Wine, Art, and the Value of Dirt and Sky


This has been a very active week for the philosophy of wine in the blogosphere. This paper by philosopher Barry Smith discussing the objectivity of wine flavors is interesting. I will comment on that when I get a chance.

But I was especially appreciative of Frederic Koeppel’s engaging and thoughtful post contemplating various definitions of wine.

It gives me a frisson when I see terms borrowed from philosophy in a discussion of wine–terms such as “objective correlative”, “aspirational signifier” and “paradigm”. These terms are themselves aspirational signifiers indicating that wine is more than a commercial product that tastes good and gets you drunk.

More importantly, Koeppel’s post brings out the symbolic dimension of wine, a dimension that is crucial to the idea that winemaking is an art.

That is, wine, especially at its greatest, is the perfect vehicle to fulfill the highest level of a grape’s possible achievement. In this perception, wine conveys a sense of inevitability that other beverages or agricultural products rarely contrive. One does not drink beer, for example, even in its best or most powerful manifestations, and think, “Ah, yes, this is the apotheosis of cereal grains.” The grape, however, is never far from one’s thoughts….

Striving for an aesthetic ideal and using material—paint, musical notes, or grapes—to symbolically refer to that ideal is surely one characteristic of art.

But Koeppel goes on to point to another symbolic dimension of wine:

A glass of wine, perhaps the one you’re holding in your hand now, serves — let me say should serve — as an emblem of a piece of earth, a stretch of vineyard, a swath of sky, a defined region where its grapes were nurtured and harvested. That sentence summarizes the notion of terroir, the French idea that wine is influenced by and reflects the nature of the vineyard where the grapes were grown.

Koeppel is right, as I have been arguing in the newsletter. The subject matter of a wine understood as an art object—what it refers to, what it is about—is a particular winemaking tradition that often depends on a terroir for its intelligibility. Winemakers are symbolically referring to traditions even when actively opposing the practices of the tradition in which they work.

There is, however, a tension between these two aspects of wine discussed by Koeppel. As an aside, he writes:

(A few winemakers in California try to assert that terroir includes whatever processes occur in the winery as well as the agency of the winemaker him- or herself. Any thoughtful person will see that this caprice is nonsense; too often the winemaker interferes with a wine and negates the effect of terroir.)

Perhaps, but it may be that winemakers, with their blending genius and winery wizardry, may “fullfill the highest level of a grape’s possible achievement” even while rendering obscure the residue of terroir in the glass.

Arguably, the first-growth wines of Bordeaux. which are generally acknowledged to be the best, are not terroir-driven. They are blends of more than one grape variety from various vineyards that are often not contiguous and may not share the same characteristics of terroir, especially after undergoing filtration, fining, and aging in oak. The result is not a pure expression of a vineyard, but a product of a winemaker’s vision of what those grapes can be.

Does that abort the artistic impulse? Are lovers of highly sculpted “winemaker wines” soulless philistines robbing wine of its real meaning?

I’m not convinced. It smacks a bit of the public’s initial negative reaction to abstract art, as if wines could only be what they were in the past.

I suppose, in the end, wine lovers will settle the issue.

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