My Three Quarks post this month is a somewhat revised version of my two recent posts on Edible Arts exploring whether wine tasting should strive for objectivity.
If by “objectivity” we mean “wholly lacking personal biases”, in wine tasting, this idea can be ruled out. There are too many individual differences among wine tasters, regardless of how much expertise they have acquired, to aspire to this kind of objectivity. But traditional aesthetics has employed a related concept which does seem attainable—an attitude of disinterestedness, which allegedly provides much of what we want from objectivity.
“Disinterestedness” refers to a kind of experience in which an object is perceived “for its own sake”, not merely for its usefulness at achieving some other goal. The idea is that in genuine aesthetic appreciation we must consider the object without the distraction of practical concerns or personal desires that govern ordinary life. By bracketing or “walling off” ordinary desires and everyday practical concerns, we are able to have a contemplative, imaginative experience that enables the full range of aesthetic properties of an object to emerge.
Last week I provided an argument for why wine tasting should be disinterested. Blind tasting and the use of standardized tasting procedures designed to eliminate distractions aim at this disinterested experience, preventing certain kinds of personal biases from influencing judgment. We can’t eliminate differences among tasters that arise from biology or life history, but we can minimize the influence of personal motives and desires that might distort the tasting experience.
But is something lost when we aim for disinterestedness? In the end, the concept of “disinterest”, if it is at all useful, must be disentangled from its historical origins and viewed as a limited practical procedure, not a distinctive kind of experience.
With regard to art, how an object fits into its practical context is often aesthetically relevant. For instance, part of the aesthetic evaluation of religious or political paintings will depend on how effectively they deliver the religious or political message, which cannot be disentangled from the actual desires that people have and the life choices available to them. Architectural works, dance music, and virtually any performance that must capture something of the moment can be appreciated only when considered in light of the actual life experiences that constitute their enjoyment in the moment. Surely such works can be contemplated, but that contemplation presupposes engagement with the circumstances of life.
Such considerations apply to wine as well. How well a wine works with a particular cuisine, the way the properties of the wine intersect with climate and weather, how the production and consumption of a wine intersects with the life of the community that makes it, and how it complements the social activities it accompanies–these are practical matters that must feed into and inform our judgments even as we adopt a contemplative attitude. In other words, not all practical matters can be screened off. No object is purely an imaginative object.
Immanuel Kant, the philosopher most closely associated with promoting disinterestedness, argued that in order for a work to stimulate the imagination and be available for contemplation, reference to the real existence of the object must be suspended. But in this Kant is mistaken. By failing to consider the object as a thing, a physical object with real existence, we miss crucial aesthetic features of the work.
Any work of art is an object in a web of relations. It invokes associations with particular persons, their culture and its place therein. But it is also inseparable from the physical materials out of which it is made that shine forth in the work regardless of how they are manipulated by the artist. You can’t subtract the paint from the painting or the stone from the sculpture; their aesthetic properties are a product of the paint, canvas, and stone trying to mean something—that tension has an intensity that can be appreciated only by attention to what Heidegger called the “thingly” character of the work. In other words, origins are essential in aesthetics. You can’t wholeheartedly enter the world of the art object without knowing its source, without recognizing the actual causal forces that operating on the object.
And this clearly applies to wine. In wine we must know the character of the grapes, the influence of weather and climate, the winemaker’s intentions, and the preferences and history of the community in order to know whether a work—a particular wine—reaches its full potential. All of these factors are “screened off” via blind tasting, the practical implementation of disinterestedness. As useful as blind tasting is for certain purposes, it is not a method for full aesthetic appreciation.
To be fair to Kant, he was motivated by the need to explain how objects that induce powerful emotions could be represented and made available for contemplation and imaginative play if they tapped into our actual desires and real life fears. We have to approach them at arm’s length, not as real objects but as imaginative objects, if we are not to run screaming from the gallery or symphony hall—we interpret the feelings rather than fully experiencing them. But this seems to apply to only some works of art. Some art is precisely designed to break down our defenses, to forcefully induce intense feelings that we then must work through. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road or the film short by David Wojnarowicz A Fire in My Belly are among any number of difficult, contemporary works that engage our actual desires as we experience them. And if we are to decide if the feelings expressed by the work are to be made our own we cannot ultimately view them from a disinterested point of view. The process of integrating them into our lives requires, not the suspension of ordinary desires, but their articulation in light of the work. Some art might benefit from the lack of concern about the reality of the object. But some art depends on experiencing a genuine emotion that can come only from engagement. There is no general approach that is always correct.
In the end, we can deploy intense attention, thoughtfulness, perceptual acuity, and the mystery of aesthetic wonder, without positing a separate mode of experience. Can we distinguish aesthetic engagement from concerns with price, friendship, or politics while at the same time acknowledging that the aesthetic dimension is part of practical, “interested” activities. It depends on how powerful self-reflection is. If I know I might be influenced by price, can I reflectively suspend that concern? Kant seems to presuppose that I can. That is what it means to be disinterested. But this needn’t be a global attitude or a distinct kind of experience. Instead it is a specific mode of attention for a specific work in certain contexts.
I argued recently that beauty involves our motivational states—to find an object beautiful is to desire to have that object in my life and devote part of my life to it. (This post is temporarily unavailable) The concept of disinterestedness seems to deny this dimension of beauty since it is precisely a desire for the object that is screened out. To be without interest is to refuse any thought of possessing the object in favor of contemplating it.
But it seems to me the crucial question to answer when evaluating a work of art, a piece of music or a wine is “how much do I enjoy it when I’m open to being moved by it?” Think about music criticism. It would be hard to answer this question without seeing to what degree we are moved by the music, inclined to make it part of our lives, to assess whether we want to experience this work again and again, to determine if it has staying power. The motivation to explore further is a constitutive part of the appreciative moment.
Appreciation of wine may sometimes require temporarily suspending judgments about cost, reputation, relationship with the producer, amusement, refreshment, social lubrication, etc. But our appreciation so gained must then be integrated with its promise and potential for further engagement and this is an integral part of the aesthetic experience. The beauty is in the eros, the mystery and its pull, not a bloodless analysis of the properties of the wine. The experience is always forward looking; whatever is gleaned from the experience must be integrated with one’s life if the work is to have meaning. It’s that pull that a work has that determines its value.
So disinterestedness is not the mark of beauty but a tactical maneuver to get focused on the right properties, a manipulation of the conditions for aesthetic experience, not the experience itself. Especially with regard to wine tasting, it may be that conditions have to be properly arranged to enable certain features to appear, but the appreciation itself need involve no special sort of experience disconnected from the rest of life.
Genuine aesthetic experiences are pervasive in everyday human life, from appreciating the glow of morning sun to enjoying conversations to sipping Chardonnay. If we think of aesthetic perception as focused, intense, attention on features of an object that views every feature as potentially relevant there is no situation or object that cannot be experienced aesthetically.
No doubt, aesthetic engagement offers us an alternative way of looking at everyday life, which is too often caught up in financial concerns, exploitation, instrumental thinking, time constraints and other limiting factors that prevent us fully appreciating an object. Engaging with art or other aesthetic objects is not an escape from that world, not a way of disengaging with life’s projects, but an alternative way of viewing those projects. Art and wine meld the world of imagination with practical, everyday experience and for that meshwork to occur we must be fully engaged in practical life.
Disinterest has only a limited role to play in certain situations; it is not an aspiration for all wine criticism.
Jamie Goode’s recent post “We don’t want our wines to taste nicer, but truer” marks an important distinction, although, as usual, I will want to quibble about it.
He argues that most wine consumers prefer wines that are soft and fruity because they taste “nicer”. They prefer these wines for the perfectly good reason that they lack the understanding and experience to profitably taste more challenging wines. But he rightly argues that for wine lovers with more experience, we should want wines that reflect their origins. He uses cheese lovers as an example:
But let’s make a comparison with cheese. I don’t want someone to take my cheese and make it taste nicer. I want Comte that really tastes of Comte; I want Cheddar with a strong spicy tang; I want goats cheese that’s even a bit alarming at first for its goatiness.
