Must You Love the Wines I Love?

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wine and loveLast week I argued that disagreements among lovers of beauty about what is praiseworthy form communities of rivals—groups of like-minded devotees who find rival beauties unremarkable or unintelligible.  This is true of beautiful wines  as well—they have their fans and detractors.

This idea of rival communities highlights one of the stranger notions that has persisted throughout philosophical discussions of beauty. It was the enormously influential 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant who defended it most stridently—beauty, despite being grounded in subjective feelings of pleasure, makes universal claims of validity he argued. When I judge an object to be beautiful based on my own feelings of pleasure, not only does the object merit such a response from me, it merits such a response from anyone. Beauty demands universal agreement.

This is not to say everyone will agree; Kant is well aware of the extent of disagreements about beauty. He is claiming everyone ought to agree. It’s a normative claim. Thus, if we fail to agree someone is mistaken. Someone is failing to conform to the demands the object makes on us. This is the main difference between what is beautiful and what is merely pleasant or preferable. We don’t demand that others share our preferences for chocolate ice cream. But we think someone who finds Rembrandt or Screaming Eagle boring is coarse and lacking in taste.

What Kant had in mind was that we approach pleasure differently when the object is beautiful as opposed to just agreeable. We take a disinterested attitude towards a beautiful object, an attitude whereby our personal desires and idiosyncratic attitudes are bracketed and we enjoy the object for itself, not because of some antecedent desire or interest one might have.

I won’t belabor the tortuous logic that gets Kant to this conclusion.  But the thumbnail sketch is that Kant wants to show that our judgments are rational and free. And he thinks that if we are pushed around by yucky personal things like desires and emotions our actions will not be our own. It is better, more free, to be governed by principles that any rational being must assent to since as a rational being I must by necessity assent to them. (Yes. I know. It’s peculiar. You are most free when forced by logic to draw a conclusion)

Once we free ourselves from interests and emotions and achieve disinterested attention, the possibility of universal assent to judgments of beauty are possible. Rival beauties are created by personal interests that we should strive to overcome, according to Kant.

Since I think actions unmotivated by personal desires or emotions are incoherent and a gross misunderstanding of human nature I think the concept of disinterestedness makes no sense. It especially makes no sense in aesthetics. Why would I seek to experience beauty if I had no personal interest or desire in doing so?

Far from being disinterested, we fall in love with great works of art, beautiful men and women, and lovely bottles of wine. Without that love, appreciation is a feeble and limited gesture, like our preference for chocolate ice cream. But thankfully no one is obligated to love what I love. (My wife doesn’t think she’s that lovable)

Universal validity in matters of love is complete nonsense, and the experience of beauty (and beautiful wines) is a matter of love. When we find an object beautiful we experience the need to converse with it, submit to it and make it part of our lives just as we do with the people we fall in love with.

But that does mean that Kant is right that beauty is normative—it makes demands on us.

Stay tuned for more on what a beautiful wine demands of us.

Holistic Tasting and the Fear of Subjectivity

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word cloudTasting notes are often derided as excessive, boring, or unhelpful. But most of these criticisms miss the main drawback to most tasting notes. They fail to identify a wine’s aesthetic appeal and the aesthetic properties that make it appealing. The culprit is the reigning practice of analytic tasting, the separating out of individual components,  that governs wine tasting as practiced by wine professionals.

There is much in Burnham and Skilleas’  book The Aesthetics of Wine that I disagree with but their account of the importance of tasting synthetically in addition to analytically is entirely correct and crucial to understanding this idea of aesthetic appeal:

“But separating out (i.e. analysis) is only part of the work of tasting, and perhaps not even the most important. The taster must also be able to put the elements back together,  so to speak, in order to perceive and evaluate relations among them and with respect to other wines…The ability to experience relations of sensations is different from the simple ability to experience sensations individually.” (15)

The various aromas, flavors, structural components and textures in a wine are, of course, “mixed up” and the first stage of learning to taste is to learn to disentangle them. But aromas, flavors and textures also happen in sequences and exhibit various values such as clarity, focus, distinctiveness or nuance all at various degrees of intensity and duration.  Once we learn to separate all this out we then have to put the wine back together, so to speak, and experience how all these elements come together. Wine quality crucially depends on that “coming together” and most tasting notes tell us little about that.

The term “balance” doesn’t capture it. Balance usually refers to the relative prominence of fruit vs. acid vs. alcohol. That doesn’t describe the overall character of a wine.

