Is What’s in the Glass All That Matters?

glass of wineI often hear it said that despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, drinking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If the wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And of course the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.

For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude that “only what’s in the glass matters”  is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, I think there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what’s in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it’s not all that matters and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.

Burnham and Skilleås in their book The Aesthetics of Wine engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point) but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.

Imagine 3D animations of a wine’s development over time tracing in precise detail all the chemical reactions a wine undergoes from fermentation through aging to popping the cork that can generate a recipe for all those stages. Thus, in this imagined scenario,  wine factories can synthetically  produce an exact duplicate of any wine you want. All wines at all stages in their development can be manufactured and sold at a modest price. That 2005 Lafite that sells for thousands of dollars per bottle, you can order it as it tasted in 2025 for about $30. The special bottle of La Tâche purchased at your daughter’s birth and opened for her graduation—no problem, just order another. The vagaries of farming, vintage variation, wine faults and supply limitations now all a part of the misty, dimly remembered past.

And let’s imagine these synthetic wines have been put through rigorous taste tests and it is demonstrated conclusively that there is no discernable difference between the synthetic wines and the originals.

Is that a wine world you want to live in?

I suspect that some people would say sure. If what matters is only what is in the glass then nothing would be lost in the 2030 scenario and much would be gained. There are benefits to a world in which even people with modest incomes can drink great wine.

But I suspect that many of us would demur. I know I would. We know that people value originals and that art works discovered to be forgeries lose all value. We are inherently fascinated by origins as psychologist Paul Bloom has shown. Isn’t part of what we enjoy about wine its connection to a place, the unique conditions of  its production, and the creativity, initiative, and risk-taking of the people who made it?

The fact that wine is a collaboration between humanity and nature is part of its appeal. So is the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what you will get when you open the bottle. As Burnham and Skilleås write:

Having to expect the unexpected may not only be a fact of life in the wine world of today but also something that creates a welcome frisson in the wine lover.

So too does the sense of regret knowing that for special bottles you will never have that experience again. The maturing and decline of a bottle and the fact that all the bottles of a cuvée will eventually disappear symbolizes much about the human condition. These symbolic connections are all severed in the 2030 scenario.

Would these losses be worth the opportunity to drink a 2005 Lafite whenever we want? Would we even appreciate such a wine when perfection becomes the norm?

More deeply it’s worth asking whether human ingenuity could create the remarkable yet subtle differences that the collaboration between culture, geography and nature create?

If these considerations carry any weight for you, then your appreciation of wine goes far beyond “what’s in the glass’’.

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