Part 2 of my Wines of Anger and Joy is posted at Three Quarks Daily.
Jay McInerney, author of novels such as Bright Lights, Big City, is also a wine writer, with a current gig at Town and Country Magazine. In an Eater interview, part of which Eater’s editors helpfully paraphrased, McInerney gets to the heart of something I’ve thought about quite a bit.
Being relatable is key to making a wine column interesting, according to McInerney. Wine writing often falls into two traps: describing the technical — focusing on malolactic fermentation and the like — or describing the horticultural. “It was all about wine smelling like certain flowers, and I knew nothing about horticulture,” McInerney says of the wine writing that inspired him to do better. “I thought it was more instructive to compare wine to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or a Ferrari than to a certain kind of rose or gardenia.”
McInerney’s experience as a novelist also helps in this respect: “One of the best ways to describe the aesthetic experience of wine is with metaphors and similes,” he adds.
I think this is exactly right. Since the 1980’s when the UC Davis oenology department went all in on finding allegedly objective descriptions for wine via Anne Noble’s aroma wheel, wine writing has been preoccupied with accuracy. Wines are to be described using only descriptors that can be plausibly traced back to chemical compounds in the wine that cause us to smell blackberry, vanilla or earth. That’s all well and good—wine does exhibit aromas best described as resembling other edible or aromatic plants.
But we don’t drink wine to smell blackberries just as we don’t view paintings to experience a shade of blue. A wine leaves an overall aesthetic impression, it evokes feelings, moves us, stimulates the imagination, invokes memories, even makes us think. And different wines have different ways of doing so. If wine writing is to reach a higher level it must capture a broader aesthetic experience.
For me, and apparently for McInerney, music helps capture this broader aesthetic experience that wine makes possible.
The problem is that we, not just wine writers but our audience, get set in our ways and resist change. But more importantly, we are afraid that if metaphor, musical or otherwise, becomes a prominent means of communication we will stumble into a sea of subjectivity losing our grip on the goal of accuracy that the technicians have persuaded us to strive for.
We pay lip service to the idea of wine as bottled poetry but can’t escape the idea of wine as bottled chemistry.
Chemistry is important but if it throttles experience what has been gained?
We really should not allow journalists to write philosophy. In the Napa Valley Register their wine columnist Allen Balik pontificates on the nature of greatness in wine. After complaining that the word “great” is overused (no doubt) and much rumination on how greatness can’t be measured or quantified (indeed) he spins out this pearl of wisdom:
True greatness cannot be expressed by a high price tag or a critic’s score but rather must be based on our own experience and impression of what is exhibited in our glass. Personal taste ultimately determines our impression of whether a certain wine is “great” regardless of the opinion of others.
So greatness simply means “what I like”. Talk about overusing a word, if “greatness” means “what I like” we could just get rid of the word “great” and replace it with “yum”.
Among the many meanings of “great” suggested by Merriam Webster are “remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness”, “eminent or distinguished”, “principle or main”, “markedly superior in character or quality”, etc.
Nowhere in MW’s careful specification of uses for “great” does “what I like” appear.
I too would not want to define “greatness” in wine in terms of scores arrived at by a consensus of critics, if only because scores might indicate greatness but don’t tell us what it is about the wine that is great. But at least a wine highly rated by most critics has achieved something “remarkable in magnitude”, distinguished and “markedly superior in quality”. Whether I or anyone else happens to like the wine is immaterial. There are many highly scored wines I find disappointing. But that doesn’t diminish their achievement. My subjective impressions are not the measure of all things.
I recently tried to define greatness in wine as a function of depth, mystery, and resonance, properties which I think are discernible in great wines. Whether that account succeeds or not is not for me to judge but surely we can do better than “what I like”.
Why are otherwise intelligent people attracted to subjectivism like moths to a flame?
Despite the historical importance of blending wine, especially in Bordeaux, and the current popularity of red blends on the supermarket shelves, increasingly among the wine cognoscenti, wines from a single vineyard, a single block, a single clone, even a single barrel are popular. Winemakers today are less inclined to show off their blending expertise and would rather showcase the distinctive characteristics of a single source, especially the vineyard, unsullied by outside influence.
Is this a fad or a more or less permanent trend? It’s hard to say. No doubt the wine world is fraught with style changes—witness the reduced use of oak in Chardonnay or lower alcohol levels in Cabernet in recent years. It may be that we will tire of the whole fascination with the vineyard and return to the idea of the winemaker as the mad mixer of many influences creating a whole larger than the sum of its parts.
But, on the other hand, perhaps what we have discovered is that nature, once set in the proper direction, can produce greater differentiation on its own. Perhaps we get more differences by letting the ensemble of environmental effects take their own course rather than trying to direct them through conscious intent. If so, the current fascination with single vineyard wines will only accelerate.
In the end it’s about creating difference and nature may be more creative than we think.
Esther Mobley’s paean to aged wines is a wonderful evocation of the joys of finding that gem still going strong after 30 years in the bottle. But that is often a solitary love affair as most wine lovers like their wines young and fresh finding the aromas of old books and dank basements to be off putting if not disgusting.
