Last week I pointed out that neither becoming inebriated nor enhanced social commerce were the main point of wine tasting. The rituals of wine tasting are designed to limit the consumption of alcohol and narrowly circumscribe the kinds of socializing that take place.
So what kind of social formation is encouraged by wine tasting?
My hypothesis is this: As a result of the norms and rituals of wine tasting the private taste experience is brought into a public space in a way analogous to art criticism where everyone present can participate in creating widely shared sensations and judgments. There is indeed a community being formed at such events around the idea of a shared sensibility that is worthy of celebration and articulation. The intentional focus on articulating personal, privately-held sensations becomes the mechanism through which we create social bonds around the aesthetic properties of the wine. And the social bond then feeds back on individuals and becomes the mechanism through which people make sense of their own experience. By discussing their sensations, tasters express their own aesthetic sensibilities and attitudes while learning to make sense of the wine presented for tasting. Thus, the participants create as well as consume aesthetic meaning. Wine tasting is “creative culture-making”-a peculiar, contemporary form of culture that is temporary, easy to enter and exit, set off from other cultures, and based on nothing but the creative product itself.
Just as a picture frame allows aesthetic enjoyment of paintings to take place by enclosing the act of viewing, the rituals of wine tasting enclose our taste sensations, walling off the experience from the rest of life so it becomes an autonomous, aesthetic experience. The sensations themselves are held in common in this temporary, autonomous community and these sensations are the glue that hold it together.
All of this, of course, is a kind of performance, rituals enacted that fit participants into various roles. But it is not merely a habitual acting out of high culture. It is not merely a form of conspicuous consumption that signals high status. Of course, people have a variety of motives for participating. The argument isn’t that no one is getting drunk or engaged in conspicuous consumption. But the aim of the event is neither.
Is the alcohol then just an irrelevant byproduct? No. Not at all. The smells, flavors, and tactile sensations of (good) wine are arresting in the sense that they capture and hold your attention, fill the mouth, nose and throat with rousing, exhilarating, constantly shifting sensations that provoke the imagination. The mild intoxication of moderate alcohol consumption amplifies these sensations making them even more vibrant and captivating. Furthermore, wine tasting is an imaginative activity that is inherently social. The conversation around wine enhances the tasting experience. Thus, the mild buzz induced by the modest amounts of alcohol helps that conversation flow with sociability, humor, and grace. The effects of alcohol are an enhancement, not the goal of the activity. They help enable the sense of community formed around the aesthetic sensations of wine.
But those aesthetic sensations–of harmony, sensuality, complexity, finesse, and the patterns of smells and textures–stand on their own and need no further aim. Beauty is it own reward and doesn’t need an excuse.