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shakespeare and wineLast week I wrote that part of the beauty of wine lies in its ephemera and its connection to change and mortality. The fleeting, inconstant aromas, the speed at which its beauty fades after the wine is open, the need to share it before it’s gone all contribute to wine as an aesthetic object.

But it is though a wine’s aging process where the poignancy of fading beauty acquires exquisite intensity in its connection to mortality

The process wine undergoes as it ages is in some respects like the aging of a living organism. As we age, life becomes a struggle to invent sub-optimal norms of health and vitality, a defensive struggle to maintain integrity in the face of sickness, injury, and decline which requires experimentation, trial-and-error and an openness to an unknown future. Aging organisms extract elements from the environment modifying them as needed, but always with the knowledge that a return to health will be partial, incomplete, and will ultimately fail. The purpose of life is to keep going and is fraught with wandering irresolution and contingent environmental exchange with the outcome always in doubt.

Wine too invents sub-optimal norms. All wine as it begins to age in the bottle loses some of its original flavor components. It will never taste young and fresh again and as the years go by, its original flavor becomes more distant, never to be tasted again as each bottle takes on its own character and develops in unpredictable ways.

As the wine suffers diminishment from the gradual exposure to oxygen, the sub-optimal norm each wine settles on is a matter of negotiation with the environment. The winemaker is a physician not by healing the sick but by encouraging the modification of the internal structure of a wine so it will persist and reveal the effects of its normative diminishment. The intimation of that inner strength, diminishing but still expressive, resistance at a different normative level is aesthetically appealing. The fading of strength and power introduces new perspectives, a weakening that reveals nuance and finesse but also a sense of the beauty of vulnerability, of time passing inexorably and without recovery. The aesthetic appeal of this vulnerability to time is of course not limited to wine. We feel something similar as autumn brings summer to a close. The Japanese tradition of wabi sabi has made imperfection and vulnerability to time an aesthetic touchstone.

Unlike life, however, wine has a determinate purpose, to provide an aesthetic experience. But how it gets there is as wandering and indeterminate as life is. And, of course, both wine and life will ultimately fail in the invention of sub-optimal norms.

It is common practice among wine lovers to purchase a wine showing the vintage of a child’s birth year—a commemoration of a singular event. Indeed, an aged wine does reveal something about the year the grapes were grown—weather conditions and wine making style contribute to the flavor of the final product. But 10, 20 or 30 years later when a wine is opened, what is alluded to is really a process of development and decay. It is time passing that is revealed, not a singular moment in the past. Drinking aged wines is not about nostalgia for a past moment but an appreciation of lost time, a celebration of decline, for what is revealed is the result of oxygen, the polymerization of anthocyanins, aroma esters collapsing and reforming, color molecules becoming sediment, the cumulative result of these changes becoming an individual no longer firmly linked to its origins.

However, we experience none of that. A bottle from a past vintage alludes to the utter recalcitrance of the past, a past never-to-be-retrieved. Wine is a metaphor for what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the immemorial, not just what is forgotten, but what has never been remembered, time irretrievably lost and available only as a sensation of flavor and texture. For we have no idea what happened in that bottle over the intervening years. It sat mutely in the cellar for decades never revealing its narrative, locked away in glass, giving away almost nothing to our awareness. Only when it is opened does it reveal itself as flavor and texture, but never as memory.

Unlike family heirlooms and other treasured objects that we can pass down through generations, all wine is destined to be utterly and completely lost. Once the bottles are consumed or stored so long they turn to vinegar, nothing remains of that unique and singular work.

That is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare