What Does Wine Express?

wine and vitalityWhen people find out I write on the philosophy of wine, they often ask me “What is your philosophy of wine?

The full answer to that question is in Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love. But the short answer is this:

I think wine is an expressive medium. What do wines express? They express “vitality.” Wine should be understood as a living thing, or more precisely,  the focal point of a living system that includes the wine, its production context, the wine lover, and her community. Wine is both a natural object and a culturally embedded artifact. The “living” aspect of wine—its constant variation, rootedness in nature, and resistance to human intentions—is part of what we find attractive about wine in addition to its flavors and textures of course.

In the wine world, beyond the big, industrial wine manufacturers, everything about the process of making wine is unpredictable. Each vintage is different, even minor changes in weather disrupt expectations, and methods that work for one winery do not work for the winery next door. The surprise, the indeterminacy, the unknowns about how it will develop, and the promise of new, unanticipated flavor experiences lend wine an aura of mystery. Wine exists at the intersection of the wild and the cultivated, and that delicate dance between nature and culture is alluring, at least for wine lovers who devote their lives to the pursuit of vinous beauty.

The human heart tends to prefer certainty and permanence. Nature strives for novelty and impermanence. The creative tension between those opposed tendencies in winemaking and wine appreciation makes wine fascinating.

What are the implications of this view?

It shapes our understanding of wine production and wine appreciation. Wine production and wine tasting become a search for meaningful differences and originality.  The emergent property of vitality takes its place alongside complexity, elegance, and intensity as criteria for wine excellence. We want to sense that vitality in the flow, pace, and dynamics of the wine and the way it moves the mind and the heart. Like other living things, wines have personality. An understanding of the emotional resonance of wines then becomes a central component of wine appreciation. Importantly, we can replace the unhelpful concepts of subjectivism and objectivism, as traditionally conceived, with a more nuanced view of the dynamic constructive intercourse between mind and world in the aesthetic appreciation of wine.

But to appreciate the vitality of wines we must revel in wine’s ambiguity, it’s refusal to be pinned down.  If wine is indeed “bottled poetry,” then it might share poetry’s mystery—as E.B. White wrote, “A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.”


    1. Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. “Resistance to human intentions” means that nature sometimes takes its course in ways we can’t anticipate and that run contrary to human intentions. A winemaker may want to pick at 25 degrees brix but the impending rainstorm may disrupt that intention.

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