For wine enthusiasts, artisanal wine is about continuous variation and the singularities that emerge from those variations. Wine enthusiasts devote most of their attention to tracking variation and assessing it. Differences between regions, varietals, vineyards, winemaking styles, weather and climate variation, soil variation, and bottle variation are of primary aesthetic interest. Life, vitality, is also fundamentally about variation. This shared connection between life and wine is the key to understanding wine’s expressiveness. The art of winemaking is basically the art of expressing vitality. I make the case in my column at Three Quarks Daily.
Wine is about continuous variation–differences between regions, varietals, vineyards, winemaking styles, weather and climate variation, soil variation, bottle variation. Wine enthusiasts devote most of their attention to tracking variation.
Life, vitality, is also fundamentally about variation. Thus, the art of winemaking is basically the art of expressing vitality.
(Fair warning, there is metaphysics up ahead)
Reality is not merely a collection of objects dispersed in space and time. Reality is also a field of potential differences, latent, unactualized dispositions that inhere in material objects and their relations to be unlocked when some new event traverses a threshold. New relations expose new dispositions like when you meet someone new and they bring out a hidden dimension in your personality, or when weather variations expose new flavor potential in a vineyard.
Living things have a special role to play in this economy of change. Living things have an active internal structure that uses matter and energy to resist degradation while accelerating and directing change. As Darwin showed, life is creative, a continuous process of developing novelty, that pulls the past into the present, using it as springboard for the future, without plan or program.
Any individual entity that emerges out of the chemical soup is merely a passageway, a stage, a provisional outcome within a larger process of change. But that individual is also a solution to a problem posed by the convergence of conflicting forces. Living things contract, select and harmonize the conflicting forces that create them thus making a life for themselves.
Yet, a living thing never quite achieves self-identity. There is always disparity, a new problem to solve, a variation that must be integrated—it’s difference and disparity that drives the life process. Resistance to degradation, continuous variation, and continuous yet failed integration are the hallmarks of all life.
I think it could be argued that all art infuses matter with life, not by imposing form on an inert substance but by unlocking hidden dimensions of the artist’s materials. An artist’s materials are a swarm of unactualized dispositions, a capacity for variation, that the artist intensifies and actualizes. Art intensifies and transforms the artist’s materials, giving something non-living a life of its own, integrating conflicting forces in the process, and those materials in turn intensify and transform life.
This is certainly true of wine. The winemaker’s job is to find the singularities, the variations in their vineyards and grapes that promise a new direction, intensify those variations and then integrate them into something people want to drink, building in to the wine a capacity to resist degradation and support continuous change as the wine lives on in barrel and bottle.
Winemaking is the quintessential expression of vitality, harvesting living organisms, accelerating variation and change through the fermentation process, and then taking the resulting inorganic liquid and building back in the features of an organism—life becomes art becomes life becomes….
In trying to nail down a conception of aesthetic experience appropriate to wine appreciation, it might make sense to begin with the view of Burnham and Skilleas in their book The Aesthetics of Wine. It is the most comprehensive treatment of the topic available. However, I think it is fundamentally misguided since it appears to exclude from the realm of aesthetic experience the kinds of everyday interactions with wine that I think are central.
Burnham and Skilleas usefully refer to various tasting practices as distinct projects. Analytic tasters trying to identify a wine in a blind tasting, a wine critic describing a wine to her readers, or a sommelier trying to pair a wine with a particular dish are each involved in different projects because they have different aims that require quite different competencies. Most importantly according to Burnham and Skilleas, they are focused on different aspects of the wine and thus each project has a different intentional object. However, they argue that none of them are necessarily having an aesthetic experience. This is curious because it seems apparent that many tasting projects involve some degree of aesthetic appreciation.
Aesthetic experience for Burnham and Skilleas is a function of engaging in an aesthetic project and this involves acquiring the competencies to recognize distinctly aesthetic properties such as elegance, harmony, complexity and intensity. And one does so by participating in a variety of practices—choosing the proper glass, deciding on a tasting order, decanting, etc.—which highlights those aesthetic properties. Their point is that tasters separately interested in identifying a wine, describing it, evaluating its typicity or pairing it with food need not attend to these aesthetic properties, going so far as to assert that tasters engaged in these projects with wine from the same bottle are tasting different wines.
