Great Wines and Transcendence

la tacheI greatly admire Eric Asimov’s wine writing, but his recent column in the New York Times about what makes a great wine badly misses the mark. He writes:

“What I’ve come to believe is that greatness is not limited to only these transcendent, classically great bottles. Rather, greatness in a wine is defined by its ability to meet the needs of a particular occasion.”

The ability of a wine to meet the needs of an occasion is a perfectly good standard for evaluating the decision of the person choosing the wine for the evening, but this is a peculiar standard for judging greatness.

With regard to most aesthetic objects greatness is in part a function of whether the object can be appreciated in a variety of contexts and locations. Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles are great because their music is enjoyed throughout the world in a variety of media, multiple performance contexts, and on disparate occasions. In order to enjoy Monet’s Waterlilies, I needn’t travel to Monet’s home in Giverny. Even the version viewed on my computer is fascinating. Great works of art transcend their local context and it is that capacity that makes them great.

On Azimov’s standard, a cheap rosé, chilled to just the right temperature, and gloriously refreshing on a hot summer night is a great wine because it’s appropriate for the occasion. I guess those bottles of André Sparkling wine served at a low budget wedding reception for a family of beer drinkers is a great wine because it was appropriate for the occasion.

Surely the word “greatness” is not a synonym for “appropriate.”

The standard for greatness Azimov would have us adopt reduces wine to a purely functional object that is useful for certain purposes but otherwise unremarkable. If that is all wine is, it’s a puzzle why people fall in love with it. I don’t fall in love with my butter knife because it’s particularly effective at spreading butter. People don’t spend fortunes and a lifetime learning the nuances of wine in order to identify the right wine for an evening by the fire.

There is much to be said about the concept of greatness and what it entails when applied to wine. One thing it means is that great wines are appreciated by wine lovers from diverse tasting communities with differing standards, habits, and aesthetic commitments. Great wines don’t need a special context to be appreciated. They arrest your attention whenever you’re able to properly direct your attention to it.

Transcendence is not the only dimension of greatness but it surely is central to it.

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