This post continues my series on whether the millennia-long debate over the nature of beauty can give us important insights into wine quality. (Part 1 is here)
One of the more persistent themes associated with beauty since Plato and continuing into the present day is that beauty is connected to mystery. Beauty while alluring also withholds something. From the occult light tripping across a Turrell installation, to the pulsating color fields of Rothko, to the strange cadences of Messiaen’s unraveling of bird song, beauty emerges from the sensory surface only to then refer to something beyond what we can experience in the moment. We often describe beautiful objects as enthralling or captivating, as if there were something active in the object to which the perceiver must respond with curiosity. Of course the routine use of “beauty” or “mystery” may be just terminological inflation, just a colorful way of saying “I really, really like that” but if we take the terminology of beauty and mystery seriously at face value it suggests there is something animated in our experience of beauty which invokes the idea of vitality and of something emerging only dimly perceived.
Wine too has this aura of mystery about it. The moment in which you taste something you have never tasted before provokes the suspicion that there is more here than is apparent; the wine and the wine world have more to give; my engagement hasn’t reached its full potential. Beauty draws us in because the patterns we sense in beautiful objects are incomplete.
This anticipation of something more, this surfeit of potential, amounts to a love of mystery. As we dig into the wine world, we discover that wine is full of surprises. As tasters, we are surprised by new, unexpected taste experiences that seem inexplicable despite our background knowledge. For winemakers, every vintage is different and poses new challenges that their university textbooks and theories struggle to explain. How a wine will develop in the barrel, in the bottle, or in the glass is unknown even to experts, and predictions about these matters are continually flouted. Even the nature of what is in the glass in front of you is a mystery. Wine is inherently a vague object, its features difficult to detect even with training. Unlike the clarity of objects directly in our visual field, wine gives us only hints of flavors, scents, and textures and will not sit still for our analysis. It is this mystery that drives people to make wine and study it.
Wines that have the complexity and originality to arrest our attention, to hold us captive waiting for its next move, exuding paradoxical features, redolent of honey and wounds, have this aura of mystery.
Most of the world’s most celebrated wines have this sense of mystery about them. But such wines don’t have to be expensive. This relatively affordable California Norton had that mysterious quality.