Winotype: genetics, evolution and wine appreciation

Is wine appreciation genetic? And if so, what’s the evolutionary point?

Wine lovers are united by the same primal urges: to learn about wine, to collect wine, and – perhaps above all – to share wine with like-minded individuals. Or, put more cynically, to overspend on wine, to brag about wine, and – perhaps above all – to drink wine. Lots and lots of it.

But do these common characteristics mean that we share specific genes? Selfish gene theorists would certainly say so. They believe that every person’s behaviour (their phenotype) is ultimately determined by their genetic makeup (their genotype) – just like every red Burgundy is ultimately determined by its terroir, or Pinotype.

Don’t have terroir? Just use yeast!

Don’t have terroir? Just use yeast!


The most famous adherent to the selfish gene theory is Richard Dawkins. He advances the belief that all life is driven by ‘replicators’. In their most basic form, these are DNA molecules, whose supreme purpose is to reproduce themselves. In the 3.5 billion years since life came into being, these replicators have grouped into mutually beneficial organisms, which Dawkins calls vehicles. That’s you and me, folks – and every other living thing out there.

Opponents of the theory object to the concept that we are merely sophisticated machines under the command of insentient nucleic acids, like rabid primates with picky drinking habits. Our consciousness and the ego that comes with it doesn’t relish the thought that all human endeavour, culture and creation – wine included – is merely in the service of internal automata that control our destinies.

Yet the selfish gene theory has a relentless and irrefutable logic to it. Or maybe that’s just my replicators talking.

If it is true, then the appreciation of wine should be viewed as an extension of the selfish gene compulsion – that is, as a means for our genes to replicate themselves. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean sexual reproduction, although I bet many of our kids wouldn’t be here if wine hadn’t been involved.

evolution of wine drinker.jpg

An intriguing part of Dawkins’ theory concerns altruism and something he called the green-beard effect. Wikipedia summarises it succinctly:

Green-beard effects gained their name from a thought-experiment of Richard Dawkins, who considered the possibility of a gene that caused its possessors to develop a green beard and to be nice to other green-bearded individuals. Since then, "green-beard effect" has come to refer to forms of genetic self-recognition in which a gene in one individual might direct benefits to other individuals that possess the gene. Such genes would be especially selfish, benefiting themselves regardless of the fates of their vehicles.

In other words, all this sharing of wine might be more beneficial for the thirsty friends you’re pouring it for than for you personally! This, at least, is the perfect justification for keeping all your best bottles for yourself. But is that mere flippancy, or is there any truth behind the argument?

To find out, we need look no further than the yeast that makes wine possible, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In 2008, it was discovered that cells which contain the FLO1 gene produce a protein that promotes flocculation among other cells with the same gene – which was taken as proof that the green-beard effect is real. Flocculation is bunching together, and by so doing, the group of cells is better protected against toxins, namely alcohol.

Applying this theory to wine lovers would mean that those of us with the requisite genetic makeup would recognise this trait in others, and then act preferentially towards them. Well, hello? Have you never seen wine-lovers grouping together? Flocculation is the perfect word for it – a big bunch of boozy old floccers, all sticking together and guzzling wine like it’s keeping us alive. The only difference between us and yeast is that we’re hardly trying to reduce our exposure to alcohol.

Let’s assume that selfish gene theory is right, and that wine appreciation is therefore ultimately genetic. Nobody is saying that there is a single, specific wine-loving gene, so this returns us to the original question: are there particular traits, caused by genes, which predispose people to become wine lovers?

From one perspective, the world of wine appears to be incredibly diverse, accommodating every conceivable trend, attitude and preference. This would seem to defy genetic conformity. Yet there tend to be common characteristics too: generosity, conviviality, altruism – and I expect sure some of us have got actual green beards as well.

Geneticists could doubtless make the case that all wine lovers share personality traits which can be explained by our genetic codebase. But even if we accept that wine is merely a convoluted by-product of highly evolved genetic replicators, that needn’t undermine its value.

Wine remains a unique creation, an intriguing liquid expression of time and space that tastes amazing and makes us happy. Being able to appreciate the sheer joy and mystery of that is one of the very qualities that makes us human – and that remains true even if wine is just an advanced by-product of our inbuilt genetic urges.