Jancis Robinson on Wine Aesthetics

jancis robinsonJancis Robinson has some interesting things to say about wine aesthetics.

Last week she reposted a summary  of a lecture she gave to the British Society of Aesthetics in 2012. It is interesting to know what a prominent wine writer and wine expert has to say about some of the issues that preoccupy philosophers.

And she should be admired for her valor in meeting that audience. Attending a philosophy conference is a bit like diving into a pool of well-mannered  piranha. She apparently emerged unscathed.

She begins with an apology speaking of her long career in wine writing:

For me, serious, contemplative thinking has been replaced by reacting to external objects and tracing relationships between them.

Alas, if serious contemplative thinking does not begin by “reacting to external objects and tracing relationships between them” it’s likely nothing but navel gazing. She is in a better position than most philosophers to think about wine aesthetics.

She gets right to the heart of the matter:

Tasting is a very private, hidden activity, making it very difficult to make comparisons with each other’s experiences. How do I know I am tasting what you are tasting, not least because you almost certainly have such different sensitivities?

The answer is the often reviled tasting note, arcane and imprecise, she argues, but no less necessary for all its flaws. Without it we would just grunt.

She makes one point about which I disagree:

Alcoholic intake is not necessary for an aesthetic experience of wine. In fact it may well muddle things, and I’d say intoxication is a completely separate experience from wine appreciation.

Her argument is based on the fact there are many wine experts who are teetotalers, by which I think she means wine tasters who routinely taste and spit. I think she is conflating serious inebriation with the mild buzz we get from tasting wine.  I’ve never been able to taste and spit through a flight of several wines without absorbing some alcohol and experiencing the warm glow that comes from mild inebriation. It’s an inherent part of the experience that makes us more available to the wine. Of course, too much alcohol destroys judgment—it’s a fine line.

She makes an important point about wine as an art form:

I’d argue that wine and art are appreciated very similarly by most people: letting it wash over you and noting a reaction = sensory reaction.

I think this is right. Our basic response to art and wine is perceptual and holistic. Experts, both amateur and professional, will then apply their knowledge to make comparisons and form judgments but both are fundamentally about sensation.

But she apparently grants that wine is less emotionally engaging than other arts.

I can still remember and be moved by that Chambolle and the best 1947 Cheval Blanc I’ve been lucky enough to try. But wine has never made me cry, unlike music, literature, film (even though there is presumably more deliberate and intended manipulation of the emotions in these artistic endeavours).

I don’t by any means think wine is trivial, but I certainly accept that it is not as intellectually and (intoxication aside) emotionally potent as a great performance or painting.

I’m never persuaded by this argument. I don’t think the standard for what counts as emotionally engaging is “it makes me cry.” I don’t think a painting has ever made me cry. I find many abstract works entirely engrossing but they don’t necessarily prompt a particular emotion. Some really dreadful novels and film are overly sentimental and might make someone cry. That doesn’t make them works of art. Some music evokes sadness or grief but many great musical works have nothing to do with these emotions, and some great musical works are not noteworthy for evoking any emotion—some of Schoenberg’s works or Bach for instance. Although most music makes us feel something, it is often not a specific emotion we feel.

And wine clearly evokes pathos. The fading of an aged wine is an occasion for regret, and wonder and mystery all have an emotive dimension that influences how we engage with wine. A wine may tell a story but it is not primarily a story about human psychological states and thus will not tug at the heartstrings like human interest stories. But surely art is not restricted to telling human interest stories.

But then I think she makes the essential point about wine as an art:

But wine’s great attribute in particular is the elemental nature of its production….Wine production is viewed as a way of getting in touch with the earth….And, most importantly, every bottle expresses the earth and that tiny point on it where it was grown, presenting us with a unique expression of that spot, and, what we all seek nowadays, traceability. Wine, with the exception of the most industrial examples, is geography in a bottle and, unlike most things we can buy, we can tell from a glance at the label precisely who made it, where and when.

This is the peculiar attraction of wine, the way the creativity of nature and human creativity are entangled producing seemingly infinite variations. This makes wine a very distinctive form of art.

And finally, she tackles the nature of aesthetic judgement:

What is an aesthetic judgement of wine? Not writing an MW tasting note, I would submit. That’s a bit too formal and normative. Instead it’s responding to a wine with all your being and experience.

Indeed, I devote  several chapters in Beauty in the Yeast to making this point. We sell wine short if we think of the specialized, clinical tasting done for certification exams and in wine reviews as the pinnacle of wine’s aesthetic potential. Wine speaks to that part of us that we used to call “soul.” It’s that holistic, emotionally engaged tasting that makes wine an aesthetic experience.

There is a lot more in her talk; I’ve only touched on the points that interested me. As usual, her discussion of wine is thought provoking and deep.

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