In the art world, formalism has been on of the most important theories of interpretation and evaluation since the mid-20th century. Formalism is the view that the value of a work of art is determined by those properties that are directly accessible via perception. So in the visual arts what matters is what we can seen—colors, lines, shapes, and their relationships which constitute their form. In music, it’s sounds, their relationships, and how they unfold over time. The important point about formalism is that knowledge and appreciation of an artwork’s function, history, or context is relatively unimportant in the evaluation of the work. So the artist’s intention, the history and social conditions that gave birth to the work, and the meaning of what is depicted (in the case of a painting) may be interesting but play no role in the evaluation of a work.
Formalism’s fortunes have waxed and waned since it was first developed by the art critic Clive Bell in 1913 and the role of context in the evaluation of a work is still contested.
There is an analog to formalism in the wine world. Some in the wine world would argue that what matters in the evaluation of a wine is what can be tasted and smelled. We might be interested in the winemaker’s intentions, the varietal of the grapes, or the place in which the grapes were grown. But none of these factor in the evaluation of a wine. A proper evaluation is concerned with only what can be tasted and smelled.
But this formalist view of wine tasting has never been dominant because it excludes the role of terroir and the importance of origins. When appreciating or evaluating a Barolo, it matters deeply that the wine is from Barolo, is an instance of that type, and its character can be explained by the fact the wine is made from the Nebbiolo grape under the precise soil, weather, and climate conditions of that region and/or vineyard.
This is also why the winery’s story figures prominently in most wine communication and it is why wine tourism is important to the wine industry. It is not enough to taste the wine; we want to experience the context of its production.