What is Fine Wine?

romanee conti 2Robert Joseph in Meininger’s Wine Business International argues that we need new wine categories since the terms we now use to divide up the wine landscape lack precision.

I have a modest proposal that the term ‘commercial wine’ be removed from the lexicon. I have deep reservations about the imprecise definition of ’fine wine’ but at least these words fit nicely together, whereas ‘commercial wine’ means— what? Wine that’s good enough to be bought and sold. On that basis, La Tache is as much of a commercial wine as Barefoot. Whereas, an un-commercial wine is presumably one that’s piled high in a warehouse waiting in vain for a buyer.

I use the term “commercial wine” often and in no case do I mean “good enough to be bought and sold”. By “commercial wine” I mean large production wines available at the supermarket and in some of the less selective Big Box stores. I think most of my readers know what I mean. But Robert is right that the term is imprecise unless we specify what the contrast term is—”non-commercial” certainly doesn’t mean wines that can’t be sold.

He then speaks favorably of Austin Beeman’s categories:

Beeman’s equivalent of ‘commercial’ is ‘market-driven’ and covers any wine that is specifically tailored to suit the customer.

His second category is “terroir-driven” and the third is “producer-driven”.

These categories are a step in the right direction because they are sensitive to production processes which are important in defining wine styles. But these categories don’t quite work either. Presumably most wineries make wines they think their customers will like. There are degrees of “tailoring”. Artisan winemakers don’t build wines based on the results of market research. But they nevertheless allow consumer expectations to play a role in their winemaking decisions.

As to “terroir-driven” vs “producer-driven”, as Robert points out, there are too many shades of grey and examples that fit both categories for these to be helpful. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is surely terroir-driven—no one else makes Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like that. But they are certainly “market-driven crowd-pleasers”, a clear example of what I call “commercial wines” because they are high production and widely available.

Here is my proposal, which is influenced by Burnham and Skilleas The Aesthetics of Wine but with modifications. I say we stick with “fine wine” but avoid using the term to refer to price or exclusivity. By “fine wine” I mean any wine that rewards extended aesthetic attention or is produced with the intention to reward aesthetic attention. By “aesthetic attention” I mean attention focused on the wine (not it’s price, reputation, etc.) and distributed across a wide variety of the wines properties. Aesthetic attention seeks to explore every dimension of a wine.  Some inexpensive, widely available wines reward such attention. Some very expensive wines do not reward such attention.

It seems to me, in the end, this is what matters. Fine wine is interesting wine that we want to explore. If a wine is made with the kind of care required to produce interesting variations and it delivers, then it is fine wine. Commercial wine is wine produced in a way that is indifferent to aesthetic qualities. It may be refreshing, food friendly, or “smooth” but if there is nothing about the wine to explore, it’s not fine wine.

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