Ordinary cheese consumers are like ordinary wine consumers. A block of mild, creamy, supermarket cheddar is adequate. Too much “goatiness” in a goat cheese would be off-putting.
That there is such segmentation in the market is fine. Not everyone is going to be an oenophile or cheese expert, although he warns wine producers that chasing the price-sensitive low end of the market doesn’t always produce long-term success.
In the end its the differences produced by local terroir that matters.
Generally speaking, though, as with cheese, I don’t want my wines to taste nicer: I want them to taste truer. Where there are wines of terroir – expressing a local flavour – I really want to buy one of these wines that tastes of where its from. That’s what makes wine interesting. Of course, this local flavour is partly derived from the site, which is the conventional understanding of terroir. But terroir as expressed in a wine is an interpretive act. It’s the combination of site, plus the variety (ies), and the choices of the winegrower. Local cultural practices can contribute to the local flavour. Some places have more local flavour than others. That’s just how it is. With wine, if you have a local flavour, no one can copy you.
The implication here, which I think some will find controversial, is that appreciating origins is more important than a purely hedonic response. Wines that express their origins may be less enjoyable than some commercial wines. Appreciation of “terroir wines” is a more intellectual satisfaction, an appreciation of the meaningfulness of the connection between the flavors and textures in the glass and the land and people who make the wine. But it is more than just that connection. It’s about distinctiveness and individuality. As he says “if you have a local flavour, no one can copy you”.
That last sentence is important. The essence of wine appreciation is the recognition of meaningful difference, appreciating wines as particulars, unique individuals.
But here is the problem. To require that a wine express its “local flavor” is to require that a wine exhibit typicity, that it be typical of the region or vineyard in which the grapes are grown. But if differentiation and individuality are the standard, shouldn’t we also admire the atypical, the wine that seeks its own path, that refuses to conform to local expectations?
There is tension between the criterion of typicity and the criterion of individuality. Wine producers that are comfortable with their wines’ expressing typicity are a bit like aging rock stars pounding out their hits at a casino, a parody of their once creative artistry.
I, for one, while appreciative of true wines want different wines. The search for terroir is indeed an interpretative act but one that seeks continual self-overcoming.
In professional wine evaluation the goal of objectivity, avoiding biases that might distort perception, governs the procedures used in tasting wine. Blind tasting, where tasters do not know the producer, region and in many cases the varietal, is essential to realizing this goal. In modern Western aesthetics this goal of objectivity has been articulated via the concept of disinterestedness, (a barbarous term but it’s the one we have to work with) which seems to provide a justification for blind tasting.
Although I think blind tasting has its role, we can see its limitations by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of disinterestedness. This post will explain what is correct about this concept. My account of its drawbacks will follow later in the week.
Disinterestedness refers a kind of experience in which an object is perceived “for its own sake”, not merely for its usefulness at achieving some other goal. The idea is that in genuine aesthetic appreciation we must consider the object without the distraction of practical concerns or personal desires that govern ordinary life. In fact Immanuel Kant, the philosopher most responsible for promoting this idea, argued that the appreciation of genuine beauty is possible only via disinterested attention, which he thought of as a distinctive type of experience quite separate from everyday experience.
It’s important to acknowledge the genuine insight in this view. The value of some works of art and other objects like wine do seem to be self-contained at least in some contexts. They are appreciated for their qualities independently of practical considerations such as price, reputation, political influence or historical status. We also must judge wines without concern for personal matters like getting a buzz, loosening conversation, or showing off. When we judge from a disinterested standpoint we adopt a contemplative attitude that walls off our judgment from the messy world of commerce or relationships. Professional wine tasting is ideally set up so these factors don’t influence our judgment.
