Like anything of beauty, a great wine demands something of us and we can fail to live up to that demand. In my Three Quarks Daily column this month I explore this question of how a beautiful object can impose requirements on people who appreciate it.
Among people who write on wine aesthetics there is a near universal commitment to the idea of intersubjectivity as a way of understanding the nature of wine tasting. I continue to be baffled by this idea when applied to judgements about wine.
By “intersubjectivity” they are referring to the social nature of wine tasting practices. No doubt that are elements of wine tasting that are deeply social.
The standards of wine tasting, the conventions we use when tasting, common descriptive terms, and the norms regarding what, for instance, a proper Syrah or Meursault should taste like are obviously social. No one invents these on their own; they are the product of long-standing traditions in the wine community. Language of course is inherently a social product as well, so the terms we use to describe wines are made available via a social process. The process through which individuals learn to taste wine is also a social product. We all learn by following what others do up to a point and we’re all shaped by our educational experiences. And many of us taste in social situations where conversations about a wine will shape our judgments as well.
So, yes, there is plenty of intersubjectivity and mutual shared agreements in wine tasting.
But when we finally get around to tasting, describing, and evaluating a wine—when all those intersubjective background practices are put into play—intersubjectivity collapses. In the end it is my perspective, my dispositions, my evolving tasting history, etc. that forms the judgment. I might listen to someone else’s judgment and consider their point of view, but if I don’t taste what they’re tasting my judgement will be my own and cannot be strictly determined by those social influences. (I’m not referring to preferences here but to descriptions and evaluations)
Take any particular, well-reviewed wine and look at the tasting notes from multiple, experienced reviewers. There will typically be almost no overlap in their descriptions. They smell different aromas or at least describe them differently, experience different textures, focus on different aspects of the wine, and make different judgments about quality. If judgments about wine are intersubjective, what explains that disagreement?
In educational contexts where students are taking tasting exams, there is more agreement. Many students, after all, pass these rigorous exams. But that is because students are learning and being tested on those aforementioned intersubjective norms. They learn to allow their judgments to conform to what they have been taught.
But left to our own devices our judgments stray from these background agreements.
This is not to say our judgments are entirely subjective either for reasons I just elaborated on—those intersubjective norms exert a powerful influence and the wine is a real object with causal powers that influences what we taste.
The bottom line is we lack a concept that captures the validity of aesthetic judgments.
Beauty has long been associated with those moments in life that cannot easily be spoken about—what is often called the ineffable. When astonished or transfixed by nature, a work or art, or a bottle of wine, words even finely voiced seem inadequate.
Are words destined to fail? Can we not share anything of the experience of beauty?
On the one hand the experience of beauty is private; it is after all my experience not someone else’s. But we also seem to have a great need to share our experiences. Words fail but that doesn’t get us to shut up.
Some shared responses to beauty seem possible raising our hopes that communication is not hopeless. Most everyone agrees the Mona Lisa is beautiful (if you can actually get close enough to enjoy the diminutive painting amidst the hordes at the Louvre). Most everyone agrees that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti makes lovely wine if you can afford a taste.
But disagreements are just as common. As Alexander Nehamas argues, beauty forms communities of like-minded lovers who share an affection for certain works of art (or wine) and who do find it possible to communicate their obsession. Something escapes the dark tunnels of subjectivity to survive in a clearing where others mingle. But in the process this excludes people who don’t get it. We are often bored to tears by something that fascinates others. Across that barrier words may well fail.
Beauty forms communities of rivals. The contretemps between conventional and natural wine is the latest to divide the wine world. May it not be the last.
Last week I wrote that part of the beauty of wine lies in its ephemera and its connection to change and mortality. The fleeting, inconstant aromas, the speed at which its beauty fades after the wine is open, the need to share it before it’s gone all contribute to wine as an aesthetic object.
