I would like to propose an unlikely alliance: Wine and wellness.1 At first these appear to be at odds; drinking alcohol rich in tannins may not seem complimentary to a wellness regime. Yet wine and wellness industries have already teamed up to produce new and exciting consumer experiences. In Sonoma and Napa counties, wine tasting and vineyard tours are now supplemented with optional planned hikes, yoga sessions, horseback rides, bike tours, mushroom foraging, immersive sound experiences, sound healing, meditation, and Peloton spin classes. It is no longer enough to offer guests a re-creation of the Mediterranean with Tuscan villas, a guided tasting in the cellar, and landscaping reminiscent of aristocratic gardens. Perhaps wine tourists, now including Millennials as a growing consumer base for this kind of thing, want a more personalized experience that, rather than framed as indulgent, is instead restorative and healing, finding oneness with nature.
Maybe this sounds pretty good, who doesn’t want to feel like they’ve earned their excessive consumption. After all, diet culture and self-discipline have disciplined us all into dividing what we eat and drink into Manichean categories of good and evil, even spirit and material, with spirit found in the wellness side of vineyard tours. These attitudes have found purchase in California for decades, particularly the wine country counties of northern California. Wellness spas took hold in California as an export from Germany and central Europe, with fresh air, a dry environment, and plenty of land to build wellness retreats. Today wellness is a multi-trillion dollar industry, with billions of dollars in wellness tourism alone.2 Meanwhile in Sonoma county, the wine tourism industry is worth over 1 billion dollars, not including wine sales and subscriptions.3 Many wineries tout their organic and sustainable farming bona fides as part of their tourist appeal: Come see the bat boxes elevated above the vines, a creaky but reliable tractor of the yeoman farmer, the pollinator-friendly plants that dot the tasting patio, a lecture on biodynamic farming that quietly drops the pagan rituals recommended by its founder, Rudolf Steiner, who also believed in and wrote about a hierarchy of the races requiring reincarnation from lower races to the highest. I am sure you know which race ranks at the top. When the tasting is over you can return to your electric car that had been charging in the parking lot. You can practically see the yoga mats and sound baths materializing on the pavilion. Perhaps pairing wine with wellness is beginning to look obvious. Yet I want to push this beyond the downward dogs in the domina and look at what is being consumed under the Sonoma sun.
Wine and wellness are types of connoisseurship; collecting facts, fables, and sufficient experience to know enough to have expertise. It is the ability to make fine distinctions within subtle differences that ‘lay people’ cannot. Which wines are on the rise, which ones are losing popularity; Which wellness practices are cutting edge, and which have been consigned to the margins. Who should you study under, who is the right guru? How many gurus in wellness and wine spaces have earned reputations for harassment of their students? Do you hydrafacial or microneedle? Intermittent fasting or nootropics? Old world varieties or new? Both require a special attunement of the body to discern subtle changes, tastes, and textures, barely perceptible unless you have disciplined the self in these special knowledges. They are steeped in science or, in the case of wellness and biodynamics, pseudo-science: terroir is soil science, grapes are genetically engineered, monitored, deliberately exposed and shielded from environmental changes, processed and then transformed into a commodity, and then given over to the economic sciences for market exchange and valuation as a collector’s item. Under a biodynamic regime, soil science is supplemented with practices meant to align with the stars and moon, not unlike astrology for wine, with the intention of improving a people through the strength of its soil and, as we imagine that, please remember the racial hierarchy theory in the body of teachings. Wellness programs and products aim to detoxify the organs, to detect the type and quantity of heavy metals in the body that need flushing, stimulate cell regrowth, improve cognition and hair growth rates by operating at the cellular level. And yet both are shrouded in mystery and spirit; the terroir is more than the sum of its ecological parts, it’s a special signature of a place, time, and commitment to cultivation; read any marketing copy on a Sonoma county winery website and you will find vineyards that reflect character and place, “magical” acreage, and “crafting wines that not only commemorate a moment but transcend time itself.”4 Likewise, wellness spas in Sonoma commit to “designing new experiences, and building new pathways to optimal healing, vitality, and transformation.”5
Yet wellness and wine are more than rest and relaxation, they also require conditioning the body and earth for vigilance against disturbance, to discipline consumption habits to maintain alignment with the right values and practices, and, in a counter-intuitive way, to consume next to nothing. Conspicuous consumption – buying and consuming the right wines and skincare – is also noted in the absence of consumption to prove mastery. A serious wine connoisseur will swill but not drink; spit buckets are available at any wine tasting and sommelier training. Everything you need in order to acquire and demonstrate expertise can be achieved without actually drinking the wine. In some wellness circles, particularly in Sonoma county, programs include intermittent fasting, abstaining from a long list of foods and drinks, and, in extreme cases, training the body to live on air, called breatharianism.