Part of Kant’s motivation for developing this idea was in accounting for our appreciation of the sublime. In confronting what is overwhelmingly powerful, awe-inspiring, or painful in works of art and nature, we can’t process our emotional response unless we are at a safe distance from the real object, the object must be imaginative in some sense. The object can’t be real because the experience of fear or awe would undermine any aesthetic response.
Similarly, in experiencing instrumental music I experience the tensions and resolutions as belonging to the music, not to me. When viewing a painting, the world represented in the painting is not mine but the world of the painting itself. There is a difference between suffering an emotion and having that emotion articulated in the work. Art works cannot fully tap into my own system of desires. Up to a point my desires are irrelevant, thus allowing the exercise of the imagination.
Our experience of art differs from ordinary, everyday experience in that in art emotions such as fear, joy or anger have no immediate object in our personal lives. What happens in the work stays in the work we might say. We might surrender to the work but in doing so we can un-surrender if we want. This ability to suspend personal responses and focus on the object itself is at the heart of the disinterested attitude.
That is what is right about Kant’s view. And there is some justification for applying it to wine tasting. No doubt when we evaluate wine we should be intensely focused on the wine and its aesthetic properties rather than being distracted by extraneous matters. Casual, wandering attention or attention to the winemaker’s way with words will make an honest evaluation of wine more difficult. And it is essential to understanding wine’s appeal that it indeed has intrinsic value. Although wine serves a variety of purposes, one primary source of our interest in wine is as an object of pure contemplative enjoyment.
This need for disinterested attention is especially important given that wine is inherently a vague object which does not relinquish its charms without training and effort, part of which involves designing the tasting experience so the proper features of the wine stand out. Furthermore, it has been well documented through various studies that our appreciation of flavor is influenced by all sorts of environmental factors from the music playing in the background to our emotional state while imbibing.
The wine itself can stand out only when these environmental factors are screened off through blind tasting in a neutral, non-stimulating environment.
Thus, blind tasting when it encourages this attitude of disinterested attention has a role to play in wine appreciation.
I will argue that it is a very limited role one that can be abused in a subsequent post.
One of the often repeated objections to the validity of wine criticism is that the influence of alcohol destroys the capacity for good judgment. Unlike music or film criticism, wine criticism is necessarily performed while inebriated and is thus inherently unreliable.
The standard response is to point out that wine tasters and critics typically spit when confronted with a large number of wines thus limiting their exposure to alcohol. But alcohol is absorbed through the tissues in the mouth. Just a few sips of wine will give you a mild buzz even when spitting.
Is this really an issue? I doubt it. In fact mild inebriation might improve wine criticism.
There is some evidence that mild inebriation enhances sensory experience. Test subjects in a variety of experiments show an enhanced ability to detect aromas when under a mild alcoholic influence:
Endevelt’s team then tested the senses of people in pubs around the cities of Rehovot and Herzliya. Forty-five volunteers were asked to perform a scratch-and-sniff test, in which they had to identify which one of three odour compounds was different from the other two.
Across all three experiments, the team found a correlation between a person’s blood-alcohol level and score on tests of odour detection and discrimination. But while low levels of alcohol improved performance, too much – about two units within an hour for women and three for men – led to a significant reduction in sense of smell.
In addition there is some evidence that alcohol enables certain kinds of learning and memory because the release of dopamine strengthens synapses and the reward systems in the brain.
But perhaps more importantly the mildly intoxicating effect of wine consumed in moderation helps us engage with reality. Wine has long been recognized as a social lubricant enhancing sociability, conversation, and graciousness in part because of the alcohol. In other words wine makes us more receptive to a sense of community and the emotional register of people around us.
It is not implausible to think this heightened sensibility achieved through mild intoxication might also make us more sensitive to a broad array of properties in wine, more aware of subtle shifts in the flavors, contours and textures of the wine, and more aware of how the complex dimensions of a wine come together to form a unity with distinctively aesthetic properties such as elegance, finesse, and harmony.
The capacity for receptivity is fundamental to all aesthetic experience. If receptivity to aromas and sociability is enhanced by small quantities of alcohol, why not the full array of properties and their relationships available in wine?