But it is though a wine’s aging process where the poignancy of fading beauty acquires exquisite intensity in its connection to mortality
The process wine undergoes as it ages is in some respects like the aging of a living organism. As we age, life becomes a struggle to invent sub-optimal norms of health and vitality, a defensive struggle to maintain integrity in the face of sickness, injury, and decline which requires experimentation, trial-and-error and an openness to an unknown future. Aging organisms extract elements from the environment modifying them as needed, but always with the knowledge that a return to health will be partial, incomplete, and will ultimately fail. The purpose of life is to keep going and is fraught with wandering irresolution and contingent environmental exchange with the outcome always in doubt.
Wine too invents sub-optimal norms. All wine as it begins to age in the bottle loses some of its original flavor components. It will never taste young and fresh again and as the years go by, its original flavor becomes more distant, never to be tasted again as each bottle takes on its own character and develops in unpredictable ways.
As the wine suffers diminishment from the gradual exposure to oxygen, the sub-optimal norm each wine settles on is a matter of negotiation with the environment. The winemaker is a physician not by healing the sick but by encouraging the modification of the internal structure of a wine so it will persist and reveal the effects of its normative diminishment. The intimation of that inner strength, diminishing but still expressive, resistance at a different normative level is aesthetically appealing. The fading of strength and power introduces new perspectives, a weakening that reveals nuance and finesse but also a sense of the beauty of vulnerability, of time passing inexorably and without recovery. The aesthetic appeal of this vulnerability to time is of course not limited to wine. We feel something similar as autumn brings summer to a close. The Japanese tradition of wabi sabi has made imperfection and vulnerability to time an aesthetic touchstone.
Unlike life, however, wine has a determinate purpose, to provide an aesthetic experience. But how it gets there is as wandering and indeterminate as life is. And, of course, both wine and life will ultimately fail in the invention of sub-optimal norms.
It is common practice among wine lovers to purchase a wine showing the vintage of a child’s birth year—a commemoration of a singular event. Indeed, an aged wine does reveal something about the year the grapes were grown—weather conditions and wine making style contribute to the flavor of the final product. But 10, 20 or 30 years later when a wine is opened, what is alluded to is really a process of development and decay. It is time passing that is revealed, not a singular moment in the past. Drinking aged wines is not about nostalgia for a past moment but an appreciation of lost time, a celebration of decline, for what is revealed is the result of oxygen, the polymerization of anthocyanins, aroma esters collapsing and reforming, color molecules becoming sediment, the cumulative result of these changes becoming an individual no longer firmly linked to its origins.
However, we experience none of that. A bottle from a past vintage alludes to the utter recalcitrance of the past, a past never-to-be-retrieved. Wine is a metaphor for what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the immemorial, not just what is forgotten, but what has never been remembered, time irretrievably lost and available only as a sensation of flavor and texture. For we have no idea what happened in that bottle over the intervening years. It sat mutely in the cellar for decades never revealing its narrative, locked away in glass, giving away almost nothing to our awareness. Only when it is opened does it reveal itself as flavor and texture, but never as memory.
Unlike family heirlooms and other treasured objects that we can pass down through generations, all wine is destined to be utterly and completely lost. Once the bottles are consumed or stored so long they turn to vinegar, nothing remains of that unique and singular work.
That is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare
I’ve been looking at how the history of debate about the concept of beauty helps us think about the aesthetic experience of wine. (I covered the connection between wine, beauty and mystery here.)
Another feature of beauty that has a long history of discussion is its relationship to change and mortality. Beauty is often characterized as ephemeral—fleeting, inevitably fading and ultimately damaged by the passage of time. Unlike ordinary pleasures, beauty’s ephemerality is especially poignant because something beautiful is irreplaceable, which entails that for something to be beautiful it must be unique. There is no recovery of damaged beauty.
Wine is nothing if not ephemeral. “Ephemeral” comes from the ancient Greek word “ephemeros” which meant lasting only a day. Wine literally lasts only a day once the bottle is open unless you take special steps to protect it from oxygen.
