Soulful Wines and the Failure of Recognition

soulful winesBeing preoccupied (or perhaps obsessed is a better word) by philosophical puzzles is my occupational hazard. As I noted last week, wine importer Terry Theise’s wonderful writing on wine presents many philosophical puzzles. Great wine induces reverie, he says, which is a necessary mental state for appreciating fine wine. “Elusive, incandescent moments of meaning” are the main attraction of wine according to Theise, and wine’s personality traits offer “soulful moments” that speak to our deepest commitments and values.

It’s not that I disagree with Theise on any of this. I quite agree with him. The puzzle is how fermented grape juice manages to accomplish these expressive acts. How does wine move the mind and heart?

I think the initial experience that brings about these “incandescent moments of meaning” is a failure of recognition. Here is what I mean by that.

When experienced wine tasters taste wine, in the typical case, we use habits built up over many years, our background knowledge regarding varietals, regions, and winemaking methods, and our capacity for retrieving explicit  memories to bring order to and make sense out of what we taste and smell. As we bring all of that to bear on an analysis of the wine in front  of us, we have to deploy conceptual categories that enable us to organize that experience. Aroma descriptors, judgments about balance, intensity or length, etc. are not merely sensations but also invoke concepts. We report that the wine is tart, bold or lush. We might say it’s a good example of Marsannay or the Sonoma Coast or alternatively mention that as a Pinot Noir it is out of balance and showing too much alcohol. These are all ways of conceptualizing the wine and they involve bringing recognition skills to the tasting experience.

We use these recognition skills to “wrestle the wine to the ground” as Theise says by passing our sensations of the wine through a battery of analytic categories.

The tasting experiences that Theise extolls by contrast are tasting experiences where recognition fails. He might know that the wine he’s tasting is a Riesling from a particular producer in the Mosel and from a particular vintage, but that recognition doesn’t bring closure. There is something about the wine that escapes the conceptual categories because none of those analytical categories are capable of capturing these sensations. In other words there appears to be no way to assimilate these sensations to previous experience in a way that feels complete with no residue. He’s confronted with a unique individual for which there are no ready-made ways of understanding it.

He writes: “When a fragrance is evocative yet indistinct—when it doesn’t specify its cognate (such as lemons or peaches or salami or whatever)—it seems to bypass the analytical faculty and go straight to your imagination and from there you climb about the fugue state directly to your soul…”

That is a failure of recognition.

At that point, what does the mind do? Some people, most people perhaps, might just say “wow” and leave it at that. But that would be to miss an opportunity. Because that failure of recognition is at the very heart of creativity. For someone like Theise in his pursuit of beauty, when recognition fails he switches to a kind of interrogative attention that sends the mind cascading through a series of possibilities. That sense of je ne sais quoi poses a problem—the mind must create the connection or category that will make sense of the experience and solve the problem.

How we sort through that series of possibilities will be my next obsession after I finish this bottle of Mourvèdre.

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