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no rulesBlake Gray committed a sin against beauty on his blog yesterday.

A winery sent him a press notice about the release of a wine made from a nearly extinct varietal, a form of communication which he usually ignores. However, because it was a rare wine that he might otherwise be interested in tasting he responded as follows:

Interesting but I’m not sure why they would pick it so ripe (16% alcohol!) that you won’t be able to taste the difference between this and Merlot.

Sorry, you probably didn’t want that feedback.

Gray then goes on to explain:

The next step normally would be to taste the wine and talk about it but to be honest, I’m not interested in tasting this wine. I don’t have a hard cutoff for alcohol percentage in a table wine, but 16% is well above what I want to drink and what I want to recommend. If I taste it, and it’s delicious — super smooth, interesting, complex, my Saint-Macaire dream come true — I still would never order a bottle of it, because I couldn’t finish a glass. So should I recommend a wine like that, that I would not drink myself?

The problem is not with his preference for lower alcohol wines, a preference I share. The problem is you can’t know what a wine tastes like without tasting it, just as you can’t know what a painting or piece of music is like with the experience. Aesthetics is a domain without rules because each work is a unique individual, a law unto itself. Each element in an aesthetic object is so sensitive to context that even very similar works affect us in vastly different ways. There are no aesthetic principles that allow one to deduce that a work is of high quality; even a thick description of a work will not tell you if you will enjoy it or not.  You have to have the experience.

I’ve had wines with 16% alcohol that were crisp and refreshing and wines at 13% alcohol that were flabby and dull. The alcohol percentage is just a number and an often inaccurate, unreliable number as well. (The law allows a 1% variance in wines over 14%.)

Just as there is no recipe for producing quality wine, there is no rule book for what one will like or whether varietal character will be evident. At best, we can make educated guesses about such matters, and it’s that element of surprise that makes wine (and paintings and music) thrilling.

Of course ,if Blake doesn’t like a wine he ought not to recommend it. But he can’t know if he likes it until he tastes it, not because he doesn’t know his own preferences but because its in the very nature of aesthetic experience that cases cannot be generalized.

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