Unfortunately, for most wine consumers, ephemerality means little. But for wine lovers, ephemerality may be the most important feature of a wine responsible for much of its aesthetic appeal. Once the wine is in the glass, aromas come and go. Some last only a few seconds, others appear, then disappear only to appear again after several minutes. The tracking of wine’s ephemera is one of the real joys of appreciating a wine over time—an experience wholly lacking from the preparation of the typical tasting note which involves a few seconds of sniffing and spitting before moving on.
The ephemerality of wine makes sharing it especially poignant. Knowing we have only a few hours to drink it, we devote special attention to how we will share it and with whom. The fact that its time is short makes the experience of the wine more vital. Even if you have squirreled away another bottle, because each bottle ages differently, there is no guarantee you can have that experience again. When drinking an aged wine it is almost always the case that the experience you are having at the moment is the only time you will have that experience. It is surely an occasion worth savoring.
It is though a wine’s aging process where the poignancy of fading beauty acquires exquisite intensity in its connection to mortality. That is worthy of its own post which I will have finished next week.
Winemaking is an art. Its production requires aesthetic sensibility and creativity. It is an expressive medium expressing the character of the vineyard, region and vintage. It expresses the sensibility of the winemaker, the history and culture of the people who make it, and the vitality and creativity of nature. Wine has emotional resonance, symbolic and metaphorical meaning and narrative content. It is a collaboration between nature and culture and thus if you insist on putting it in a category, wine is a form of environmental art. Like music it creates bonds of community. Like painting and sculpture it expresses what the materials it is made of can do.
But one might grant all that but insist that, compared to painting or music, wine is trivial. I’ve heard such claims although when pressed the speaker can’t quite articulate why wine is trivial.
Wine has cultural significance. Many people devote their lives to making it or studying it. It is a central component in a proper meal that sustains life, family, and community. Its full appreciation requires substantial skill, experience and cognitive resources to grasp the significance of particular wines and how they fit into the wine world. Since the Ancient Greeks, many thoughtful people throughout history have considered wine an essential part of a life well lived. And it of course produces stunning, sometimes awe-inspiring sensory pleasure.
Granted, painting, music, and literature express truths about the human condition—war, peace, love, angst, the struggle for existence, etc. But wine expresses truths about our connection to nature, to the flux of variation and creative emergence, to geography, to home, and the joys and importance of sensory experience. These are not trivial matters; they are at the foundation of the human condition.
There is no compelling argument that excludes wine from the realm of art.
I doubt that I need to persuade readers of this blog that wine can be the source of a genuine aesthetic experience. But what about coffee, Scotch, or beer? If wine is a genuine aesthetic object why not these other beverages?
What makes wine an aesthetic object? Well its complexity for one thing. Wine has hundreds of aromatic compounds all in various combinations across thousands of varieties and regions with distinctive winemaking practices, weather patterns and soil compositions. Wine also changes as it ages; some wines vastly improve as they age. It changes in the glass and in the mouth and interacts with food, the atmosphere, the weather, the company and the music. There is plenty of variation and diversity to stimulate aesthetic interest.
Do other beverages have this complexity? To be honest, I haven’t found other beverages to be so complex, but to be fair maybe that’s my limitation and inexperience.
Wine is also embedded in a robust community with a well-developed vocabulary for talking about wine and firmly entrenched traditions of wine appreciation that make the aesthetic appreciation of wine more rewarding. Scotch does as well although Scotch doesn’t seem to have the volume of discourse about it when compared to wine. With the emergence of craft brews and origin-specific coffee beans, beer and coffee communities have emerged with their own discourses. I have no way of measuring the relative vigor and coherence of their discourse compared to wine but they are mere babies if longevity is an indicator of strength.
However the one factor that clearly distinguishes wine from most other beverages is the connection to place and its dependence on nature. Beer can be made anywhere. Although the quality of the water used in beer production matters and hops may have some minor regional variation, beer is less dependent on geography, and variations in nature play little role in beer production. Scotch of course has its peat bogs, and cellaring location can make a difference in how it ages in barrel. But malted barley whiskey can be made anywhere and, as long as the grain is healthy, nature plays no role. Most coffee is a blend of beans from a variety of different locations.
