Review: “Wine & Culture”

Chris Maggiolo

Wine and Culture: Vineyard to Glass, Rachel Black and Robert Ulin, eds. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 323 pp.

Wine is an undeniably trendy topic that has entertained prolific attention from popular authors and academics alike. A frequent focal point for discussions of geography, history, and economics, the study of wine has received surprisingly little attention within the field of anthropology. In Wine and Culture, Black and Ulin curate a selection of oenocentric essays that aim to showcase how the subject of wine may fluently speak to important contemporary social and cultural discourses.

Wine has long been and continues to be an important commodity that generates significant interest because of its commercial, symbolic, cultural, and aesthetic value.

In order to frame the breadth of oenological knowledge presented in this work, Black and Ulin divide the volume into four thematic sections. Section I, entitled “Rethinking Terroir,” explores the often-debated concept of terroir both new and old world winemaking and outlines traditional perceptions of terroir while offering new tools and angles with which to delve into studies on “the taste of place.” Ulin, himself, wraps up the section with an essay entitled “Terroir and Locality: An Anthropological Perspective”, tying together the themes of “Rethinking Terroir” and presenting them in the context of anthropology.

No compilation of anthropological essays would be complete without a discussion of power dynamics and place, which is exactly the subject of Section II, “Relationships of Power and the Construction of Place.” Rather than focusing solely on conventional winemaking environments, the editors selected three unique essays on the topic of wine in Eastern Europe. Ranging in focus from memory and identity, to elite consumption, to cultural patrimony, these forays into Eastern European wine culture offer a nice contrast to the section’s more conventional essays on “Wine as Performance in Galicia, Spain” and the legality of the Bordeaux classification system.

Black and Ulin’s last two sections, “Labor, Commodification, and the Politics of Wine” and “Technology and Nature,” acknowledge important Marxist themes frequently found in commodity studies. A distinct look at commodification through the lens of Georgian drinking practices nicely juxtaposes discourses in gender studies and globalization. The book’s final section begins with a case study of Lebanon, another marginalized wine-producing country, and ends with two essays tackling the emerging subject of natural wine.

Wine and Culture: Vineyard to Glass does what most academic takes on wine production and consumption avoid – it strays from the comfort of the Western viticultural landscape, though not so far as to render the discussion foreign and uninspiring. As stated in this anthology’s well-written introduction, wine is a global commodity. As such, any book that attempts to compile a collection of essays on the culture of wine needs to address the topic in terms of its increasingly broad scope. From Australia to South America, Bourdeaux to Lebanon, Wine and Culture delivers an exceptional overview of the anthropology of winemaking. As a student of anthropology and alcohol studies, I can only hope that Black and Ulin’s work opens a door through which others may follow. By not just reaffirming what wine studies is, but by also showing what it can be, they create a space that beckons for further research and the development of an exciting, unique, and invaluable field.


Chris Maggiolo hails originally from Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Chris is a recent graduate of the Masters of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program at Boston University. His research interests include the anthropology and history of alcohol, craftsmanship and artisanship, ethnobotany, concepts in space and place, and the application of anthropology towards issues in agriculture and artisanal food production. Chris currently works as an independent consultant for the beverage industry and small food businesses and is the co-founder of Cask and Culture: a fledgling beer and cheese events and education company based in Boston, Massachusetts. Having recently finished a thesis on Italian American home winemaking and masculinity, Chris looks forward to continuing to write about beer, wine, spirits, and the craft food economy.

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