Wine is many things to many people. That it contains alcohol, encourages conviviality, and tastes good are surely the reasons most people drink wine. But these reasons don’t quite explain why some people are deeply devoted to wine. Neither do they explain why wine has become an iconic, culturally significant signifier of good taste and aesthetic appreciation. The great wine writer Hugh Johnson provides the most compelling explanation:
Think, for a moment, of an almost paper-white glass of liquid, just infused with greenish-gold, just tart on your tongue, full of wild flower scents and spring-water freshness. And think of a burnt-amber fluid, as smooth as syrup in the glass, as fat as butter to the smell and sea-deep with strange flavors. Both are wine. Wine is grape-juice. Every drop of liquid filling so many bottles has been drawn out of the ground by the roots of a vine. All these different drinks have at one time been sap in a twig. It is the first of many strange and some – despite modern research – mysterious circumstances which go to make wine not only the most delicious, but the most fascinating drink in the world. It would not be so fascinating if there were not so many different kinds. Although there are people who do not care for it, and who think it no more than a nuisance that a winelist has so many names on it, the whole reason that wine is worth study is its variety. (from Wine: A Life Uncorked)
Variety and variation are the keys to understanding wine’s aesthetic appeal. But it isn’t only the variations made possible by the vineyard and the sensitivity of grapes to weather and geography that matter. Cultural variations are equally important—the variety of styles, techniques, winemaker’s sensibilities, traditions and interactions with food intersecting with those vineyard variations give wine a richness of permutation that is rivaled only by art, music, and nature.
Wine has earned its iconic status because of the way it integrates and provokes culture and nature to express endless variation.