Why We Need a Fine Wine Definition

Picture by Guillaume QL, Unsplash

Over the years and through many presentations of ARENI’s work, some questions keep popping up. Why do we need a fine wine definition? What would this definition achieve? Is fine wine the same as luxury wine? What effect does the financialization of fine wine have on the global market? What makes a classic? Should fine wine embody typicity or authenticity? Having thought a lot about the above questions, we decided to present our views in a series of opinion pieces, derived from our personal desk research, analysis and opinions. 

In this first piece, Pauline Vicard, ARENI Global’s Executive Director, goes back to the vineyards of Burgundy where she grew up, and documents how the shifts and changes that she witnessed in the last 20 years are a current source of inspiration for the work that ARENI does today. 

All of these thoughts and more will be compiled in ARENI next white paper, Rethinking Fine Wine, to be released in January 2023.

Why wine

I grew up in wine. More accurately, I grew up in the vineyard. The cellar was a place I was seldom welcomed in, not because I was a female growing up in Burgundy in the 80’s, but because my dad felt that the far-from-state-of-the-art ‘cuverie’ he operated in wasn’t a safe place for kids. Pigeage and décuvage? No, can’t do… But pushing a flaming wheel barrel through the vines to get rid of the vine cuttings right in the middle of the freezing winter month? This I was fit to do. It’s funny how I miss it now. Not the back pain though, nor the burnt eyebrows.

I grew up witnessing the seasons, learning about the intricacies of the vine life cycle, and the impact of bad pruning on the next three seasons. I drove the ‘enjambeur’ with my dad, spraying pesticides and herbicides without using any kind of protection, because that was the way it was done. I learned about chaptalisation and the best way to split your sugar shopping if you don’t want to get caught by the customs people. But mostly I grew up seeing my parents and their estate gradually crash, because they couldn’t adapt to change. 

Wine matters to me, on a very personal, almost painful level. It is one of the most powerful links I have with my family, my region, and ultimately my country, as wine culture fits so well with the French identity.

Why fine wine

I was later asked to reflect on the impact that I wanted to make in the world. I had to answer this question: what do you think the world could use more of? The answer came to me, with a little help from author and brand expert Minter Dial. As far as I was concerned, the world needed more beauty, respect and wonder. It hit me: there it was, my own personal definition of fine wine: a combination of aesthetic beauty and creativity, and provider of magic, that commands respect.

Or as Andrew Jefford puts it brilliantly in his book Drinking With the Valkyries : “My starting point for a career in wine was wonder at the world, in all its diversity. Wine is a unique way to apprehend the world’s variousness… We value wine as one of the most beautiful of human artefacts, and one whose being reflects, with shocking fidelity, the unconformities and irregularities of our earthly home.”

Why does fine wine need a definition?

When I began my wine career in the 2000s, I thought our biggest problem in France was our powerful desire to ignore what was going on abroad. I was wrong. I now believe that one of our major potential problems could be inadequacy. Think about it. There is a growing chance that the world we are living in today will begin to be cynical about fine wine, seeing it as an overpriced alcoholic drink, reserved for an upper-class gatekeeping elite, whose production not only wastes precious resources such as land and water, but which also creates all kinds of negative environmental and social impacts.

There is a growing chance that the world we are living in today will begin to be cynical about fine wine, seeing it as an overpriced alcoholic drink, reserved for an upper-class gatekeeping elite, whose production not only wastes precious resources such as land and water, but which also creates all kinds of negative environmental and social impacts.

Pauline Vicard, Executive Director, ARENI Global

What if we were to lose our social licence to operate? I believe this is a real possibility in the near future. I also believe that making and trading wine will become more complex, requiring many skills that only the most resilient organisations and individuals will be able to acquire. 

And while the wine world, from production to distribution, seems to agree on what fine wine is not―a wine of poor quality, that’s mass produced, made using short cuts and widely distributed―there is little agreement on what a ‘fine wine’ actually is. If we don’t know what fine wine is, how can we protect it? And if we want it to be worthy of protection, shouldn’t we not only define what it is, but also articulate what it stands for?

I believe that making and trading wine will become more complex, requiring many skills that only the most resilient organisations and individuals will be able to acquire. 

Pauline Vicard, Executive Director, ARENI Global

What could a shared definition achieve?

I grew up in a hamlet in Burgundy that probably had less inhabitants that an average building in Paris or New York. We also considered the neighbouring hamlet to be the enemy, or at least, the ‘not-like-us’ land. Watching my dad prepping for a trip to Chablis, a mere 80kms from where I grew up, reminds me of me packing for an unknown territory during Covid.

Today, we are not so isolated. But I still believe that working together is one of the things that the fine wine community does poorly, sometimes because it doesn’t see the need, and sometimes because there are just not enough hours in the day. But as António Graça of Sogrape puts it beautifully in a recent ARENI interview, the only way that we can adapt to what’s coming, is by shifting from efficiency to resilience. Working together might take more time and more effort, but pooling our collective intelligence might be the best way forward.

The only way that we can adapt to what’s coming, is by shifting from efficiency to resilience. Working together might take more time and more effort, but pooling our collective intelligence might be the best way forward.

Pauline Vicard, Executive Director, ARENI Global

How do we do that? One way is to clarify what we are working towards, and what’s at risk. Rethinking Fine Wine will be our fourth whitepaper on the topic of Fine Wine, and in the five years since we began, our definition of fine wine has been tweaked three different times. 

This work, to be published in January 2023, is not meant to constitute an absolute that everybody needs to agree on, that would be too ambitious. But if fine wine really needs to define its role and place in the world, we believe it is a solid base for conversation.


To learn more about Rethinking Fine Wine, click HERE.