Wine critics, drink up!
This recent article by Zachary Sussman in Punch provides a much needed corrective to what has become a cliché that winemakers do nothing except let the grapes express themselves.
Even those of us who prefer our wines to be made with a lo-fi approach know full well that wine doesn’t make itself. Even the most minimally invasive scenario still involves skillful mediation. David Lillie, of New York’s Chambers Street Wines, sums this up well, recalling a quote from the Jura winemaker Pierre Overnoy: “Making natural wine isn’t so easy—you don’t just decide not to add sulfur and then go take a vacation.
The ideology that a winemaker is nothing but a custodian was useful in drawing a contrast with mass-produced, industrial wines or wines made according to a recipe intended to get big scores. What goes on in the vineyard is crucial to making good wine. But that vineyard work requires a lot of understanding and expertise. And once the grapes arrive in the winery making good wine requires meticulous care and watchfulness. If you’re not going to use chemicals and whiz bang filtration technologies to correct flaws then you better make sure you understand what’s going on in your fermentation tanks.
There are countless decisions that have to be made in the vineyard and in the winery about how to process the grapes, when to move on to the next stage, and about when those processes are complete that mean every wine has the stamp of the winemaker on it, if only because it’s their personal taste that governs these decisions.
Jason Brandt of Berkeley’s Donkey and Goat digs into just one aspect of winemaking, how the grapes are pressed:
First off, before we even load the grapes into the press, we sort them, which not everyone chooses to do, and then you have a slew of decisions on how to use the press, which are all really impactful, especially on the whites,” Brandt explains. He continues to describe “the various programs you can use to increase the pressure on the grapes,” specifying his preferred method of “slowly increasing the pressure, holding it for five minutes and then increasing it again, which is one way to get the extraction you want.” Then there’s the matter of how many turns the press should complete—“I’m not a big fan of having to press-turn, actually, since I think you get flavors that aren’t as interesting or consistent with what we want”—and how long to run it.
This is before we get to issues such as fermentation temperatures, macerations, wine stability, battonage, and aging decisions all governed by the tasting acuity and preferences of the winemaker. The physical activity of winemaking is basically about carrying out logistical strategies, racking wine, moving barrels around and freeing up space. But the intellectual component is really about taste and that involves a creative interpretation of the grapes, vineyard, winemaking equipment and consumer preference.
Without that interpretation you have plonk or vinegar.
German philosopher Hans Jonas’s “The Nobility of Sight” is a prominent example. Only vision, he argued, gives us eternal, universal truths, which have been philosophy’s concern throughout most of its history. Vision puts us in mind of the eternal because time is not essential to it. When we view a landscape we see the visual field displayed all at once, in no time. An object can be visually identified immediately without a sequence of appearances over time, in contrast to sound, touch, or taste that need time to reveal the character of their objects. Visual objects also have stability. We can view an object, look away, and then return to the very same object as if nothing has changed unlike the fleeting, ever-changing objects of taste, smell, and sound.
Furthermore, Jonas argues, with vision we can see objects with accuracy if we maintain our distance from them. With touch, smell, and taste we must be intimate with the object thus increasing the chances that personal bias might influence our understanding of it.
Despite their illustrious pedigree, these are very bad arguments. We learn nothing of the eternal through vision, or any other sensory mechanism, and vision without the opportunity for subsequent confirmation, in time, would be the source of constant error. Furthermore, our sense of the stability of objects is as dependent on the sense of touch as on vision. The stability of our visual field depends on the body’s orientation is space, which is maintained, in part, by our tactile contact with solid objects.
As to the alleged objectifying distance of vision, science shows that vision involves intimate contact with physical objects–swarms of photons. We are just as capable of misinterpreting those photons as we are the signals from taste buds. Psychological research has demonstrated the unreliability of eye-witness testimony and perceptual judgments are hardly immune to subjective bias. Objects are often seen at a distance or under conditions otherwise unsuitable for reliable identification.
At best, vision’s distance and the illusion of simultaneity allow us to spin metaphors about the eternal and universal. But misleading metaphors are bad metaphors.
However, there is an important contrast between vision and the other senses. Through vision we do gain a sense of an horizon, an area beyond our present space. This is surely important for the development of our imagination in our evolutionary history.
By contrast, touch , taste, and smell root us in the here and now. Objects must be spatially and temporally present for them to effect these sensory modalities. But why should experience rooted in the here and now be uninteresting to philosophy?
If taste is philosophically uninteresting, perhaps it is because philosophers lack taste.
Stats wizard David Morrison has a compelling argument that scores between wine critics cannot be compared except in the rare case in which two critics use the same objective scoring scheme. I actually think the situation is worse than David suggests, but more on that in a moment.
His reasoning is as follows.
I have finally concluded that there are two fundamentally different sorts of wine-quality scores in use: (1) what we might call an objective score, based on explicitly assigning points to a series of pre-defined wine characteristics, and then summing them to get the wine score; and (2) subjective (but expert) scores, where the overall score comes from whatever characteristics the scorer wants to express.
David is not referring to the way the scores are expressed via a 100 pt. scale vs a 20 pt. scale. Rather he is referring to the underlying method by which the scores are created. With objective scoring there is only one scoring scheme so a disagreement among critics would be a genuine disagreement about wine quality. But when critics choose their own idiosyncratic scoring system a disagreement about scores may reflect a different scoring method or different interpretation of the method rather than a difference in wine quality.
The same scores could mean different qualities (because the scoring schemes are different), and different scores could mean the same quality (because the scoring schemes are different). How on earth are we to know? We can’t!
I think David is exactly right about subjective scores. But I also think what he calls objective scores are also subject to varying interpretations. For example, suppose we develop an objective scoring scheme based on the following pre-defined characteristics with a numerical scale for each characteristic.
We will assess wines for intensity, complexity, balance, length, typicity, and mouthfeel. We will assess every wine using a numerical scale from 0-9 and sum the results producing a score at the end. These characteristics don’t begin to capture wine quality but adding a more complicated scheme will only increase the problem I want to identify.
The problem is, in this scheme, all the criteria are assigned equal weight—intensity counts the same as balance, etc. But why assume each criterion is of equal value especially across all wines and all varietals? Pinot Noir will not have the length of most Cabernets. A shorter finish may not damage Pinot Noir in the way it would disappoint in the Cab. A wine even slightly out of balance will suffer in quality despite making up for that deficit in its intensity and complexity. Typicity is important for some purposes but to give it equal weight in every case would disadvantage wines designed to be atypical. A young, old-school Barolo will have mouth ripping tannins undermining mouthfeel so we would be forced to discount mouthfeel or make a guess about how it will develop.
For a meaningful objective scoring scheme we would have to find some objective way of weighting the various criteria but that would have to be specific to varietal, region, and style since these all require different values.
Even if we were to manage to develop such a scheme, the most important factor in wine quality at least according some critics—the degree to which a wine expresses the distinctive features of the vineyard—is not and could not be in the picture. There is no objective measure of such a quality.
The whole idea of an objective scoring system is hopeless.
So why do I use scores in my reviews you might ask? Because they are useful in assessing how much a critic enjoyed the wine. But they mean nothing more than that. They are a subjective measure of the degree of quality I found in a wine when compared to other wines I’ve tasted. Nothing more, but nothing less. This information is meaningful to the degree you find a particular critic’s palate trustworthy.
A wine score is an invitation to try the wine, not a data point in a competition.
In my conversation with Tyler Thomas, winemaker for Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, part of which I posted last week, he said that he didn’t think winemaking was an art because wine is incapable of expressing emotions such as melancholy.
The purpose of wine is to bring pleasure. It’s not art because it’s limited in expression. It’s not supposed to express melancholy. It’s about pleasure and about the property. If you don’t like the wine you won’t ask where it came from.