“Harmony” gets closer but all quality wines that have been sufficiently aged will taste integrated just as all competently composed symphonies (putting aside deliberate attempts to eschew tonality) will be harmonious. There are after all many ways of being harmonious that matter crucially in our appreciation of a piece of music. A music critic who simply pointed out that the orchestra sounded harmonious last night would be laughed off the page.  What matters is how that harmony was achieved and what it’s impact was. To describe these effects, only aesthetic properties will suffice.

The same is true of wine. By “aesthetic properties” related to wine I mean properties  such as “elegant”, “profound”,  “vivid”, “powerful”, “dynamic” “complex”, “unified”,  “delicate” and “brooding” to name just a few of the more prevalent aesthetic properties in wine.

These sometimes find their way into the best tasting notes but too often we just get a list of fruits and other aromas. In fact the tasting grids used by certification organizations to train wine tasters seldom go beyond the listing of analytically determined properties.

Why? Why limit the vocabulary of wine tasting to elements rather than overall impression?

The answer I think is that wine professionals are introduced to wine tasting via the blind tasting model where the aim is to identify the origin of the wine and give an indication of quality level largely by judging a wine’s typicity. For this task, those analytical tasting notes suffice. But there is more to wine tasting than identifying origins.

Furthermore, I think there is a widely-held assumption that by sticking to analytically determined elements, wine tasting will be more objective. As Burham and Skilleas point out, aesthetic properties are emergent properties and “their use is not entailed by the application of objective criteria.”

By “objective criteria” Burnham and Skilleas mean descriptive properties of a wine or a group of wines that would Invariably constitute elegance, profundity, or vividness. There are no such criteria. No listing of flavors, aromas, or textures (let alone a listing of the chemical compounds in the wine that produce these aromas and flavors) will  invariably explain the presence of profundity or vividness and no spectrographic analysis will detect elegance. Aesthetic properties can be detected only by human perceivers with their differing perspectives and experiences.

It’s fear of subjectivity that limits wine tasting to boring fruit descriptors.

Wine Review: Jolie-Laide Trousseau Blend California 2019

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jolie laideThis is one of the more unique wines I’ve tasted this year. It’s an unusual blend of Alpine grapes—Trousseau, Poulsard, Gamay plus a bit of Valdiguie, all of which are hard to find in the U.S. The first impression is of that juicy, bright so called “glou-glou” quality that natural wines aspire to, but there is a lot of complexity here once you start nosing around, and the bristly, yet tightly woven texture takes this out of the easy-drinking, party wine category. This is serious juice.

Bright red pomegranate and red apple notes are slathered in cinnamon, then topped with a layer of quarry dust. It pulsates with kinetic energy—a juicy yet diaphanous attack, succumbs to the big squeeze with layers of expansive minerality and taut tannins compressing the fruit while the volume swells before launching several stages of tart on the stone and orange peel-infused finish. It has good length and a body that shows a bit of weight here a bit of weightlessness there—a lively froth of great energies run amok.

Fun and freewheeling in an atmospheric way but also brash and resolute with a sarcastic edge. Pair with the Nigerian dancehall sensation Burna Boy’s “Anybody”.

Score: 93

Price: $34 (Purchase Here)

Alc: 12.3%

Near Term Prospects for the Wine Industry

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grapesAfter assessing the accuracy of some prominent headlines regarding  Covid 19 and the wine industry, wine data guru David Morrison digs into the findings of the recently published report from Wine Intelligence on the prospects for the wine industry going forward.

As widely reported, the good news is that wine sales are up compared to pre-pandemic levels. (So are beer sales I might add).

But the bad news, according to the surveys conducted by Wine Intelligence, are that social drinking occasions are not going to reappear soon. When asked what they are more likely to do once pandemic restrictions are lifted, roughly 40% of  the sample of regular wine drinkers report they are less likely to go to a bar, party, or restaurant, or host a party at home compared to their pre-pandemic activity.

And the worse news is that most wine drinkers report that increasing savings is their main priority going forward. That is money that will not find its way into winery coffers. (Visit David’s site for the graphs)

The increase in sales suggests that people will not stop drinking wine. But the shrinking interest in social occasions and the desire to save suggests they won’t be splurging on expensive bottles. Now is probably not a good time for wineries to be thinking about raising prices.

It will be interesting to see if wine quality can be maintained at lower price points. And how long will Napa Cabernet growers continue to get $8000 per ton for their Cabernet Sauvignon?

Rival Beauties

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rival beautiesWhen we communicate about wine, what message is being transmitted?

Beauty has long been associated with those moments in life that cannot easily be spoken about—what is often called the ineffable. When astonished or transfixed by nature, a work or art, or a bottle of wine, words even finely voiced seem inadequate.

