Vulgar Wines (or can excess be beautiful?)

from Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

Edible Arts is on a brief hiatus. Please enjoy this post from June 2012.

Fredric Koeppel’s recent post “Wine and Vulgarity”was interesting and thought provoking—an example of the best sort of wine writing. But I have some worries about his conclusion.Koeppel argues that “vulgar” is a term appropriately applied to certain wines just as certain artistic performances of dance, TV shows, architecture, film, and literature can be vulgar.

I wholeheartedly agree with his judgment that both art and wines can be vulgar. But the lack of a clear definition of vulgarity leads him  astray, especially when applied to wine. He defines “vulgarity” (or crassness) via a description of a failed ballet performance:

In what manner could a dancer’s movements be crass, since ballet we think of as the epitome of elegance and grace? By being overstated or emphatic or by being extended beyond the logical necessity of the physical or narrative arc; by calling attention to themselves at the expense of the entire range of motion and delivery; by sentimentalizing or sensationalizing the aura of the dance through slickness and complacency and ego.

Overstatement, excess, self-promotion, sentimentality and sensationalism are indeed typical signs of vulgarity. And he judges “Jersey Shores”, the Kardashians, and “violent and witless comic book and super-hero films” to be further examples that would exhibit all of these traits.

So far unproblematic.

But how can a wine be vulgar?

Yes, wine can also be vulgar, by which I mean a wine whose treatment sensationalizes a grape’s aspects instead of allowing them a natural and authentic expression; a wine whose inherent character is obliterated by the ego of its winemaker and manipulator; a wine whose making bends it out of proportion to its — to borrow from the first paragraph — logical necessity, range and delivery.

A zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz wine whose super-ripe grapes and high alcohol content, say, 15.5 or 16 percent, manifest themselves as cloying, jammy sweetness and a hot, unbalanced finish — to which we could add bouquet-and-flavor trashing toasty new oak — is decidedly an example of vulgarity. A chardonnay, pumped up like a be-drugged athlete with barrel fermentation, aging in high-toast barrels and malolactic fermentation so that it turns out tasting like pineapple custard, roasted marshmallows, guava cream and marzipan — quoting the approving descriptions in a well-known wine publication — is another example of the vulgarization of an unsuspecting grape that can’t fight back.

Here I think Koeppel’s analysis goes awry. He is expressing an aversion to a certain style of winemaking in which very ripe fruit is subjected to a good deal of manipulation in the winery. Granted, sometimes ripeness can be excessive and winemaking techniques can produce disjointed, one-dimensional wines that lack finesse and have nothing to delight or fascinate.

But there are many high-alcohol reds or high-toast chardonnays that are thrilling. (Some of Paso’s Rhone Rangers such as L’Aventure are among my current favorites). I doubt that a Turley Zinfandel is properly described as vulgar despite the use of very ripe fruit.

Herein lies the problem with Koeppel’s “definition by example”. He is confusing vulgarity with exaggeration and bombast. He goes on to write:

Give me, then, a wine that’s spare and elegant and lithe; a wine whose well-considered time in oak, if it even needs such treatment, provides support and suppleness and shades of nuance…

But elegance and nuance (and related descriptors), although one sort of aesthetic criterion, hardly exhaust the full range of aesthetic values for artists, and we need not impose such a narrow range on winemakers either.

Artists have often used exaggeration and excess to give meaning to their work. Compared to Mozart, Beethoven seems bombastic; the dazzling color displays of Matisse or the symbolic exorbitance of Bosch or Dali seem overdone compared to Monet, but the excess is in service to a larger vision of their art. The Beatles and Stones seem boorish, loud, and aggressive compared to the sophisticated stylings of Duke Ellington but their works are no less worthy because of the excess. The sentimentality of Springsteen or the sensationalism of Lady Gaga are inherent in their artistic voices.

We should give the same leeway to winemakers to sometimes get in your face.

Tom Wark at Fermentations casts an admiring but critical glance at Koeppel’s analysis, accusing Koeppel of providing a very articulate defense of mere personal preference. But it seems to me that is not the issue. Most experienced critics, of art as well as wine, find the claim “it’s good but I don’t like it” to be perfectly intelligible. There are standards for judging art and wine and it is possible to judge whether those standards are met, at least up to a point, independently of personal preference. (Such judgments are not easy; they require knowledge and discipline). (Koeppel joins the comments section on Wark’s post. They are worth reading)

The problem is that Koeppel gives us symptoms of vulgarity but not a definition of it, so he misses the cases in which overstatement, excess, sentimentality and sensationalism enhance aesthetic merit rather than detract from it.

About vulgarity, G.K. Chesterton wrote “it is not excessive ugliness, it is not excessive anarchy. It might be stated thus: It is standardization by a low standard.” (From Culture and the Coming Peril, 1930)

And the 19th Century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined vulgarity as “will minus intellect”.

Neither is quite adequate as a definition but both articulate an important dimension of vulgarity. Excess, overstatement, and distortion are vulgar only when they are thoughtlessly deployed in way that institutionalizes a low standard–when they no longer have aesthetic meaning.

The highly extracted, ripely fruited, modern new world wines were anything but thoughtlessly deployed mediocrities. They were the product of new technologies consciously deployed to shake up the complacent, old-world wine world content to produce their “dirt and acid.” Today, these new world wines might be accused of score-chasing, or trying to please an international consumer ignorant of the subtleties of terroir. If they were to crowd out the more restrained style Koeppel praises, and were no longer in pursuit of excellence (of the kind peculiar to this style of wine-making) then they would indeed be vulgar.

But I see no evidence of that. It seems to me diversity and commitment to excellence reign as well they should in any healthy artistic tradition. The style of winemaking Koeppel condemns is a distinctive style that shows many dimensions of what can be done with grapes, just as Matisse explored what can be done with color. Like Koeppel, I sometimes find it tiring and limiting, but when done well it can be stunning.

In the end, we have to judge wines as individuals and respect the fact that pushing at boundaries is inherent in art, and thankfully winemaking as well.


  1. Dwight…. I thank you for an articulate, well-reasoned and authoritative response to my post on “Wine and Vulgarity.” From your reaction and the reactions of some commentators on Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog it seems that I have opened an issue that’s “ripe” — if not over-ripe — for argument and assertion. I assure you that I didn’t mean to condemn all highly ripe, high alcohol wines; I think that tasters with experience in wines from California can tell the difference between such wines that do happen to be balanced and those that fall beyond the pale. As for a definition of vulgarity, I perhaps erred in assuming that my perspective would be covered by example rather than by explicit description, but if I revisit this topic (and it will probably be necessary) I’ll try to be more specific. If you’re in Portland in August for the wine bloggers conference, please say hello. I decided to be collegial this year.

    1. Thank you for the comment Fredric, and thanks again for the article on vulgarity and wine. I probably will not make it to Portland this year. But I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on wine. I enjoy your reviews.

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