It’s that connection to nature, place and the resulting variations that give wine its distinctive aesthetic appeal.
This post continues my series on whether the millennia-long debate over the nature of beauty can give us important insights into wine quality. (Part 1 is here)
One of the more persistent themes associated with beauty since Plato and continuing into the present day is that beauty is connected to mystery. Beauty while alluring also withholds something. From the occult light tripping across a Turrell installation, to the pulsating color fields of Rothko, to the strange cadences of Messiaen’s unraveling of bird song, beauty emerges from the sensory surface only to then refer to something beyond what we can experience in the moment. We often describe beautiful objects as enthralling or captivating, as if there were something active in the object to which the perceiver must respond with curiosity. Of course the routine use of “beauty” or “mystery” may be just terminological inflation, just a colorful way of saying “I really, really like that” but if we take the terminology of beauty and mystery seriously at face value it suggests there is something animated in our experience of beauty which invokes the idea of vitality and of something emerging only dimly perceived.
Wine too has this aura of mystery about it. The moment in which you taste something you have never tasted before provokes the suspicion that there is more here than is apparent; the wine and the wine world have more to give; my engagement hasn’t reached its full potential. Beauty draws us in because the patterns we sense in beautiful objects are incomplete.
This anticipation of something more, this surfeit of potential, amounts to a love of mystery. As we dig into the wine world, we discover that wine is full of surprises. As tasters, we are surprised by new, unexpected taste experiences that seem inexplicable despite our background knowledge. For winemakers, every vintage is different and poses new challenges that their university textbooks and theories struggle to explain. How a wine will develop in the barrel, in the bottle, or in the glass is unknown even to experts, and predictions about these matters are continually flouted. Even the nature of what is in the glass in front of you is a mystery. Wine is inherently a vague object, its features difficult to detect even with training. Unlike the clarity of objects directly in our visual field, wine gives us only hints of flavors, scents, and textures and will not sit still for our analysis. It is this mystery that drives people to make wine and study it.
Wines that have the complexity and originality to arrest our attention, to hold us captive waiting for its next move, exuding paradoxical features, redolent of honey and wounds, have this aura of mystery.
Most of the world’s most celebrated wines have this sense of mystery about them. But such wines don’t have to be expensive. This relatively affordable California Norton had that mysterious quality.
The logic of the idea of beauty is peculiar. Identifying beauty is not like recognizing the stop sign is red or the wine is full bodied. It’s not an ordinary property that we simply and reliably perceive, and there is no straightforward way of demonstrating “this Pinot Noir is beautiful” to someone who disagrees. No gathering of evidence will suffice.
Neither is a claim to beauty a report about whether one prefers or likes an object. To call a Puligny Montrachet beautiful is not equivalent to saying “I like Puligny Montrachet”, which would be an unremarkable claim and entirely subjective. In calling an object beautiful we are doing something more than expressing a preference. We are inviting others to see what we see (or taste what we taste) with the expectation that they might also share the experience. Claims about beauty seem to occupy a logical space perched tenuously between objectivity and subjectivity. To say something is beautiful invites a demand for evidence and argument that simply would not be demanded of a claim such as “I like Chardonnay”. Yet as noted there seems no way of demonstrating such a claim by gathering empirical evidence. There is therefore plenty of room for a skeptic to doubt there is such logical space.
Thus the skeptic about beauty might well argue we don’t need the term to describe our experience. Talking about how much pleasure we get from an experience suffices in most contexts to communicate something about that experience. “I really enjoyed this sensual Pinot Noir” conveys our judgment of the wine without inviting argument or the expectation that others should enjoy it as well. What does the idea of beauty add?
