Is Wine Unique as a Beverage with Aesthetic Appeal?

fog over vineyardsI doubt that I need to persuade readers of this blog that wine can be the source of a genuine aesthetic experience. But what about coffee, Scotch, or beer? If wine is a genuine aesthetic object why not these other beverages?

What makes wine an aesthetic object? Well its complexity for one thing. Wine has hundreds of aromatic compounds all in various combinations across thousands of varieties and regions with distinctive winemaking practices, weather patterns and soil compositions. Wine also changes as it ages; some wines vastly improve as they age. It changes in the glass and in the mouth and interacts with food, the atmosphere, the weather, the company and the music. There is plenty of variation and diversity to stimulate aesthetic interest.

Do other beverages have this complexity? To be honest, I haven’t found other beverages to be so complex, but to be fair maybe that’s my limitation and inexperience.

Wine is also embedded in a robust community with a well-developed vocabulary for talking about wine and firmly entrenched traditions of wine appreciation that make the aesthetic appreciation of wine more rewarding. Scotch does as well although Scotch doesn’t seem to have the volume of discourse about it when compared to wine. With the emergence of craft brews and origin-specific coffee beans, beer and coffee communities have emerged with their own discourses. I have no way of measuring the relative vigor and coherence of their discourse compared to wine but they are mere babies if longevity is an indicator of strength.

However the one factor that clearly distinguishes wine from most other beverages is the connection to place and its dependence on nature. Beer can be made anywhere. Although the quality of the water used in beer production matters and hops may have some minor regional variation, beer is less dependent on geography, and variations in nature play little role in beer production. Scotch of course has its peat bogs, and cellaring location can make a difference in how it ages in barrel. But malted barley whiskey can be made anywhere and, as long as the grain is healthy, nature plays no role. Most coffee is a blend of beans from a variety of different locations.

It’s that connection to nature, place and the resulting variations that give wine its distinctive aesthetic appeal.

2 comments

  1. To be fair, most wine sold is hardly connected to the place it was grown. I think coffee does have a lot of similarities, specifically origin-specific. It has many varieties, each adapted to the soil and climate of where it is grown. It grows best in very specific latitudes, and changes in soil, climate, altitude, and so on, matter. As does the coffee maker’s attitude towards it, when it harvests, and then how and when it roasts and so on. I don’t know a lot about it, but the way you expressed it actually made me think that coffee could be very similar to wine in a few of these points.

    1. Daniel,
      Thank you for your comment. When I refer to wine as an aesthetic experience I usually have in mind wines from a narrow geographical region with unique characteristics. You’re right that most wine sold is not connected to its origin but for the most part those wines don’t offer the kind of experience I have in mind. I’m no expert on coffee but my impression is that beans from a narrow geographical region are hard to come by and very expensive. But I agree that coffee potentially has the same responsiveness to weather and other geographical factors as wine does.

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