Much of my writing about wine is devoted to understanding wine as an aesthetic object and wine tasting as an aesthetic experience. But what, exactly, is an aesthetic experience in the context of wine appreciation? I begin to answer that question in my Three Quarks Daily column this month.
In giving an account of the aesthetic value of wine, the most important factor to keep in mind is that wine is an everyday affair. It is consumed by people in the course of their daily lives, and wine’s peculiar value and allure is that it infuses everyday life with an aura of mystery and consummate beauty. Wine is a “useless” passion that has a mysterious ability to gather people and create community. It serves no other purpose than to command us to slow down, take time, focus on the moment, and recognize that some things in life have intrinsic value. But it does so in situ where we live and play. Wine transforms the commonplace, providing a glimpse of the sacred in the profane. Wine’s appeal must be understood within that frame.
Thus wine differs from the fine arts at least as traditionally conceived. In Western culture, we have demanded that the fine arts occupying a contemplative space outside the spaces of everyday life—the museum, gallery, or concert hall–in order to properly frame the work. (A rock concert venue isn’t a contemplative space but it is analogous to one—a separate, staged performance designed to properly frame music that aims at impact and fervor rather than contemplation) With the emergence of forms of mechanical reproduction this traditional idea of an autonomous, contemplative space is fast eroding allowing fine art (and just about everything else as well) to invade the everyday.
But wine, even very fine wine, is seldom encountered in such autonomous, contemplative spaces. It is usually encountered in the course of life, in spaces and times where other activities are ongoing. Formal tastings exist but are the exception. It’s rare to taste wine in a context where casual conversation is discouraged.
Of course, the “everydayness” of wine will vary depending on the kind of wine tasting activity in which one is engaged. Enjoying a glass after work or with dinner; with family and friends at social gatherings; or visiting a winery on the weekend—these are fully embedded in a commonplace context. For wine professionals and connoisseurs, even focused, analytic tasting may be an everyday affair. Pulling a special bottle out of your cellar to celebrate a special occasion or to have a rare and remarkable experience is less routine. In these cases the experience begins to acquire some of the exclusiveness and autonomy of art appreciation. But even in these cases the venue and companions are likely to be familiar and the occasion a multifaceted affair where some other activity accompanies the wine tasting.
In order to make sense of wine appreciation we need a conception of aesthetic experience that can accommodate wine as an everyday object. Conceptions of aesthetic experience drawn from the fine arts may not be appropriate.