At the time I didn’t raise objections to his comment since I was more interested in discovering his views on a variety of other issues. But I found the comment curious because, it seems to me, melancholy is one of the more salient emotions expressed by some wines—in particular aged wines that show considerable development but still have some vitality to them. So I want to explore this question of how such wines can express melancholy.
Melancholy is a peculiar and complex emotion. Although often associated with sadness and depression, melancholy is a distinct emotion and mood. it lacks the resignation of depression and is reflective and contemplative, unlike sadness which tends to be an immediate, felt response to a perceived loss. Melancholy has negative and positive aspects; a bit of longing with a touch of sadness but also feelings of pleasure or inspiration which are a central element of the emotion. Often caused by particular memories or thoughts, melancholy involves taking some pleasure in what we love or hope for, so it is tinged with sweetness. For instance if melancholy is caused by the memory of a lost love from the past, melancholy might involve a tinge of sadness at the loss but will be accompanied by pleasurable thoughts of being with that person as well. Melancholy is not always, in fact perhaps not typically, experienced as a negative emotion. Sometimes we attempt to prolong melancholy by seeking a quiet place where the feeling can be indulged. As Victor Hugo said, “melancholy is the happiness of being sad.”
We often feel melancholy (or at least a weakened version of it) in response to works of art, literature or film. The fictional characters and events become the object of our experience of melancholy. But melancholy can be a mood as well as an emotion. Moods are feelings that do not have an object. They come over us, seemingly without reason and can affect our entire personality. The mood of melancholy can arise when in a desolate landscape or on a fog-shrouded lake. In the arts the experience of a melancholy mood (as opposed to the emotion) is most often found in music. From Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations to Avro Pärt’s De Profundis to the ambient soundscapes of Bing and Ruth’s Tomorrow was the Golden Age, music of almost every genre is capable of expressing the contemplative, somber mood with moments of vitality that characterize melancholy.
How does wine express melancholy? The answer can be found in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
Wabi which originally means “poverty” refers to the roughness of everyday things that have been in use for a long time. As an aesthetic it involves finding beauty in the asymmetry and imperfection of disintegration. Sabi typically means” loneliness” and in the aesthetic context refers to a state of contemplative solitude in persons, and spare simplicity in objects. Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic principle is an affirmation of imperfection, austerity and melancholy. It’s the beauty of weathered, scarred, ephemeral objects which become more exquisite the closer them come to their non-existence. A broken, earthenware cup, a branch of autumn leaves, a weather-beaten door, if they exhibit a kind of grace, in a context that highlights their evocativeness are wabi-sabi. Melancholy, that peculiar mix of sadness and delight, is the primary mood or emotion evoked by wabi-sabi.
It should be obvious that aged wine, as it begins its downward trajectory while still maintaining elegance and vitality, can be an example of wabi-sabi and is properly attended to in the mood of melancholy. Given the ephemeral nature of wine, we are witnessing the loss of something valuable that exhibits its own unique “patina”. Since each bottle of wine ages differently, its flavors and textures reflect its unique nature and history as the wine responds to the conditions under which it was bottled and stored. With many aged wines, it is likely you may never taste that cuvee again as the bottles from a particular vintage are consumed over time. Thus, an aged wine expresses the passage of time, the quality of impermanence which is associated with the sadness, longing, and inspiration of melancholy. The appreciation of aged wine induces reflection on the lives of the people who made the wine who have left behind this fragment from their past. It invites both memory and imagination but also reflection on the impermanence of cultural achievements and their celebration–the ravages of time as both something to celebrate and fear.
The fact that wines must give pleasure in order for us to appreciate them is no obstacle to wine expressing melancholy since the experience of pleasure, albeit mixed with sadness, is an important element in melancholy. Aged wines, like the objects of wabi-sabi lack the bright, juicy, freshness and power of young wines. They are appreciated precisely because time has exposed some hidden dimension of the wine in which we take pleasure.
Thus, it seems to me wine can express melancholy. If we decline to experience it as we consume the wine that may be testimony to our shallowness or inattention, not any inherent limitation on wines’ expressive potential.