Gwyneth Paltrow, famous now for her wellness brand GOOP, recently went viral for a clip of an interview with her doctor without a medical degree in which she details her average daily diet: she does a “nice intermittent fast,” has bone broth for lunch, and an early “paleo” dinner so she can resume fasting. In her defense of this widely criticized video, Paltrow argued this was simply a conversation between her and her doctor supporting her detox journey. The detox discourse is part of the broader wellness movement, achieved by purifying the body and controlling its appetites to produce a spiritually and physically realized form that no longer bears the traces of those accumulating harms in the Anthropocene. A biodynamic or organic vineyard shares this mission. Participating in the wellness and wine markets as consumers, because frankly, what else would most of us be, is to participate as people with discerning taste, time, and means to consume in such a way. Rather than present a real challenge to the industrial and capitalist forces that threaten grape varieties, human health, and even our very existence, we can become specialized consumers and knowledge holders of a certain sort.
I propose that wine and wellness signal certain class distinctions, particularly when taken together, that are very compatible. Both signal a refinement of the spirit and senses, appreciation for returning “back to the land” and “the way things were” before we needed to deliberately protect vineyards from fertilizers, pesticides, and the vicissitudes of climate change. The body and mind are similarly run through the thresher of late capitalism, destabilizing our chakras, inner peace, ancestral knowledge, and exposing our bodies to the aging and degrading effects of pollution and mindless consumption. Wellness and wine invite the consumer to slow down, reconnect with themselves and with the living world, appreciate the psychic distance from the howling winds of climate change while in a cedar enzyme bath or a lavender lined vineyard path. In fact, consuming these experiences is more than escapism, it is part of the hollow solution to the very real threats to our ecological, bodily, and spiritual integrity.
I may be at risk of taking all the joy out of wine. Let me try, briefly, to reclaim that joy. When we participate in hobbies like wine tasting and collecting, yoga, or meditation, we may be doing so under some stress to do it in certain ways or for certain reasons: to signal class status, fear of aging, reaction against a frightening future by embracing a fantastical tradition or past, fear of the body and mind taking on the waste products of the Anthropocene, fear of climate change rearranging the ecology and production of wine in a way that entails profound loss. But what if we met our climate and social justice goals, what would wine and wellness look like? What would it mean to be a connoisseur? Perhaps that looks like enjoying wine for itself, for the sheer pleasure of tasting, learning, and maybe most importantly, communing with others, reconnecting with our species-being. Wellness may not be driven by fear but rather joy in moving the body, calming the mind, happy rituals of caring for the self that are not displaced pressure to be a fully responsibilized subject for your own health and well-being. Maybe we may no longer have bad wine! Gone are the ends of the commercial wine industry that contribute to unsustainable agriculture that also produce poor quality drink. Instead we can cultivate and produce grape varieties not as a bulwark against climate change damage but for the socially useful and the personally satisfying reasons that people choose to enjoy the world of wine. Stripped of its title as a luxury, wine can assume a social role available to all to enjoy as they wish. So as we taste wines and talk to each other about them, and as we think about which wine countries to visit, maybe too we can think about what world we would like to drink wine in, and toast to that.
Emily Ray is Associate Professor at Sonoma State University and is also a CAPAS fellow until July 2023. Her research focuses on environmental political theory and politics, with particular interest in the intersections of climate change, technology, outer space policy, land-use disputes, and social theory. Some of her previous publications include but are not limited to:
Emily Ray (2021). “Creature Comforts: Neoliberalism and Preparing for Disaster.” New Political Science, 43 (2): 171-188. DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2021.1906584
Emily Ray and Sean Parson (2020). "Star Power: Outer Space Mining and the Metabolic Rift." In Limits to Terrestrial Extraction, edited by Robert Kirsch. Routledge Focus on Energy Series, 2020.
Sean Parson and Emily Ray (2020). "Drill Baby Drill: Labor, Accumulation, and the Sexualization of Resource Extraction." Theory & Event 23 (1): 248-270.