Are words destined to fail? Can we not share anything of the experience of beauty?

On the one hand the experience of beauty is private; it is after all my experience not someone else’s. But we also seem to have a great need to share our experiences. Words fail but that doesn’t get us to shut up.

Some shared responses to beauty seem possible raising our hopes that communication is not hopeless. Most everyone agrees the Mona Lisa is beautiful (if you can actually get close enough to enjoy the diminutive painting amidst the hordes at the Louvre). Most everyone agrees that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti makes lovely wine if you can afford a taste.

But disagreements are just as common. As Alexander Nehamas argues, beauty forms communities of like-minded lovers who share an affection for certain works of art (or wine) and who do find it possible to communicate their obsession. Something escapes the dark tunnels of subjectivity to survive in a clearing where others mingle. But in the process this excludes people who don’t get it. We are often bored to tears by something that fascinates others. Across that barrier words may well fail.

Beauty forms communities of rivals. The contretemps between conventional and natural wine is the latest to divide the wine world. May it not be the last.

Wine Tasting and Book Learning

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book learningIn the wine world there are hundreds of grape varieties used to make wine, thousands of wine regions and sub regions each providing a slightly different expression of those grape varieties, and countless methods, styles, techniques, and supporting materials also influencing what we taste in the glass.

In order to enjoy wine you don’t have to know any of that. But in order to get the most out of your wine experiences you have to know some of it, at least enough to begin to conceptualize the variations available to be tasted and set normative expectations.

The only way to learn this material is through books, podcasts, live instructors, or other cognitive aids. Sure you can taste these variations but our powers of  sensory discrimination and memory are just not up to the task of organizing and retaining the patterns of what we taste without the conceptual framework that book learning provides. You can’t note an interesting variation if you don’t know from what it is a variant. Yes, you can build this knowledge up from experience if you pay close attention, take lots of notes, and study them. But that takes decades. Of course, all that learning will not mean anything without relating it to the actual experience of the wines.

There is little evidence that expert wine tasters have greater physiological capacities to taste than non-experts or novices. What they have is book learning and experience.

What about aesthetic experience? Can wine drinkers who lack book learning have aesthetic experiences of wine? Burnham and Skilleas in their book The Aesthetics of Wine argue that the aesthetic properties of wine are unavailable to novices.

I disagree. Aesthetic experience is a matter of having a certain kind of attention—focused on the aesthetic object but searching for the widest range of properties the object can exhibit. One can approach a wine with the proper attentive attitude of wonder and fascination and thus have an aesthetic experience even if you know little of what you’re tasting. But you will miss much of what the wine has to offer because you don’t know what to look for. Novices have aesthetic experiences but they are limited to a narrow range of what a wine makes available.

In this regard, wine is like any other aesthetic object. You can enjoy a symphony by Beethoven or a song by The National without knowing anything about musical styles. But without knowledge of compositional tendencies or performance norms of the traditions in which musical artists work much of the significance of a work will pass you by.

And wine poses an additional challenge. Unlike sounds, lines, shapes and colors which are easily accessible to the senses, just there for us to see or hear, flavors and textures are much less discernible, hiding behind sensitive detection thresholds that need cognitive penetration to experience.

Wine education is essential to the health of the wine community.

Wine Review: Maison Chandesais “Coeur Rubis” Pinot Noir Bourgogne 2016

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maison chandesaisA taste of Burgundy is worth $12 even if it’s thin and watery, especially when its naked frailty shows a vigorous pulse.

Everyone wants the iron fist in a velvet glove that made Burgundy famous, but you will pay dearly for it. For Pinot fans the affordable alternative is too often the sweetish, plump, easy drinking, domestic supermarket brands that always seem to turn sour on their short finish because there are no tannins to balance the acidity. If that’s not appealing give inexpensive Burgundy a try.

With cheap Burgundian Pinots you won’t get sweet or plump. The fruit will barely register. But if you’re willing to forego soft and smooth there is a world of texture and kinetics to be discovered.

This wine is full of life. The palate opens with, well, nothing at first. But a fleeting glimpse of cranberry, cola and fresh spring water appears at midpalate before the wine rushes avidly into the upper register with a sharp quick expansion of minerality and relentless acidity anchored by sandy tannins. The result is a long finish with a mineral cap, tannic bass notes and nothing in between, the texture of polyphony. These thrusting rhythms are thrilling, even when the wine lacks the traditional markers of quality

The pretty cranberry, rose, and jalapeno notes on the nose give relief.

A waif of a wine, cute and plucky but with a tense, hostile streak best paired with Sleater Kinney’s All Hans on the Bad One.

