Can Wine Express Melancholy?

Picasso’s Melancholy Woman

In my conversation with Tyler Thomas, winemaker for Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, part of which I posted last week, he said that he didn’t think winemaking was an art because wine is incapable of expressing emotions such as melancholy.

The purpose of wine is to bring pleasure. It’s not art because it’s limited in expression. It’s not supposed to express melancholy. It’s about pleasure and about the property. If you don’t like the wine you won’t ask where it came from.

At the time I didn’t raise objections to his comment since I was more interested in discovering his views on a variety of other issues. But I found the comment curious because, it seems to me, melancholy is one of the more salient emotions expressed by some wines—in particular aged wines that show considerable development but still have some vitality to them. So I want to explore this question of how such wines can express melancholy.

Melancholy is a peculiar and complex emotion. Although often associated with sadness and depression, melancholy is a distinct emotion and mood. it lacks the resignation of depression and is reflective and contemplative, unlike sadness which tends to be an immediate, felt response to a perceived loss. Melancholy has negative and positive aspects; a bit of longing with a touch of sadness but also feelings of pleasure or inspiration which are a central element of the emotion. Often caused by particular memories or thoughts, melancholy involves taking some pleasure in what we love or hope for, so it is tinged with sweetness. For instance if melancholy is caused by the memory of a lost love from the past, melancholy might involve a tinge of sadness at the loss but will be accompanied by pleasurable thoughts of being with that person as well. Melancholy is not always, in fact perhaps not typically, experienced as a negative emotion. Sometimes we attempt to prolong melancholy by seeking a quiet place where the feeling can be indulged. As Victor Hugo said, “melancholy is the happiness of being sad.”

We often feel melancholy (or at least a weakened version of it) in response to works of art, literature or film. The fictional characters and events become the object of our experience of melancholy. But melancholy can be a mood as well as an emotion. Moods are feelings that do not have an object. They come over us, seemingly without reason and can affect our entire personality. The mood of melancholy can arise when in a desolate landscape or on a fog-shrouded lake. In the arts the experience of a melancholy mood (as opposed to the emotion) is most often  found in music. From Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations to Avro Pärt’s De Profundis to the ambient soundscapes of Bing and Ruth’s Tomorrow was the Golden Age, music of almost every genre is capable of expressing the contemplative, somber mood with moments of vitality that characterize melancholy.

How does wine express melancholy? The answer can be found in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

Wabi  which originally means “poverty”  refers to the roughness of everyday things that have been in use for a long time. As an aesthetic it involves finding beauty in the asymmetry and imperfection of disintegration. Sabi typically means” loneliness” and in the aesthetic context refers to a state of contemplative solitude in persons, and spare simplicity in objects. Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic principle is an affirmation of imperfection, austerity and melancholy. It’s the beauty of weathered, scarred, ephemeral objects which become more exquisite the closer them come to their non-existence. A broken, earthenware cup, a branch of autumn leaves, a weather-beaten door, if they exhibit a kind of grace, in a context that highlights their evocativeness are wabi-sabi. Melancholy, that peculiar mix of sadness and delight, is the primary mood or emotion evoked by wabi-sabi.

It should be obvious that aged wine, as it begins its downward trajectory while still maintaining elegance and vitality, can be an example of wabi-sabi and is properly attended to in the mood of melancholy. Given the ephemeral nature of wine, we are witnessing the loss of something valuable that exhibits its own unique “patina”. Since each bottle of wine ages differently, its flavors and textures reflect its unique nature and history as the wine responds to the conditions under which it was bottled and stored. With many aged wines, it is likely you may never taste that cuvee again as the bottles from a particular vintage are consumed over time. Thus, an aged wine expresses the passage of time, the quality of impermanence which is associated with the sadness, longing, and inspiration of melancholy. The appreciation of aged wine induces reflection on the lives of the people who made the wine who have left behind this fragment from their past. It invites both memory and imagination but also reflection on the impermanence of cultural achievements and their celebration–the ravages of time as both something to celebrate and fear.

The fact that wines must give pleasure in order for us to appreciate them is no obstacle to wine expressing melancholy since the experience of pleasure, albeit mixed with sadness, is an important element in melancholy. Aged wines, like the objects of wabi-sabi lack the bright, juicy, freshness and power of young wines. They are appreciated precisely because time has exposed some hidden dimension of the wine in which we take pleasure.

Thus, it seems to me wine can express melancholy. If we decline to experience it as we consume the wine that may be testimony to our shallowness or inattention, not any inherent limitation on wines’ expressive potential.

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