Zeroing in on Wine as an Aesthetic Experience

wine aestheticsThere are many things that people do with wine. We drink it to get drunk, drink it distractedly at a social gathering because everyone else is doing so or because it generally contributes to the atmosphere of good cheer. We can drink wine to impress someone with the weight of our bank account. We use wine to quench thirst on a hot day, provide warming sensations on a cold evening, or wash down food. I mention these together because they all share a common feature—you can engage in these activities without paying attention to the wine. While these activities may be part of a larger, holistic aesthetic experience, to the extent they don’t involve paying attention to the wine, they are not aesthetic experiences of the wine. They don’t have the wine as an intentional object.

By contrast we can engage in a variety of activities that do involve paying attention to the wine. They generally fall under four categories—description, identification, evaluation, and appreciation.

A WSET student sitting for an exam must describe a wine (or several wines) in order to pass the exam. If she is tasting blind and must draw inferences about the origins of the wine, she is engaged in identification. If she is required to assess the quality level of the wines she is engaged in evaluation. A winemaker tasting a barrel sample to see if it’s developing volatile acidity or a wine merchant deciding which wine to stock are also engaged in evaluation, as is a taster assessing whether a Riesling from Mosel is typical of that region. What is peculiar about these activities is that although they require focused attention on the wine they don’t depend on the taster having an aesthetic experience. These activities are not necessarily incompatible with having an aesthetic experience but they can be competently performed without the experience being aesthetic.

Appreciation however is another matter. When a wine tasting activity involves the appreciation of a wine, it is always at least a candidate for an aesthetic experience. This is why describing, identifying or evaluating a wine is compatible with appreciation. We can describe, identify, or evaluate a wine while appreciating it as well. But appreciation is distinct from these activities. Appreciation is of course the most widely practiced wine tasting activity. It is what most wine lovers do when they drink wine with friends, enjoy a wine with dinner or attend a wine tasting.

The puzzle is to nail down what it is that makes appreciation an aesthetic experience. How does it differ from identifying, describing or evaluating a wine when these are not part of an aesthetic experience?

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