Score: 88

Price: $12 (Buy Here)

Alc: 12.5%

The Challenge of Hybrid Grape Varietals

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marquette grapesThis article by Jamie Goode on the need for the wine community to embrace hybrid grape varietals raises an important set of issues. Most of the wines we drink are made from the grape species Vitis vinifera. But these varietals cannot survive cold winter temperatures and they are subject to a variety of diseases such as downy mildew and powdery mildew which require heavy applications of fungicides. As Jamie points out, these fungicides are not sustainable.  Copper sulfate is especially harmful to the long-term health of the soil.

One solution is to grow hybrid grape varieties made by crossing of European Vitis vinifera vines, American Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia grapes. These hybrids not only survive cold winters but are resistant to mildew, requiring significantly fewer applications of chemicals throughout the growing season. Most Californians have never tasted these hybrids and they have been banned from many European appellations because they were deemed inferior to vinifera. Yet they are common throughout the Midwest and East Coast.

The challenge is taste. For those of us accustomed to the flavors and structure of vinifera varieties, these hybrids taste odd to say the least. I’ve tasted my share of Marquette, Norton, Frontenac, Chambourcin, Traminette, La Crescent and many others. Some were quite good; others quite dreadful. As with all winemaking its a matter of matching varietal, location and wine making technique. As everyday drinking wines most have potential (although I think Frontenac Red has a future only as a port-style wine). Can these wines reach the heights of the very best vinifera? Will we see a 100 point Marquette in the the near future? It’s hard to say in part because it’s a matter of adjusting our taste sensibilities to include flavors that don’t quite fit our conventional categories.

The challenge then is not all on the grape growers, viticulturalists, and winemakers. It’s on those of us who taste seriously as well. We at least need to be open-minded about hybrids and adjust our concepts of what wines should taste like. Tasting the new is always a challenge but it is how we make progress.

As Jamie concludes:

“It may take some time for the wine world to open its mind to resistant varieties, but the current situation isn’t sustainable. Our longtime addiction to Vitis vinifera grapes — used in the vast majority of today’s wines — with its attendant spray regimes, is simply no longer justifiable. It’s time to recognize the progress made by the grape breeders, and to get behind these new resistant varieties.”

Thinking Differently about Objectivity

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wine criticismJudgements about wine quality and which features are exhibited by individual wines  are unavoidable in the wine community. Everyone from sommeliers to critics to marketing departments to winemakers communicate about the properties of wine, distinguish good wine from bad, and believe that distinction matters. However, we are uncertain about what vocabulary to use when discussing wine quality.

Some insist that wine quality is subjective which means that judgments about wine quality and the properties that constitute it have validity only for the person making the judgment. But if that is true there are no standards of correctness when describing a wine and no meaningful concept of wine quality that could be communicated to others. Thus, the language of subjectivism cannot explain the aforementioned assumption that there is such a thing as wine quality and that when we communicate wine descriptions we are communicating something real. It also can’t explain how some people pass rigorous wine tasting exams or why there is broad agreement among professionals that Bordeaux Premier Crus is of higher quality than Barefoot.

Others insist that wine quality is objective. Properties attributed to wine are in some sense “in the wine” and correct judgments about a wine have validity for anyone properly trained to discern its features. But objectivism cannot explain why there is vast disagreement among experts about wine quality and why experts assign incompatible, contradictory properties to a wine. For the objectivist, when two qualified tasters disagree about a wine, one of them must be wrong. But in most cases of such disagreement among demonstrably competent tasters, it is implausible to think someone is making a mistake.

A third option is that wine quality is intersubjective. Properties attributed to a wine, including quality level, are a product of the agreements experts have forged throughout the long history of wine tasting and the on-going conversation about wine in the wine community. The result of that long conversation is a set of widely accepted conventions and shared standards of judgment. Thus, there are widely held agreements about what, for instance, Brunello should taste like or what properties a properly made Syrah should exhibit. Judgements about wine quality are valid for people within that community.

The problem with intersubjectivity is that people in the wine community disagree vehemently, not only about which wines meet those standards of quality, but about the standards of quality themselves. Disagreements between fans of top-shelf Napa Cabs and connoisseurs of natural wines are fundamental disagreements about aesthetic values. There is no shared set of standards that govern the wine community as a whole. Thus, the notion of intersubjectivity can explain agreement only among separate tribes of wine tasters and is utterly incapable of explaining why people with demonstrated competence within their tribe would disagree. Furthermore, to the extent intersubjectivity relies on traditional quality standards and conventions, it leaves us with no account of how we are to judge wines that fall outside conventional categories.

