The Contested Concept of Great Wine

dark bottleHow do we go about identifying a great wine?

We might leave it up to critics to tell us which wines are great. Or we could leave such judgments in the hands of the market—great wines are the ones people are willing to pay lots of money for.  Or we might simply allow tradition to guide us—great wines are those that have a historical connection to the great wines of the past and the storied vineyards that produced them. Each of these approaches define greatness in relation to historical human practices and/or institutions.

Yet they seem circular and disappointing. How can the relevant experts, institutions, or traditions be specified without first specifying the nature of the wines to which they should pay attention. After all, to say that great wines are those the critics, the market, or traditions say are great is to simply endorse our current or past habits as the standard. And we know that some habits are bad habits. So something more must be said about the values and functions that make some wines worthy of high regard.

If we cannot say how and  why we are supposed to regard these wines as worthy our account is trivial and empty.

But then we run into a further problem.

Any elucidation of the qualities a great wine must have will be dogmatic and inflexible. Wine serves a variety of functions and the value of specific styles change over time, sometimes rather drastically. There is not likely to be a single account of what all great wines must taste like nor is there a single account of what makes wine meaningful. Wine is too variable for such an account to succeed.

What counts as a great wine then is destined to be an evolving and unsettled matter.

The wineworld is beset with the same fragmentation, pervasive unclarity, and contests regarding common human functions that afflicts the rest of social life.

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