The wine importer and writer Terry Theise recently published, on his blog, what he calls a “frame of reference,” giving readers a fascinating and comprehensive look at what he considers wine quality to be. His writing has always captured my attention and in Beauty and the Yeast I described his book, What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking, as “a compelling work of philosophy by a non-academic.”
In essence, his post provides us with his personal theory of wine quality.
It got me thinking about what precisely a theory of wine quality should do.
One might hope that an account of the nature of wine quality would provide general, universal principles of criticism that we might use to evaluate individual wines. If we could establish that all great wines must possess some defining feature, then the critic would only have to note the presence or absence of that feature and the level of quality would be settled. In talking about such things as terroir, farming methodologies, winemaking strategies, and technological sophistication, critics and winemakers often seem to be reaching for that key to unlocking wine quality in terms of a defining feature of great wine.
Yet that leads us to a dilemma. Either the feature is so abstract that it can be discerned in almost any wine; or the defining feature is so specific as to be inflexible, narrow, and insensitive to the varieties of wines that give satisfaction. Terroir is an example of the first horn of the dilemma. As important as the idea is, almost anything one says about terroir can be said of thousands of wines of vastly different quality levels. The same is true of farming or winemaking strategies. Yet if we try to be specific and say only wines made with native yeasts—or biodynamics, or new French oak, etc.—are of good quality, we are guilty of egregious parochialism, arbitrarily limiting quality to a tiny fraction of genuinely worthy wines.
Thus, a general theory of wine quality guided by clear, antecedently specifiable criteria will not be helpful to wine criticism.
Nevertheless, theories about wine quality arise because we are curious about the nature of a powerful experience. In order to say anything useful about the nature and value of wine we have to talk about quality—the word after all must have some meaning.
What are we doing when we are trying to define wine quality?
Instead of thinking about quality in terms of a definition that is written in stone, we should think of commentary on wine quality as partial expressions of the nature and value of a certain kind of experience—the experience of savoring this peculiar beverage. Although limited and perhaps biased toward one style of wine or another, these attempts to say what this wine-fueled experience is like may help us become clearer about the larger significance of what we do when we make or taste wine. Articulating the experience of wine helps us connect wine production and consumption to more general human interests–our interest in social life, the acquisition of knowledge, in discriminative perception, or pure sensory pleasure.
We live within a wine world of overwhelming complexity and variation. When confronted with choices about what to personally experience or in reflecting on the direction of the culture of wine, including its political and ethical challenges, we nevertheless find ourselves moved by some wines and not others.
Those that move us seem inchoately to provide a richer experience.
What we want out of a theory of quality is that we become clearer and more articulate about that experience. It’s not about defining quality; its about articulating what goodness tastes like and feels like from inside that experience. There is no general or universal perspective—only individual perspectives open to other perspectives endlessly making connections and seeding new visions.
The outcome, it is to be hoped, is that by using abstract thought, explicit comparisons, and discourse with others in an open-ended, continuous inquiry, we gain more clarity and greater realization of what is good within the many variations of which wine is capable.
That is a long-winded, roundabout way of describing the value of Terry Theise’s articulation of his very personal, very particular, yet very well-informed theory of wine quality.