered in the European experience.
Duecy cited a “cultural inflection point” in the way we talk about cultural appropriation and “decolonializing” the language of food. The same is true with wine, she said. “We are speaking in coded ways,” and the path to change “starts by understanding we speak about wine in ways that are exclusionary.”
“What my grandmother’s kitchen looked like versus your grandmother’s kitchen is probably very different,” Franken said, noting her childhood as an African American in Chicago. The European ideal of chateaus on wine labels and wine as part of a gentrified lifestyle is irrelevant today. She pointed to the wine community’s disdain for sweetness as an example. “I cut my teeth on white zinfandel,” she said. “If you had demeaned me back then, I may not be here today.”
To get a sense of this cultural change in action, I reached out to Mailynh Phan, chief executive of RD Winery, Napa’s first Vietnamese-owned winery. The brand was created in 2012 to export Napa wine to Vietnam, which of course has its own colonial history, and tried to market it with a Napa-inspired view of Europe. But the Vietnamese consumers “didn’t want to be European, because we’re not,” Phan said.
Phan brought the brand back to California and opened a tasting room in Napa in July 2020. There she offers a line of wines called Fifth Moon made with grape varieties not common in California, such as grüner veltliner, malvasia bianca and chenin blanc. She pairs them with Vietnamese and other Asian foods. “These are fresher, higheracid wines that balance well with equatorial foods that have a lot of spice,” Phan explained.
“You may say a wine tastes like mango,” Phan said, as though she had read some of my tasting notes. “Indian people know there are [many] different varieties of mango. Which one do you mean?”
RD’S website describes the Fifth Moon grüner veltliner as finishing with “lingering notes of wasabi and [makrut] lime” and suggests pairing it with “curries, vindaloo and Pho.” The chenin blanc is recommended for “sweet & sour pork, Peking duck, pad thai, and our personal favorite — French fries.”
“The wine conversation is centered around European food,” Phan said. “A lot of people didn’t grow up with that experience. I didn’t. There are people who have rice with every meal. They talk about wine differently.”
And, perhaps, so should we.