Why is Wine Extraordinary?

old bottlesIt is not just a beverage but a revelation, almost a spiritual experience for some people. For others, wine is a subject that commands years of deep and sustained attention. Why?

David White asks a variety of sommeliers for their answers:

A “great wine,” Madrigale contended, “offers an honest reflection of where it came from…

“Wine is not just a beverage,” he said. “It’s a story.” …

Consider older wines. They’re a connection to the past and each bottle has a story to tell. I’ll never forget the evening a friend shared a 1961 Château Ausone.

The estate is one of Bordeaux’s most celebrated, and 1961 was a legendary vintage. The wine was stunning—still fresh and vibrant—but that was almost beside the point. In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated and France was still at war with Algeria. So while tasting the wine, much of my focus was on those who made it and the world they inhabited.

But there is something missing in this explanation.

It is true that wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and, of course, the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine.

But many things have origins and a story. Yet they don’t fascinate the way wine does. Anything from the past—a book, a dish, an old toy—has an origin and often its story is written in the margins or in the tarnished finish. But these objects don’t necessarily stimulate the imagination. An ordinary book written in 1961 is just a book. In the absence of some personal connection you might have to it, its origin and story are not a matter of significance.

Why then should an Ausone made in 1961 be so captivating?

Some wines stimulate the imagination because in addition to having an origin and a story they are  beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it.

Contrary to what White claims, the fact that the “61” Ausone  was stunning is not beside the point; its beauty is what turns the mind toward the story, induces in us that curiosity and exploratory impulse that feeds passion.

Stories are inert, just dead facts, unless they somehow stimulate the imagination and beauty is one effective stimulus.

Some wines are so articulate at telling stories because their complexity and depth make the story worth telling. Had the Ausone been oxidized I doubt its story would have been at all interesting.

It has become a cliché to extoll the story-telling capacity of wine. But we should not forget that, in the end, it is about flavor.


  1. Dwight, I don’t disagree with your well made points about the beauty of a sip of wine.  If there were no pleasure, the mind would not turn to the story.

    This is a common justification for the persistence of wine in culture, and a claim for its value.  But there is an unspoken quality to wine that is never addressed directly: alcohol. The brain loves alcohol.  Clinicians know why for the most part, but wine lovers mistake their sincerity for entirely free choice. It does make us feel good and gives added life to food.  But we also crave it, and too few wine writers every acknowledge that.  Many cultures regard it as “groceries” and essential, whether they acknowledge its chemical properties or not.  Of course you could say the same about prunes.

    It is indeed hard to separate our emotions from the biological experience, but it is important not to lose sight of how our bodies respond to wine and alcohol.  If there were no alcohol in wine, it would not achieve complexity, age-worthiness and dynamic evolution.  Of course we seek out the aesthetic experience, but there are biological reasons a daily wine drinker or even a weekend wine drinker seeks out a glass. It fulfills a need, a physical need.

    Notice I have not called it a drug, but wine contains a very bio- and psycho-active drug.  I enjoy wine with a diverse set of people, some high rollers, mostly upper middle-class and a few working people for all of whom wine is a passion.  The story behind a wine can be a source of pleasure for them, but as glasses drain and voices rise, the wine talk diminishes, the garrulousness and rowdiness increase, and the wine stories diminish in importance.

    People find their own connection to wine.  For the non-addicted, it is sociability connected to the aesthetic and physical experience that is why it is enjoyed with others, and less so alone.  It loosens people up and allows them to enjoy themselves and others.  I suggest that is a more primary reason than the story and even the flavor.  

    You are right to suggest that without the flavor, the story is irrelevant. But beyond the taste and physical responses to wine are the desirable consequences of becoming what you perceive to be your better self that is connected to wine.  Not insignificant, but not possible without alcohol. It is much like Pavlov’s dog…and association that becomes a cause.  People seek self-identity and peace among peers, and for many who can tolerate it responsibly, alcohol is the driver and sociability is the consequence.  It makes you feel good when you are alone, and hopefully even better with others.

    We are fortunate that such a powerful drug can be so benign and even beneficial in the absence of abuse.  There is so much hype and puffery about wine, I am glad you pulled back some of the layers to get at the essentials, and I hope you feel that I have done the same.  But it would fun to share a glass and see if you find me a total fool. Proves my point.


    Jim Ruxin Village Wine of Brentwood Representing Fine Cellars +01 310-471-7372 office +01 310-617-7372 mobile

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    >________________________________ > From: Edible Arts >To: jimruxin@yahoo.com >Sent: Thursday, March 20, 2014 8:39 AM >Subject: [New post] Why is Wine Extraordinary? > > > > WordPress.com >Dwight Furrow posted: “It is not just a beverage but a revelation, almost a spiritual experience for some people. For others, wine is a subject that commands years of deep and sustained attention. Why? David White asks a variety of sommeliers for their answers: A “great win” >

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that alcohol is part of the attraction. But it is not just the alcohol alone. After all there are cheaper and less complex delivery systems for alcohol.
      For casual drinkers, the sociability enhanced by the alcohol is probably the main attraction. But the fact that the flavors are complex and sophisticated and the stories often interesting and inspiring creates a context that frames the social aspects of drinking. Wine culture is interesting because there is more going on that just alcohol consumption.
      It is interesting that, as you point out, the more people consume the less the flavor and stories matter. Being drunk is being drunk regardless of the source. But the fact that many of the dimensions of wine cannot be enjoyed once too much alcohol is consumed tends to put a lid on alcohol consumption. Wine culture tends to be less rowdy than other drinking cultures at least in my experience.

      And for those of us who are passionate about wine, the effects of the alcohol are even less important–it’s too often a distraction. On the other hand, a modest amount of alcohol does stimulate the imagination and I think you are right it contributes to the perception of beauty.

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