Wine Quality and Good Taste

wine taster 4Having good taste requires evaluating quality. But what is quality?

The quality of a wine, like the quality of a painting or a musical work, is seldom a function of the components of the work taken individually. A wine taster can identify a whole bowl of various fruit aromas wafting from a wine, pronounce the acidity to be bracing and the tannins fine-grained but firm and still have said little about wine quality. Wine quality is a function of structure, balance, complexity, and intensity supplemented by even less concrete features such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. None of these features can be detected by analytically breaking down a wine into separate components because they are inherently relational, just as describing a painted surface as garish or a piece of music as lyrical would involve relations.

Even a prominent feature like acidity is not merely a function of a single measurable quantity such as PH; perceived acidity differs substantially from objective measures of acidity and is influenced by the prominence of other components such as sugar and tannin levels. None of these relational properties seem amenable to scientific analysis. I doubt that gas chromatography can identify elegance; a wine’s balance cannot be appreciated by measuring PH and sugar levels.

Identifying these aesthetic features involves a holistic judgment, not an analytic one. The wine as a whole must be evaluated just as evaluating a painting or music involves judgments about the work as a whole.

Hence, the problem of good taste. What do you discern when you identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? It’s not like picking out oak flavors. It’s a judgment about how everything comes together—a set of relations that emerge from facts about the wine but are not identical to any particular collection of facts.

A beautiful wine exhibits an order or unity that cannot be fully described. There are no rules that govern the use of the term “beauty” or a list of characteristics that invariably produce beauty. Beautiful objects are beautiful in their own way. Even pleasure is an unreliable guide. We can take pleasure in wines that are not beautiful.

Yet, in great wines, like great works of art, there is something there that we want to learn more about, patterns that we want to learn to follow, a unity we must strive to grasp. A beautiful object can’t mean anything we want it to mean. With beautiful objects we have to search for what they mean and that requires imagination although we are doomed to fail to fully describe it because there is always more to be said. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable—an intellectual fascination with trying discover all the dimensions that a wine has to give. There is a depth to wines of great quality that lesser wines lack.

Of course, some wines won’t repay that much attention. We explore them for awhile, get bored because we’ve come to identify and articulate everything important about them, and move on. By contrast, a wine is genuinely beautiful if it sustains our interest in reflecting on it indefinitely because all attempts to fully understand it fail. It has an order that constantly opens new ways of understanding it because no particular description is ever adequate.

Beautiful objects are intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.

Good taste is a matter of identifying wines that repay our attention and produce endless fascination.

One comment

  1. And yet every discussion of taste and good taste must also address the fact that taste, and good taste, over time, have changed and will continue to change. There are any number of examples from other art forms (from the impressionists to Stravinsky) of artists whose works have been widely disparaged by the critics, only to see them become “classics” years or generations later. And those early critics were absolutely certain of their judgements at the time.

    I wonder what wine styles today, ridiculed or reviled by the current crop of experts, will become the Van Goghs, and Charles Ives compositions of the generations to come? And how will the critics of today be treated by the lovers of those works? If history is our guide, it will not be pretty.

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