Is there an alternative way of understanding standards of judgement? I think there is but it will require we give up two harmful assumptions.

(1) We need to lose the idea that agreement among wine tasters is desirable. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about agreement. Given the fact that people differ with regard to their capacity to detect flavor and aroma compounds in wine, we should want professionals with a variety of different palates from as many perspectives as possible. Disagreements are more likely to give us a more comprehensive understanding of a particular wine. A wine will affect different people differently even when they share basic competencies. We should welcome that.

And (2) We should lose the idea that agreement is a sign of objectivity. The sign of objectivity is an object that is just beyond our understanding, that our concepts can’t quite capture. The sign of objectivity is a commitment to be true to the wine, to be equal to the test that each wine poses. Norms and conventions guide us when we are learning to taste. But as tasters our obligation is not to those norms; it is to the wine itself. A great wine sets its own standards. It is up to us to discover them. A judgment has validity only in light of that struggle.

Wine: Tragic Beauty Worthy of Shakespeare

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shakespeare and wineLast week I wrote that part of the beauty of wine lies in its ephemera and its connection to change and mortality. The fleeting, inconstant aromas, the speed at which its beauty fades after the wine is open, the need to share it before it’s gone all contribute to wine as an aesthetic object.

But it is though a wine’s aging process where the poignancy of fading beauty acquires exquisite intensity in its connection to mortality

The process wine undergoes as it ages is in some respects like the aging of a living organism. As we age, life becomes a struggle to invent sub-optimal norms of health and vitality, a defensive struggle to maintain integrity in the face of sickness, injury, and decline which requires experimentation, trial-and-error and an openness to an unknown future. Aging organisms extract elements from the environment modifying them as needed, but always with the knowledge that a return to health will be partial, incomplete, and will ultimately fail. The purpose of life is to keep going and is fraught with wandering irresolution and contingent environmental exchange with the outcome always in doubt.

Wine too invents sub-optimal norms. All wine as it begins to age in the bottle loses some of its original flavor components. It will never taste young and fresh again and as the years go by, its original flavor becomes more distant, never to be tasted again as each bottle takes on its own character and develops in unpredictable ways.

As the wine suffers diminishment from the gradual exposure to oxygen, the sub-optimal norm each wine settles on is a matter of negotiation with the environment. The winemaker is a physician not by healing the sick but by encouraging the modification of the internal structure of a wine so it will persist and reveal the effects of its normative diminishment. The intimation of that inner strength, diminishing but still expressive, resistance at a different normative level is aesthetically appealing. The fading of strength and power introduces new perspectives, a weakening that reveals nuance and finesse but also a sense of the beauty of vulnerability, of time passing inexorably and without recovery. The aesthetic appeal of this vulnerability to time is of course not limited to wine. We feel something similar as autumn brings summer to a close. The Japanese tradition of wabi sabi has made imperfection and vulnerability to time an aesthetic touchstone.

Unlike life, however, wine has a determinate purpose, to provide an aesthetic experience. But how it gets there is as wandering and indeterminate as life is. And, of course, both wine and life will ultimately fail in the invention of sub-optimal norms.

It is common practice among wine lovers to purchase a wine showing the vintage of a child’s birth year—a commemoration of a singular event. Indeed, an aged wine does reveal something about the year the grapes were grown—weather conditions and wine making style contribute to the flavor of the final product. But 10, 20 or 30 years later when a wine is opened, what is alluded to is really a process of development and decay. It is time passing that is revealed, not a singular moment in the past. Drinking aged wines is not about nostalgia for a past moment but an appreciation of lost time, a celebration of decline, for what is revealed is the result of oxygen, the polymerization of anthocyanins, aroma esters collapsing and reforming, color molecules becoming sediment, the cumulative result of these changes becoming an individual no longer firmly linked to its origins.

However, we experience none of that. A bottle from a past vintage alludes to the utter recalcitrance of the past, a past never-to-be-retrieved. Wine is a metaphor for what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the immemorial, not just what is forgotten, but what has never been remembered, time irretrievably lost and available only as a sensation of flavor and texture. For we have no idea what happened in that bottle over the intervening years. It sat mutely in the cellar for decades never revealing its narrative, locked away in glass, giving away almost nothing to our awareness. Only when it is opened does it reveal itself as flavor and texture, but never as memory.

Unlike family heirlooms and other treasured objects that we can pass down through generations, all wine is destined to be utterly and completely lost. Once the bottles are consumed or stored so long they turn to vinegar, nothing remains of that unique and singular work.

That is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare