Sometimes the word that is selected between a bunch of synonyms can matter, and convey a whole world of attitude – so much so that you could argue that there are no real synonyms. That guy over there: is he strolling along? Skulking? Loitering? Wandering? Meandering? It all depends on whether you think he’s planning on breaking into a car, passing the time, thinking deep thoughts, just moving along, etc.
For various reasons I’ve been thinking about the best collective word to describe those wine people who, in Andrew Jefford’s excellent words “keep chafing at boundaries, interrogating fundamental precepts, and dreaming of the beauty which lies just out of reach”. Jefford was writing in his decanter.com blog about South Africans like this (with Eben Sadie and viticulturist Rosa Kruger at their head), and he reasonably enough used the term “avant garde”, also speaking of “a revolutionary fringe or a dissident rump”.
I’m going to leave aside for the moment the strange paradox the these forward-thinking, challenging chafers at boundaries are, to a very real extent, arch conservatives, in seeking to return wine-growing to more “natural”, pre-Parker, pre-chemical-industry conditions…. Forward to the past!
Avante-garde is a military term in origin – the foremost section of an advancing army, and in English we tend to use the English mutation “vanguard” for that meaning, keeping the French for the likes of artistic and literary movements that push aesthetic boundaries. So if we group our challenging winemakers under that word, it’s nicely associating them with art and culture. Fair enough. We all like that.
The new Swartlanders, however, seem to prefer a more aggressive association to the challenge, with the militaristic note more present, along with an implied overthrow of the conservatives. The poster for the first Swartland Revolution showed Sadie in Che Guevara guise, with his pals cheerfully waving around rifles (rifles with blades of wheat down the barrels, but I recall that this hippy touch was an adjustment after they realised that South Africa already had more than enough serious images of gun violence).
Incidentally, I can’t see this left-wing libertarian political imagery having much to do with the actual politics of the Swartland revolutionaries (far from it) but it is surprisingly pervasive. Sadie himself often speaks of the “left wing”, referring to those challenging the mindset and practices of the winemaking establishment. More ribaldly, another winemaker, from elsewhere, who’d better stay nameless, described a notable and fine Stellenbosch winemaker as “so conservative that he gets out of the shower to piss!” (You work out the thought-processes there, if you care to.)
I recently had an email from one of the younger generation treading hungrily, if respectfully, on the heels of the older revolutionary vanguard. It said: “Surely most of the thought-provoking and compelling Cape wines in the last decade have come from winemakers sitting a little left of centre”, and the remark was to do with the attitude to terroir, not social justice…
I’ve used both “avant-garde” and “revolutionary” (though never “leftist”) as descriptions in the past and will continue to do so. But, with a bit of pondering, I’ve decided that I rather like the idea of calling these people “radicals”. That retains the challenging, energetic, anti-establishment tone, but it also includes the suggestion of getting to the basics of things, the fundamentals. After all, the word “radical” derives from the Latin word for root (radix).
Getting to the root of real wine is, after all, what the radical wine-growers are both figuratively and literally doing.