Wednesday 12 January 2011

Semiotics - Stormhoek Pinotage 2008

Well, maybe I worry unduly about the look of things, or the exact fit of the glass in my sweating paw, or the foolproof opening qualities of the closure, or the price; and not quite enough about the quality of the drink going down my neck. But we live in a world full of mediations and interventions which are not directly about fermented grape juice but which bear heavily on it and - let's get to the point - would you drink a wine (or a beer, or indeed, a tisane) which said, in upper case, on the label, CHANGE THE WORLD OR GO HOME?

Perhaps it adds to the general sense of refreshment, being hectored by a bottle. I wouldn't want to be prescriptive about it. But when I got my case of trendy Stormhoek Pinotage as an Xmas present from my father-in-law, apart from being shamefully grateful (a whole case! Which is as much as to say, unlimited drink!) I was thrown momentarily off-balance by the disjunction between the label on the front - a mixture of blue and grey lettering on a white background, tasteful in a Travelodge sort of way, offset by a stylised, embossed, representation of a young woman draped in the sitting-room curtains, leaning against a metre-high ship's anchor - and the label on the back (which at first I thought was the front) which bellows the following instructions:

BE PASSIONATE LOVE (that's not a term of endearment, as in, "be passionate, madam", but a simply huge 66-point injunction) DREAM BIG BE SPONTANEOUS CELEBRATE and finally that minatory CHANGE THE WORLD OR GO HOME.

In other words, while the front is engaging us in a fairly tame, conventional, discourse, suitable for small claims lawyers and local council middleweights the world over, the back is shouting at us that in fact we fall dismally short as imaginative and fully engaged human beings and that, as W H. Auden very nearly observed, we must freaking well love one another and/or die.

I've spent some time fretting about this. Is it mean to be an opposition? If so, why? Is it an administrative cock-up? Or is it instead a worryingly bipolar articulation of the same idea – the notion that if you're the kind of underachiever who falls for the pallid suavities of the front label then you absolutely need to re-order your priorities as expressed on the back? In fact, a whole bottle went down while I brooded. (Stormhoek Pinotage is pretty tempting, by the way, a nice inky sort of red, velvety without being an actual fabric, not excessively shouty, unlike the packaging) until I thought of today's picture, the (detail of an) iconic Cartier-Bresson image of the boy in the Rue Mouffetard, taken in 1954.

Apart from the sly knowingness of the composition, matched only by the sly knowingness on the Gallic runt's face, the stars of the piece are of course the bottles of red wine he carries. They are the story: absolutely huge in comparison with the boy himself (eliciting a shout of appreciation from an equally small girl a few steps behind) and virtually anonymous, apart from a tag of some sort on the neck (Nicolas perhaps?). They lie in his arms like beasts that he has slain in the course of la chasse. They are wine bottles that demand investigation, and quite possibly some sort of subjugation. They are not wine bottles covered in warring signifiers, like a roundabout with too many roadsigns. They are unknown, creatures of nature.

And it's this facelessness which is so shocking to the modern drinker. Having moved from the daunting classicism of the traditional French wine label, all curlicues and masonic passwords, to the yelling insistence of New World volume-produced grog (GO HOME, LOVE), we've got used to being told something about the experience ahead of us. Unlike, say, a lamb chop or a piece of cake, wine comes wrapped in language. It's a crutch which has been fashioned in thousands of different ways over time, without ever not being a crutch. But what happens when the instructions stop? Wouldn't it be nice if more things were unidentified, speculative, transparently mysterious? What's in those bottles?



  1. Thanks for stopping by my wine post today. i see we definitely are of similar ilk :)

  2. An entire case of commiserations!


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