Wine: Is It Social Ritual or Art?

people drinking wine 2I’ve often contrasted wine understood as a commodity with wine approached as works of art. But I think there is another useful comparison to make.

Many people seem to treat wine as a social practice—a set of social rituals that are worth knowing about and performing well because of the role wine plays at meals and other social gatherings. Just as one must be able to follow and productively engage in conversation, understand the nuances of giving and receiving gifts, and regulate one’s emotions in order to navigate social situations, some people approach wine as  something one must know about in order to participate in the many gatherings that involve wine.

What is peculiar about social rituals, however, is that despite their nuances, the variety of different forms they take, and their importance to our psychological well-being, we do not have formal training in them, leaving such matters to parents, family life, or articles on etiquette.

With wine, however, we think it worthwhile to teach wine tasting and appreciation, to train people in the activity of making and understanding it, and to give advice about how to explore it with greater breadth and depth. This is true of art as well. Creating or studying art, literature, music, or wine is considered to be an appropriate occupation for some people. By contrast, the study and practice of social rituals is a simple requirement of participating in social life.

In other words, both wine and art make a claim on our attention that is unlike social rituals.

Yet, here we might draw a contrast between art and wine. Taking an interest in art or artistic performances is considered to be the mark of an educated person. People who have no interest in such matters are thought to be shallow. Wine does not quite enjoy that status. No one needs to take an interest in wine and in fact people who do are considered peculiar.

Art has this elevated status because it is thought to involve something deep and important about human nature, although it’s difficult to say exactly what that is or how individual works reveal it. Successful artists are thought to exemplify the highest possibilities of human subjectivity, an expressive freedom that blends sensation and creativity. But why do such achievements matter? What deep human interest to they tap into? And can they be accomplished in ways that command wide, perhaps universal, endorsement among attentive audiences? Or are they always to some degree partial and parochial?

We still don’t have definitive answers to these questions with regard to art. And wine raises some of the same issues. Wine tastes good, goes well with food, and lubricates the gears of social commerce. But these features of wine as a social ritual don’t explain the deep commitment some people have to it.

Wine differs from the standard cases of art in that wine is not only a creation of human subjectivity but a co-creation with nature. Perhaps if we took more seriously our connection to nature, wine would come to have the social status of art.

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