• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

War of the Worlds

Rural artisan winemakers are battling industrialist producers in a bid to preserve the magical results of husbandry and handcraft.

The wine world is in the middle of a war between industrialists and artisans. One is fighting for market domination, the other for freedom of expression and economic security. On one hand, the technology and rationalism of corporate culture; on the other, the romance of individualism.

Industrialist wine producers claim to be making the drink of democracy, wine of a quality that was once exclusive to the aristocracy but is now available in every supermarket at prices everyone can afford. It is a slick and persuasive argument, except that the modern aristocracy, those metropolitan princes who occupy corporate glass towers are not often seen drinking the cheap chardonnays and bubblies of supermarket shelves.

These are wines that the modern global wine trade likes to claim are the best ever, true to their grape variety source and free from fault, thanks to industrial technology. If you drink these wines, there is little chance that you will be disappointed, and even less chance that you will be excited. Which is why contemporary aristocrats continue to prefer wines made in the higher risk environment of husbandry and handcraft, and why they pay significantly more to do so.

There is, of course, the question of cost, for industrial wine is cheaper to produce than handmade wine. But this is to ignore the cost of environmental degradation, which is never included in retail prices, but instead comes in your tax bill. The cost of industrial farming, of any sort, is a steady degradation of the land that supports us. We can see it in Rotorua's steadily festering lakes and in the contamination of soil and waterways with spray residues.

Of equal concern is the way that industrial farming has shifted control of the land away from rural communities, and the current war between industrialists and rural artisans is a struggle for self-determination by rural communities against the prevailing metropolitan hegemony: corporates against local identity. Although GE technologies are the headline hoggers of this battle, wine is the real front line.

Wine is the emblem of rural identity, nurtured as it is in a specific place by a specific culture. Its greatest example is champagne, which is why industrialist wine producers and their national supporters, such as the US Government, are determined to challenge its integrity.

Champagne is more than a famous wine, it is the symbol of both the Champagne district and France as a whole. Superficially, its production is industrial in aspect, but the underlying truth is its fierce regionalism and immense parochial pride. And its lesson for rural communities everywhere is the vigorous regional economy that its pride and integrity support - simply the richest agricultural community on Earth.