Wine Aesthetics and Commerce: An Uneasy Blend

wine and dollar billWine is an aesthetic object as worthy of our sustained attention as works of art or the wonders of nature. Yet wine aesthetics occupies a precarious position since wines’ charms also play well as an alcohol delivery system and a commodity beverage, which detracts from aesthetic appreciation.

As an aesthetic object the appreciation of wine depends on the practices of formal wine tasting. The swirling, sniffing, swishing, choice of glass, tasting standards, and tasting notes, etc. are designed to make the aesthetic properties of wine accessible to us. But these wine tasting practices are performed at public tastings, competitions, winery tasting rooms, as well as by wine media organizations, in contexts deeply influenced by the commercial aspects of the wine trade. Reviews are written to inform consumers, wine tastings aim at selling wine, awards at competitions are primarily used for marketing —it’s only at private affairs among wine lovers that aesthetics are unencumbered by commercial interests.

The limits of these wine tasting practices get some discussion in the wine media including debates about the meaning and appropriateness of scores, the relevance of endless fruit descriptors, the prevalence of disagreements among critics, etc. But the main problem with our wine tasting practices is that they seldom take into consideration the fact that wine changes in the glass and in the bottle. Most quality wines don’t show their true aesthetic value until many years after they are released. Yet, except in rare cases where investment decisions must be made, aged wines are seldom evaluated and are written about only occasionally. Even at winery tasting rooms, it’s an exception when older, more fully developed wines are offered as part of the tasting menu.

Furthermore, most published wine reviews and awards are based on very limited contact with the wine. Typically, a wine is evaluated in a group with many other wines that share some feature such as varietal or region, and critics give at best just a few moments attention to each one. This is especially true of large wine competitions where judges may taste over 100 wines in a day. The problem is that wines change in the glass as they are mixed with oxygen and volatile aromas are released. To get the full measure of a wine it must be tasted over several minutes if not hours. Some wines are closed (i.e. lacking in aromatic intensity) and may have rough textures unless decanted and allowed time to develop in the glass. The fact that wine changes in the glass is an essential part of the aesthetics of wine yet our wine tasting practices seldom take that into account. (This is why I review wines one at a time and spend at least an evening with each one.)

Thankfully, wine lovers in their private venues are able to take account of the full aesthetic merit of wine. But it is odd and a bit disturbing that public discourse about wine only occasionally focuses on these changeable features of wine that are among wine’s most important aesthetic features.

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