The absurdity of this latter point is an indicator that something has gone wrong. In fact I would dispute their main claim that the project of identifying the origin of a wine, describing it, judging its typicity or pairing it with food need not focus on aesthetic properties. For instance, it’s perfectly appropriate when blind tasting a medium body, high acid wine with distinct earth notes to argue it’s likely Chianti rather than Brunello di Montalcino because it lacks elegance or complexity. Anyone describing a notably complex wine who doesn’t mention or imply that it’s complex is simply not accurately describing the wine. Food pairings will also sometimes depend on features such as complexity or intensity.
My point is that the apprehension of aesthetic properties can be part of a wide variety of different tasting activities. Thus, it makes little sense to isolate an aesthetic project in a way that excludes this variety.
Furthermore, their way of defining aesthetic experience in terms of a project rules out the everydayness of wine which I have argued is crucial to understanding wine aesthetics.
They are quite explicit that a necessary condition of aesthetic experience is having a variety of the competencies that define an aesthetic project including the capacity to describe and evaluate a wine using the vocabulary and tasting skills possessed by professional wine tasters. This rules out casual yet attentive drinkers from having an aesthetic experience and implies that a whole range of everyday experiences that one might think are aesthetic are not. The kinds of experiences that wine lovers often refer to as an “aha” experience—that moment at which one recognizes the consummate beauty of wine and its potential for further engagement—are deemed “proto-aesthetic” because the people who have such experiences often lack the fully developed competencies of professional wine tasters or connoisseurs.
However, it isn’t at all obvious that basic aesthetic properties such as intensity or elegance cannot be recognized by people who may lack the vocabulary or developed competencies of the connoisseur. After all, people who report on their “aha” experience are not simply claiming to enjoy the wine—they find it thrilling, awe-inspiring, etc. Clearly they are tasting something out of the ordinary beyond mere liking. Burnham and Skilleas are right that the apprehension of aesthetic properties are not simple perceptions but involve holistic judgments about relations among properties of the wine. But elegance or intensity are not so difficult to discern that attentive drinkers with modest levels of experience must miss them. After all, music lovers can be deeply moved by a piece of music without the capability of following the score or articulating genre characteristics. No doubt having such competencies enhances the aesthetic experience but their absence doesn’t preclude the experience from being aesthetic.
This idea of an aesthetic project that requires various competencies and practices is useful for articulating the structured, reflective nature of wine appreciation. Burnham and Skilleas deploy it successfully to show that the casual dismissal of wine as a serious aesthetic object is misguided.
But we can’t use this notion of a project to define aesthetic experience because it orphans too many apparently aesthetic experiences.
There are many things that people do with wine. We drink it to get drunk, drink it distractedly at a social gathering because everyone else is doing so or because it generally contributes to the atmosphere of good cheer. We can drink wine to impress someone with the weight of our bank account. We use wine to quench thirst on a hot day, provide warming sensations on a cold evening, or wash down food. I mention these together because they all share a common feature—you can engage in these activities without paying attention to the wine. While these activities may be part of a larger, holistic aesthetic experience, to the extent they don’t involve paying attention to the wine, they are not aesthetic experiences of the wine. They don’t have the wine as an intentional object.
By contrast we can engage in a variety of activities that do involve paying attention to the wine. They generally fall under four categories—description, identification, evaluation, and appreciation.
A WSET student sitting for an exam must describe a wine (or several wines) in order to pass the exam. If she is tasting blind and must draw inferences about the origins of the wine, she is engaged in identification. If she is required to assess the quality level of the wines she is engaged in evaluation. A winemaker tasting a barrel sample to see if it’s developing volatile acidity or a wine merchant deciding which wine to stock are also engaged in evaluation, as is a taster assessing whether a Riesling from Mosel is typical of that region. What is peculiar about these activities is that although they require focused attention on the wine they don’t depend on the taster having an aesthetic experience. These activities are not necessarily incompatible with having an aesthetic experience but they can be competently performed without the experience being aesthetic.
Appreciation however is another matter. When a wine tasting activity involves the appreciation of a wine, it is always at least a candidate for an aesthetic experience. This is why describing, identifying or evaluating a wine is compatible with appreciation. We can describe, identify, or evaluate a wine while appreciating it as well. But appreciation is distinct from these activities. Appreciation is of course the most widely practiced wine tasting activity. It is what most wine lovers do when they drink wine with friends, enjoy a wine with dinner or attend a wine tasting.
