Burnham and Skilleas, Wine and Aesthetic Experience

ecstatic wine drinkerIn trying to nail down a conception of aesthetic experience appropriate to wine appreciation, it might make sense to begin with the view of Burnham and Skilleas in their book  The Aesthetics of Wine. It is the most comprehensive treatment of the topic available. However, I think it is fundamentally misguided since it appears to exclude from the realm of aesthetic experience the kinds of everyday interactions with wine that I think are central.

Burnham and Skilleas usefully refer to various tasting practices as distinct projects. Analytic tasters trying to identify a wine in a blind tasting, a wine critic describing a wine to her readers, or a sommelier trying to pair a wine with a particular dish are each involved in different projects because they have different aims that require quite different competencies. Most importantly according to Burnham and Skilleas, they are focused on different aspects of the wine and thus each project has a different intentional object. However, they argue that none of them are necessarily having an aesthetic experience. This is curious because it seems apparent that many tasting projects involve some degree of aesthetic appreciation.

Aesthetic experience for Burnham and Skilleas is a function of engaging in an aesthetic project and this involves acquiring the competencies to recognize distinctly aesthetic properties such as elegance, harmony, complexity and intensity. And one does so by participating in a variety of practices—choosing the proper glass, deciding on a tasting order, decanting, etc.—which highlights those aesthetic properties. Their point is that tasters separately interested in identifying a wine, describing it, evaluating its typicity or pairing it with food need not attend to these aesthetic properties, going so far as to assert that tasters engaged in these projects with wine from the same bottle are tasting different wines.

The absurdity of this latter point is an indicator that something has gone wrong. In fact I would dispute their main claim that the project of identifying the origin of a wine, describing it, judging its typicity or pairing it with food need not focus on aesthetic properties. For instance, it’s perfectly appropriate when blind tasting a medium body, high acid wine with distinct earth notes to argue it’s likely Chianti rather than Brunello di Montalcino because it lacks elegance or complexity. Anyone describing a notably complex wine who doesn’t mention or imply that it’s complex is simply not accurately describing the wine. Food pairings will also sometimes depend on features such as complexity or intensity.

My point is that the apprehension of aesthetic properties can be part of a wide variety of different tasting activities. Thus, it makes little sense to isolate an aesthetic project in a way that excludes this variety.

Furthermore, their way of defining aesthetic experience in terms of a project rules out the everydayness of wine which I have argued is crucial to understanding wine aesthetics.

They are quite explicit that a necessary condition of aesthetic experience is having a variety of the competencies that define an aesthetic project including the capacity to describe and evaluate a wine using the vocabulary and tasting skills possessed by professional wine tasters. This rules out casual yet attentive drinkers from having an aesthetic experience and implies that a whole range of everyday experiences that one might think are aesthetic are not. The kinds of experiences that wine lovers often refer to as an “aha” experience—that moment at which one recognizes the consummate beauty of wine and its potential for further engagement—are deemed “proto-aesthetic” because the people who have such experiences often lack the fully developed competencies of professional wine tasters or connoisseurs.

However, it isn’t at all obvious that basic aesthetic properties such as intensity or elegance cannot be recognized by people who may lack the vocabulary or developed competencies of the connoisseur. After all, people who report on their “aha” experience are not simply claiming to enjoy the wine—they find it thrilling, awe-inspiring, etc. Clearly they are tasting something out of the ordinary beyond mere liking. Burnham and Skilleas are right that the apprehension of aesthetic  properties are not simple perceptions but involve holistic judgments about relations among properties of the wine. But elegance or intensity are not so difficult to discern that attentive drinkers with modest levels of experience must miss them. After all, music lovers can be deeply moved by a piece of music without the capability of following the score or articulating genre characteristics. No doubt having such competencies enhances the aesthetic experience but their absence doesn’t preclude the experience from being aesthetic.

This idea of an aesthetic project that requires various competencies and practices is useful for articulating the structured, reflective nature of wine appreciation. Burnham and Skilleas deploy it successfully to show that the casual dismissal of wine as a serious aesthetic object is misguided.

But we can’t use this notion of a project to define aesthetic experience because it orphans too many apparently aesthetic experiences.

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