Are Wine Brands Aesthetic Objects?

yellowtailIt is obvious from research done on consumer preferences that many consumers are attracted to the design features of the objects they buy independently of any functional value the object might have. And these design features may exhibit aesthetic properties. They are pretty, charming, beautiful, elegant, graceful, dynamic, etc.

The question that interests me is whether the brand image itself is an aesthetic object. This is especially salient with regard to wine. Wine is a vague object with nuances that are hard to detect for people with little training or experience with wine tasting. And most of the commodity wines people buy lack distinction.

So it’s plausible to hypothesize that part of the enjoyment most consumers get from a wine comes from interacting with the branding—the label, the winery’s story, and other aspects of the image the brand seeks to communicate. Labels can be visually appealing. Stories can be interesting and inspiring. Logos, iconography, and merchandise can fit together coherently and have energy and flair. So brands can have aesthetic properties. But is it sufficient that an object or collection of objects have aesthetic properties for it to be an aesthetic object?

My approach to these questions is to argue that an object is an aesthetic object when it induces an aesthetic experience. And an aesthetic experience is constituted by aesthetic attention. To my mind, what distinguishes aesthetic experience from other kinds of experiences is the kind of attention that supports it.

Aesthetic attention is focused intently on an object or collections of objects—like a brand for instance—but is distributed with regard to the properties it apprehends. So for instance when viewing a painting aesthetically, I’m focused intently on the painting. But every feature of that painting matters so my attention is distributed across every relevant feature of the painting I can find.

So focused attention on an object distributed over a wide range of features is necessary for aesthetic experience. But it seems to me that is not sufficient. I could be coldly and analytically searching the painting for its features in preparation for an art history exam and not be having an aesthetic experience at all. The same is true for wine tasting. Taking a tasting exam for a certification is not an aesthetic experience even though I’m attentive to a wide range of the wine’s properties.

So what else is involved in aesthetic attention. An aesthetic object doesn’t simply have aesthetic properties—it is expressing them. Part of aesthetic attention is feeling the urgency of that expression and responding to it. Our will relaxes and we give in to the object. Our attention is rapt, fascinated, supported by a sympathetic “feeling with” the object, even if the experience is painful or emotionally fraught. Aesthetic attention involves a kind of affective resonance, which enables an immersive experience. We feel this strongly with music but wine also offers this kind of immersive, affective engagement.

It seems to me interaction with brands is not typically like that. Visual appeal and platitudes don’t prompt the kind of attention just described. But there are some aspects of a wine brand that might get close. A really compelling and original story (e.g. Coppola) or a historical connection that has emotional resonance (Chateau Musar, Mondavi)  and encourages exploration might prompt this kind of aesthetic attention. Certainly being awed by the presence of an impressive building (e.g. Chateau Cheval Blanc) or landscape (e.g. Artesa) is an aesthetic experience so a brand lucky enough to have those resources might be able to create that immersive, resonant experience.

Small farm wineries can also provide distinctive aesthetic experiences. Big Table Farm and Plaisance Ranch in Oregon come to mind. For many wineries, this is the only opportunity to create an immersive experience with emotional resonance.

But the vast majority of brands, including wine brands, just don’t have sufficient content to support genuine aesthetic attention. If what you’re selling isn’t aesthetically impressive, the selling of it is unlikely to be without unique and impressive resources.

2 comments

  1. As a former designer, I do consider label design when choosing between unfamiliar wines. My assumption is that a company that pays attention to the quality of its design might also pay attention to the quality of its product.

    I could be fooling myself; my perception of the wine’s quality could be influenced my response to the label design (taste is subjective and easly influenced by the environment in which it is experienced).

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