I often hear it said that despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, drinking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If the wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And of course the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.
For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude that “only what’s in the glass matters” is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, I think there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what’s in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it’s not all that matters and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.
Burnham and Skilleås in their book The Aesthetics of Wine engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point) but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.
Imagine 3D animations of a wine’s development over time tracing in precise detail all the chemical reactions a wine undergoes from fermentation through aging to popping the cork that can generate a recipe for all those stages. Thus, in this imagined scenario, wine factories can synthetically produce an exact duplicate of any wine you want. All wines at all stages in their development can be manufactured and sold at a modest price. That 2005 Lafite that sells for thousands of dollars per bottle, you can order it as it tasted in 2025 for about $30. The special bottle of La Tâche purchased at your daughter’s birth and opened for her graduation—no problem, just order another. The vagaries of farming, vintage variation, wine faults and supply limitations now all a part of the misty, dimly remembered past.
And let’s imagine these synthetic wines have been put through rigorous taste tests and it is demonstrated conclusively that there is no discernable difference between the synthetic wines and the originals.
Is that a wine world you want to live in?
I suspect that some people would say sure. If what matters is only what is in the glass then nothing would be lost in the 2030 scenario and much would be gained. There are benefits to a world in which even people with modest incomes can drink great wine.
But I suspect that many of us would demur. I know I would. We know that people value originals and that art works discovered to be forgeries lose all value. We are inherently fascinated by origins as psychologist Paul Bloom has shown. Isn’t part of what we enjoy about wine its connection to a place, the unique conditions of its production, and the creativity, initiative, and risk-taking of the people who made it?
The fact that wine is a collaboration between humanity and nature is part of its appeal. So is the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what you will get when you open the bottle. As Burnham and Skilleås write:
Having to expect the unexpected may not only be a fact of life in the wine world of today but also something that creates a welcome frisson in the wine lover.
So too does the sense of regret knowing that for special bottles you will never have that experience again. The maturing and decline of a bottle and the fact that all the bottles of a cuvée will eventually disappear symbolizes much about the human condition. These symbolic connections are all severed in the 2030 scenario.
Would these losses be worth the opportunity to drink a 2005 Lafite whenever we want? Would we even appreciate such a wine when perfection becomes the norm?
More deeply it’s worth asking whether human ingenuity could create the remarkable yet subtle differences that the collaboration between culture, geography and nature create?
If these considerations carry any weight for you, then your appreciation of wine goes far beyond “what’s in the glass’’.
Was the Nobel committee prescient, their choice as apt as Patti Smith’s wordlessness?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
I’ve been thinking about the concept of creativity as I work through issues related to the art of winemaking. In my Three Quarks Daily column this month I argue that creativity in the arts is more like discovering something new about your materials and less like inventing something from scratch.
There is no reason not to consider the world as one gigantic painting
When teaching aesthetics I always struggle to capture in a few words the essence of modern art. Rauschenberg’s quote I think does it.
For helpful oversimplifications, if Renaissance painting is about religious narratives and their intersection with ordinary life, classical and neo-classical art about the grandeur of the human form expressed via harmony and rational proportion, and romantic art about emotion and the glorification of nature, modern art takes all of reality, its colors, textures, lines, even at its most mundane, as its subject matter. From the impressionist’s interest in light, to the cubist play of surfaces, Kandinsky’s geometrical forms, the use of found objects, to the environmental art of today, visual artists treat the world as one big painting of which each individual artist abstracts only a small portion.
Students often express frustration with modern art wondering what it’s about, what meaning is has. Obviously some modern works have meaning in the conventional sense of a narrative or set of characters that do something intelligible. But the larger project of modern art is to simply take some dimension of reality and highlight it, put it on a pedestal so we see it anew.
It’s about the visual play of matter in motion which cannot be constrained by anything as limited as a narrative. It takes perception seriously, not merely as a precursor to conceptual understanding, but as something in itself worth exploring.