The puzzle is to nail down what it is that makes appreciation an aesthetic experience. How does it differ from identifying, describing or evaluating a wine when these are not part of an aesthetic experience?
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.
In the never ending battle against boring, homogeneous wines, it looks like the good guys are winning—we live in a world of unprecedented diversity in our wine choices. But it hasn’t always been that way. I tell the story of how diversity and variation won the day in my Three Quarks Daily column this month.
We drink wine in a variety of situations. Almost all wine drinkers drink wine to accompany meals, loosen inhibitions at a party, relax after work or to savor while cooking dinner. Many share wines with family and friends, visit wineries on weekends or attend tastings where education is part of the agenda. Some wine lovers study a wine and savor it over several hours; others taste wine professionally. In most cases there is something else going on when the wine is poured; distracted drinking is unavoidable.
Given this diversity of situations in which wine is consumed, we need a variety of approaches to wine tasting in order for our level of attention to fit the situation. In fact for many people, their wine drinking is stuck at one of these levels.
It seems to me there are 6 such categories that organize our level of attention and type of focus.
Background tasting involves tasting when there is something else going on that requires your nearly full attention. At best you can occasionally steal a moment to taste and think about the wine, but your attentiveness to the wine dips in and out and you can find yourself consuming a glass without ever having focused on it. Dinner parties, if you’re the conversational type, usually require background tasting. People who drink wine out of habit or because it’s there may never taste any other way.
In whimsical tasting there is some opportunity and willingness to savor but our attention to the wine consists of intermittent moments of seeking aroma notes or enjoying the finish. We taste whatever we feel like, with attention bouncing around like a jar fly, but there is no attempt to organize our experience or gather thoughts about the wine. I would imagine this category to be typical of most wine drinkers who are neither connoisseurs, students of wine, nor industry people
In this category one sees wine appreciation as something to aspire to and the taster may have learned a bit about varietals or wine regions. But the focus is on what is widely accepted and discussed as something to be noticed about a wine. There is searching behavior going on as the taster tries to identify aroma or flavor notes but at best only isolated parts of the wine are identified without attending to how they fit together or what they mean. In some cases this kind of tasting experience may be more about appearing sophisticated or hip with no effort to genuinely comprehend the wine. But usually this is just an early stage in acquiring genuine expertise. Focusing on what other people say is part of learning how to taste.
The narcissistic taster is a genuine connoisseur with experience and good taste. But her response to the wine never gets beyond I like or I don’t like it. There is no attempt to understand why the wine is good or bad or to communicate reasons for her judgments based on features of the wine. The wine itself is seldom the focus of attention—the attention is directed at her own reactions.
Prisms reveal the complexity of light by refracting light rays that display colors not seem without the prism. There is a kind of wine tasting experience that functions like a prism. No one can engage all the features of a wine at once. Wines are too complex for one-off sampling and only a series of tastes over time, with attention systematically focused on various dimensions of the wine, will get the whole wine into view. For instance, you can’t seek obscure aroma notes while at the same time allowing the wine to induce an imaginative state. The former act of attention requires intense focus while the imaginative state requires relaxed, diffuse focus. Yet, like a prism, that search for aromas can put you in an imaginative state. It can send the mind on a journey enabling you to think of metaphorical attributions that help get the whole wine into view. This is where we get wine descriptors like “brooding”, “a street walker”, or “the parry and thrust of acidity”. Unfortunately, there are many in the industry who think prismatic tasting should not exist.
This is the kind of tasting required to pass difficult certification exams and used by professionals to converse about wine. It is the self-conscious scrutiny of aroma notes and structural characteristics, a narrow field of attention compared to prismatic tasting, which aims to objectively and accurately identify features of the wine that have a bearing on quality and typicity.
The question of which of these types of tasting experiences are genuine aesthetic experiences is important but will have to wait for another day.
This taxonomy was inspired by the taxonomy of listening experiences developed by John T. Lysaker in his very fine book entitled Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The term “prismatic listening” was coined by him.
