Some wines have the status of classic works of art: First growth Bordeaux; Burgundy Grand Cru; or, well aged Giacomo Conterno Barolo to name a few.
But these wines are typically priced beyond the reach of most wine lovers. Thus, the iconic wines in effect devalue the experience of wine. For most serious wine lovers, these wines are the absent guideline, the standard that can only be imagined rather than experienced.
But there is another side of wine that is more accessible and readily available. This is a world of wild innovation and experiment with newly discovered terroirs, new methods of viticulture and vinification, and a competitive quest for quality enhancements that raise the bar for all wine lovers. Wines from this second world are accessible and interesting but they lack the track record and respect from connoisseurs and critics that the classic wines enjoy.
There is much discussion in the wine world about the future of wine and how the industry can attract customers, compete with other beverages, and protect the land and vineyards from climate change and other environmental threats. If wine is to succeed going forward, it will be because that second world of innovation can be sustained. And that will require a more robust and many-sided discussion of beauty.
Critical discussion of wine, in the modern era, was born in that classical wine world when those iconic wines were more affordable and accessible at least to consumers who lived in population centers where a wine trade could flourish. These wines earned their credentials and became the benchmark of what wine should be. But it’s that second world of innovation that needs more attention from critics.
But what language do we have for discussing these new wines?
As the importance of wine criticism has grown, there also has been an interest in developing exact language that form the bases of logical conclusions that could at least aspire to a kind of objectivity. Hence the aroma wheel and the tasting grids taught by certification organizations that have brought professionalization to the wine tasting world.
Yet the presentation of an emotional experience is also part of criticism. There is a contrast between a cool objective analysis of wine’s properties vs a focus on how a wine is experienced and how if affects one’s emotions and sensations. A wine writer needs to do both. She is a representative of the wine community and an investigator with the professional duty to interpret her experience in the existing language of criticism. But she is also is an individual with a distinctive, well informed experience of a wine and it is that distinctive viewpoint that reader’s want.
However, the critic has an additional responsibility as well. The critic must say something about how we value wine aesthetically, posing and trying to answer new questions about our taste experiences especially as innovations in winemaking move forward. In the art world this more theoretical discussion is handled by academics for better or for worse. But there is no similar role in the wine world except as invented by the occasional philosopher who takes time from pondering the meaning of life to write about a beverage.
In my view if we are to succeed at maintaining wine’s status as a consummate aesthetic experience, we have to learn to talk about beauty and the distinctive kind of beauty wine embodies, especially with regard to innovative wines. In some circles classed-growth Bordeaux and other classic wines are considered to be beyond the need for defense in terms of beauty. They are like a Rembrandt painting or Beethoven symphony. It is assumed that they are what vinous beauty is. Can we continue to make that assumption? No doubt discussions of rare and expensive wines and the cultural history behind them are important in protecting wine’s status, and they certainly contribute to wine’s aesthetic value. But those arguments must be expanded to discuss not only the specific way their existence affects the aesthetic value of wine, but how the new kids on the block are reshaping our understanding of vinous beauty.
In keeping an open mind about new approaches to wine, it’s also important to remember that there are many ways of experiencing aesthetic value. The model of solitary, undisturbed, contemplative tasting, the traditional norm for wine criticism, is not the only context in which aesthetic value can be assessed. The aesthetics of wine is a holistic experience that includes the context in which wine is consumed. No wine is suitable for every occasion no matter how good it is. We need to find ways of incorporating context into wine criticism.
The universe of serious wine seems to me to be fragmenting into two worlds: a world of classic beauty and a world of experiment, differentiation and rapid change. One of the main points of Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love is that we must find the beauty in the latter world as well as the former and for that we need a robust discussion of the many sides of beauty.
Bombarded by the trickery, gimmicks, and seemingly desperate marketing of wine, I’m always reassured by your posts.
Thank you Lee!