Thus, to justify invoking the concept of beauty to convey something important about the aesthetic experience of wine, we need to identify the need it fulfills, especially because the claim seems to be making demands on others.
Of course, we would rightly think someone was crass or nuts if they claim to care nothing for beauty. On what grounds would someone legitimately claim to be indifferent about it? Yet, it’s a peculiarity of beauty that we are supposed to care deeply about it but no one can say quite what it is. We can point to examples of beauty but when forced to say what all the examples have in common we come up empty. I suspect this is why some people are skeptical about the whole idea. That we are just talking about the ordinary pleasure we take in the appearance of something with no need to make some further claim. One gets the impression that the art world has come to this conclusion. After the disruptions of 20th Century art, it seems most people in the art world are disillusioned by the concept of beauty. For much of the art world it’s a fusty old term genuflecting toward conventions we no longer take seriously”, something false or inflated that reflective people no longer believe in. Such a view need not reject aesthetic pleasure but merely reject the idea that there is some special property over and above pleasure in appearance that we call beautiful.
However, there is reason to think that beauty is not just about pleasure. When I’m enjoying a glass of wine with dinner, no one can coherently question whether I’m having a pleasurable or painful experience. This is not something I can be mistaken about. I could not say that a wine gave me great pleasure but it turns out I was mistaken about it. That wasn’t pleasure at all.
But such a claim is not absurd with regard to beauty. I does make sense to say “I thought that was beautiful but upon further scrutiny I think I was wrong.” This suggests that there is something more than just perception that beauty captures. Beauty is something that investigation or thought can discover or reject.
Thus, it seems the skeptic is wrong that beauty is just an expression of subjective preference. But we still have to uncover what the idea of beauty can add to a discussion about wine quality.
The stories we have told about beauty through the ages give us some clues about what the idea might add to our concept of wine quality.
More about that in a subsequent post.
In discourse about wine, we do not have a term that both denotes the highest quality level and indicates what that quality is that such wines possess. We often call wines “great”. But “great” refers to impact, not to the intrinsic qualities of the wine. Great wines are great because they are prestigious or highly successful—Screaming Eagle, Sassicaia, Chateau Margaux, Penfolds Grange, etc. They are made great by their celebrity, but the term doesn’t tell us what quality or qualities a wine itself exhibits in virtue of which it deserves greatness.
Sometimes the word “great” is just one among many generic terms we use to designate a wine that tastes really, really good. It’s just another way of saying “delicious”, extraordinary”, “gorgeous”, “superb”, etc. But these are vacuous and interchangeable—they don’t tell us the quality that makes them taste special.
It’s a peculiarity of the wine community that when designating the highest quality, we sometimes refer to a score. But that just tells us how much someone in authority liked the wine in comparison to similar wines. It doesn’t tell us why it deserves such a rating.
We do, of course, have criteria we use to judge wine quality such as complexity, intensity, balance, and focus among others. But these refer to various dimensions of quality, not an overall judgement of quality.
Most wines provide pleasure. But some wines are not just pleasurable. We don’t merely like them. They stand out from the ordinary and have a special claim on our attention. We need a way of describing the depth and meaning of that experience and the wine that makes it possible.
In the history of aesthetics “beauty” has filled this role as an indicator of overall, remarkable aesthetic quality. It is less frequently used today than in centuries past. Beauty has traditionally been associated with aesthetic pleasure and many works of modern art do not appear to aim at aesthetic pleasure. However, since aesthetic pleasure plays a central role in wine aesthetics, the travails of modern art need not deter us from using the term “beautiful” to describe wine of the highest quality.
No doubt in ordinary conversation the term “beauty” has become as generic as “delicious” or “superb” and is often too narrowly associated with feminine appearance or visual allure. Nevertheless, in serious discussions of wine quality there is some utility in resurrecting it for our purposes because I think we can learn something about wine quality by connecting it to the long history of debate about the nature of beauty.
Thus, this will be my next research project—to discover what makes a wine beautiful, elaborated in future posts.