The question of what language we should be using to describe wine is important not only for wine appreciation but to enable wineries to sell their wine and expand their customer base. So I read Hannah Fuellenkemper’s recent post with some skepticism. Entitled “Why You Don’t Need to Learn to Talk About Wine”, she writes:
Lock me up for thoughtcrime, but winespeak often creates more distance then it connects. And like any glossary, it has its limitations. Take ‘varietal typicity’ – whether a wine shows it can only be answered yes/no. How far does that go? Or the sling all your things in that old duffel-bag descriptors of ‘black fruit’ and ‘herbaceous’. To hear it is like listening to opera through a stethoscope – a scientists’ tool not suited to translating art.
Well I agree with that. In fact, the only two things in the post I disagree with are the title and her implication that she doesn’t know how to talk about wine.
When I drink, I drink to savour, not for the right terminology or the specs. I drink for associations and memories, joy and energy, for colour, to contemplate but also to refresh. I drink for kaleidoscope glitter, shapes, unexpected turns and twists. Sometimes there’s mystery, other times it’s more about fluidity than a sense of individuality. Best of all is when I feel that pulse of liquid electricity.
Hannah, that is exactly how to talk about wine. There is a time and place for standard winespeak but no one ever captured the essence of a wine by listing fruit notes or reporting how much oak was used. Describing the individuality of a wine—if in fact it is distinctive, many wines aren’t—is something we are not very good at because people like Hannah have been browbeaten into thinking highly descriptive or metaphorical language is too subjective.
But there is no standardized language for describing uniqueness—if there were it would not be uniqueness you’re describing. This is why I find musical metaphors to be useful.
So, Hannah, please keep talking about wine; you do it better than most.
In my recent post on the nature of wine appreciation, I argued that to appreciate a wine is to respond appropriately to it. For appreciation,it is not sufficient to identify features of the wine. One must respond to those features by becoming aware of their significance. I then listed four ways of responding appropriately—via perception, cognition, emotion or desire.
However, I should probably say something about what a inappropriate response would be. These would be examples in which an appropriate response is blocked by errors of judgment. Thus, part of appreciation is responding to a wine for the right reasons.
Some inappropriate responses are rather obvious although common. If one’s response to a wine is solely based on its price, snob appeal or marketing materials rather than the wine itself, then these responses are inappropriate. One’s focus on the wine is impeded by failing to properly judge what is relevant.
If your appreciation of a wine is based solely on the fact it reminds you of long lost weekends at the beach then your focus is on your own responses rather than features of the wine–again, a misjudgment about relevance.
Failure to consider the type of wine you’re drinking or facts about the origin of a wine is also inappropriate. Treating the daily porch pounder as if it were a work of art, or vice versa, is inappropriate as is complaining that a rosé lacks tannins or a German Auslese is sweet. Both are intended to be that way. Complaining that Amarone is high in alcohol without noting whether the alcohol is well handled or not is inappropriate. Because of the way it is made, Amarone will always be relatively high in alcohol. What matters is whether the alcohol is too obvious.
These are all cognitive mistakes that inhibit appreciation of a wine. There are also failures of attention.
Because the aim of aesthetic attention is to experience as many aesthetically-relevant properties of a wine as possible, if our attention to a wine is so one-dimensional that it blocks our attention to other dimensions, our response is likely to be inappropriate. For instance, if we’re attracted only to the superficial, easily accessible aspects of a wine, its power, softness, alcohol content, or ability to refresh, without considering the full range of its properties you haven’t really appreciated the wine.
Although we often think of wine appreciation as primarily involving perception, reasoning correctly about a wine is also central to its appreciation.
Earlier posts in this series on wine appreciation are as follows.
The wine world is an interesting amalgam of small but meaningful variations within a context of relative stability. Most major wine styles are embedded in traditions that go back hundreds of years and are still vibrant today. The weather is an agent of change as is the genetic instability of grapes. New varietals are continually introduced,new wine regions emerge, and new technologies and methods are developed, but these are minor deviations from a core concept that seems immune to radical change. There are, after all, only so many ways to ferment grape juice. Red and white still wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine have been around for centuries and are still the main wine styles on offer. Every wine we drink is a minor modification on those major themes.
And so as wine lovers we revel in nuance. We find minute shifts in aromatic expression worthy of deep thought. A slight zing of extra acidity or an elegant softening of hard tannins is worth hundreds of dollars. We debate whether an increase of .5% alcohol has thrown a wine completely out of balance. In no other dimension of life is so much made of so little.
Perhaps that is part of wine’s appeal. Wine is not loud, not extreme, not intrusive or monumental. It is demanding but inconsequential. A very peculiar pursuit.