I doubt that Rauschenberg’s “First Landing Jump” has an articulable meaning other than to portray a collection of familiar textures and shapes in a juxtaposition never before seen.
The art of cooking is peculiar. Cooking, because it supplies us with energy and nutrition, must fit into the rhythms of daily life. It is constrained by practicalities of all sorts—money, time, personal preferences–that limit what can be done. Within those constraints of course there is ample opportunity for a cook to be creative by playing with ingredients, modifying recipes or trying new techniques all with the aim of making the food taste good.
But that’s not art; that’s life.
Art, by contrast, is the realm of consciously-developed form. Edible art, like any type of art, must have meaning, emotional resonance, and distinctive pattern. To make edible art it is not enough that the food taste good. The flavors must be organized into patterns that allow us to mentally grasp the work and understand it. Art isn’t the realm of pure freedom where creativity goes on a wild bender. Creativity is constrained by the demands or form just as for a novelist an elaborate, subtle plot limits the way characters can be developed.
So for the artistic chef, cooking is not just a matter of making food taste good but of giving the food significant form by displaying flavors in meaningful patterns that provoke a reaction. Art occupies the tensive border between ordinary life and something that transcends the ordinary, and if cooking is an art it too must embody that tension.
I think that is a challenge for cooks or chefs who are accustomed to providing only comfort.
Does simplicity have aesthetic value? The dominant voices in the Western tradition of aesthetics praise complexity; finding unity in diversity is the hallmark of great art. Certainly in wine, complexity not simplicity is most admired. Legendary and high scoring wines all exhibit complex flavor profiles and extensive evolution on the palate. Simple wines might be enjoyable for dinner but seldom induce rapture.
But in food, simplicity seems to have its place. As the celebrated gastronome Curnonsky wrote, “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are”. Great chefs know when to simplify recipes to eliminate anything that might distract from an ingredient’s inherent flavor. Japanese aesthetics has long appreciated simplicity. And many minimalist works in painting, (Malevich or Rothko) or in music, ( Reich or Riley or the blues for that matter), rely on simplicity. Are these exceptions that prove the rule that complexity is fundamental to aesthetic value? Or is Western aesthetics missing something in its praise of the virtues of complexity?
It seems to me simplicity is often a tool through which an artist achieves unity and balance in a work. Thus simplicity has instrumental value. But is simplicity inherently aesthetically pleasing? Can it stand alone, not as instrument to achieve unity, but as something itself aesthetically pleasing?
I’m not sure. But if simplicity has inherent aesthetic value, it would disrupt current practices of wine tasting.
Stay tuned for more on this.
Adonis, the poet and outspoken Paris-based Syrian exile, thinks art has that potential. In an interview at the New York Review of Books blog he explains:
The East and the West are economic and military concepts, and were created by colonialism. We can say geographically that there are East and West. Economics and colonialism took advantage of that.
But in art there is no East and West. You see it in the paintings of Paul Klee and how he was inspired by Tunisia and Eastern Arabia. You see it in the paintings of Delacroix and how he was inspired by Morocco. When you read Rimbaud, you see that the best thing about Rimbaud is that he is not a Westerner; although he was born in the West, he was completely against the West. When you read Abu Nawas, or Abu Al-Ma’arri, you do not say that they are Easterners or Westerners. The creative ones are from one world, regardless of what country they come from or where they went. They live together beyond geography, beyond languages and nationalism, and they belong to the creative world of humanity. In this sense there is neither East nor West. Whitman is just like Abu Tammam for me. He is a part of me, and I am a part of him.
It would be nice to think so.
The dangers of romanticism and worries about cultural appropriation notwithstanding, creativity always seeks to erase boundaries, especially the artificial ones the make sense only if violence and theft is your thing.
A world without art would be a world in which no one would be curious about shadows or impatient with limits—a world in which authority would be all to comfortable.
I think Adonis is essentially right.
Art is a confederacy of lepers and pariahs, affecting little except for its crucial role as testimony to the possibility of non-violence.