Fri 10 Apr 2009
On Tuesday, Tom Wark posted, on his blog Fermentation, a fascinating meditation about authenticity. In this provocative essay, Wark wrestles with the questions of how wine, wine brands, wine marketing and the concept of authenticity fit into the brave new world of online social networking.
A long-time marketing person with a rigorously experiential and pragmatic view, Wark makes this point:
“Authentic” and “Authenticity” refer to the ability to define and position one’s product or service in personal and individualistic forms that stress the seller’s feelings and perceptions in a way a single other person taking part in a dialogue will appreciate—rather than positioning one’s products and service in the form of a monologue where the products or services are defined by what they provide to a group.
This is a terrifying analysis. In short, Wark is saying, or implying, that “authenticity” exists not as a test of the genuineness of an article (the original definition of the word) but as the ability to artificially (or artfully) attach a desirable aura to an object, in this case wine, in order to make it marketable. This development should not be a surprise. As the fields of marketing, publicity and advertising have, particularly since the 1960s and the widespread proliferation of television, attained monolithic proportions and requisitioned vast regions of first American and then world culture, authenticity has increasingly become a commodity useful for appealing to certain segments of the consumer classes. In magazines and newspapers, on televisions, in movies and of course on the Internet, the once definitive line between advertising and reality has become so blurred that we may truly say that reality is a nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there because advertising is so much better. Basically, authenticity no longer exists.
There was a time, not so long ago, when people did not concern themselves about authenticity. If you lived in Europe, you didn’t worry whether the wine you were drinking was authentic because it came from the guy down the road who had been making wine for 50 years the way his father and grandfather had made wine. You didn’t worry about whether the food you were eating was authentic — and this was true for most parts of the world — because the ingredients were grown within a day’s walk of your house or village, or you grew the vegetables or tended the chickens yourself. As the world expanded, of course, and became more urbanized, whole populations became separated from the sources of the food they ate, the wine they drank and the objects they purchased for their use and consumption. Large-scale manufacturing, assembly-line production and agribusiness provided millions of people with the necessities of life at the same time as they standardized their products and reduced expectations to a lowest-common-denominator level. Hence were born nostalgia and a political-correctness of taste and acquisition.
Now you can’t buy a chocolate bar — 76% cacao — that doesn’t scream the “authenticity” of its having been produced by a tribal-owned (and non-slave) cooperative in Ecuador that uses “green” growing and harvesting methods, that half the profits are donated to local schools, that the paper the chocolate bar is wrapped in is compostable and that the employees of the American importer all wear recycled clothing. And this will cost you $7 for 1.5 ounces of chocolate. And you will feel good about yourself.
In the world is wine, or California wine, authenticity translates, first, into farming vineyards along the principles of bio-dynamism or at least organic or sustainable methods. The bottle will be heavy and with a deep punt, in a nod to the traditions of France, the authentic motherland of wine. The label will be printed with soy ink on recycled paper. The narrative on the back label will mention the generations of the family that have devoted themselves to their land and their vineyards, their passion, their vision, their authentic dedication, how they keep thing small because small is more personal, more hands-on, more, you know, authentic. The winery and tasting room will be solar- or wind-powered. Thus a nice $20 cabernet, in a triumph of marketing, ends up costing $40.
Now, it’s not my intention to imply that eco-greenness is nothing but a target for satire nor do I mean to denigrate the efforts of the hundreds of excellent, small, family-owned vineyards and wineries found in California and Oregon and Washington and other states (and countries) where wine is made. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter how naturally and blithely authentic these concepts and entities may be; they don’t stand a chance against the Shiva-like powers of marketing and advertising, which create their own ideas and tendencies and trends for authenticity. “Real authenticity”? Forget it. “Media-authenticity” rules.
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