I share Ms. Mobley’s passion, but even she is puzzled by the lure of old wines as she runs through several possible explanations, all found wanting:
Maybe we project the aura of an aged wine’s rarity, and its often-accompanying expense, onto our sensory perception of it. Precious things taste better than ordinary things. The liking-it stakes are higher.
On the other hand, some of the pleasure may be chemical. As it ages, wine can reveal more umami flavor, that nebulously delicious taste sensation.
But she rightfully rejects these explanations because they fail to acknowledge that love of old wines is more an intellectual pleasure:
That doesn’t satisfy me, though. The joy of aged wine can’t be merely chemical, because I know that it rewards knowledge. This joy began to reveal itself to me only once I began to speak wine’s language of aroma, flavor and structure. In a cruel paradox, the more old wine disappoints me — and boy, does it love to disappoint — the more I’m drawn to it.
For me the attraction is in part sensory. There is a remarkably beautiful, fragile delicacy to well-aged wines that can be achieved only through many years in the bottle. Nothing else you can savor has it. But I agree with Mobley that part of the attraction is intellectual.
Aged wines reveal in a particularly evocative way that wine is a living organism in vital communication with its environment, undergoing mysterious transformations that can neither be predicted nor explained. And to sense that flicker of life amidst decay, to find an organism clinging to life suffering the travails of time—that is a classic and very human story. Wine has that uncanny resonance with human endeavor, a capacity for allegorical correlation that in part explains its allure for those of us who feel at home amidst musty books and dank basements
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’’.
Wine is an aesthetic object as worthy of our sustained attention as works of art or the wonders of nature. Yet wine aesthetics occupies a precarious position since wines’ charms also play well as an alcohol delivery system and a commodity beverage, which detracts from aesthetic appreciation.
As an aesthetic object the appreciation of wine depends on the practices of formal wine tasting. The swirling, sniffing, swishing, choice of glass, tasting standards, and tasting notes, etc. are designed to make the aesthetic properties of wine accessible to us. But these wine tasting practices are performed at public tastings, competitions, winery tasting rooms, as well as by wine media organizations, in contexts deeply influenced by the commercial aspects of the wine trade. Reviews are written to inform consumers, wine tastings aim at selling wine, awards at competitions are primarily used for marketing —it’s only at private affairs among wine lovers that aesthetics are unencumbered by commercial interests.
The limits of these wine tasting practices get some discussion in the wine media including debates about the meaning and appropriateness of scores, the relevance of endless fruit descriptors, the prevalence of disagreements among critics, etc. But the main problem with our wine tasting practices is that they seldom take into consideration the fact that wine changes in the glass and in the bottle. Most quality wines don’t show their true aesthetic value until many years after they are released. Yet, except in rare cases where investment decisions must be made, aged wines are seldom evaluated and are written about only occasionally. Even at winery tasting rooms, it’s an exception when older, more fully developed wines are offered as part of the tasting menu.
Furthermore, most published wine reviews and awards are based on very limited contact with the wine. Typically, a wine is evaluated in a group with many other wines that share some feature such as varietal or region, and critics give at best just a few moments attention to each one. This is especially true of large wine competitions where judges may taste over 100 wines in a day. The problem is that wines change in the glass as they are mixed with oxygen and volatile aromas are released. To get the full measure of a wine it must be tasted over several minutes if not hours. Some wines are closed (i.e. lacking in aromatic intensity) and may have rough textures unless decanted and allowed time to develop in the glass. The fact that wine changes in the glass is an essential part of the aesthetics of wine yet our wine tasting practices seldom take that into account. (This is why I review wines one at a time and spend at least an evening with each one.)
Thankfully, wine lovers in their private venues are able to take account of the full aesthetic merit of wine. But it is odd and a bit disturbing that public discourse about wine only occasionally focuses on these changeable features of wine that are among wine’s most important aesthetic features.
We wine lovers are constantly accused of snobbery, pretension, and arrogance, some of it deserved but most of it misplaced. All of this sniping, often encouraged by the media, could be set aside by simply acknowledging the fact that there are many reasons to drink wine and each require their own norms.
Sometimes we drink wine to get buzzed, to enhance our enjoyment of friends or grease the wheels of social commerce, to relax after work, or to accompany a meal. The aim of all these activities is simple pleasure and, to achieve this goal, wine quality need not matter much. Truth be told, 99% of the wines on the supermarket shelf will be satisfactory for this purpose and it’s pointless to be concerned with scores, tasting notes, sniffing and swirling or any of the other paraphernalia of wine tasting if this basic form of enjoyment is all you’re looking for. People who pretentiously introduce sophisticated tasting activities in these contexts really do risk being jerks unless their expertise has been requested.
But sometimes we drink wine in order to appreciate the wine—that’s why we’re wine lovers after all. We want to fully experience the wine and discover all there is to know about the wine and its origins—what its features are and how they produce pleasure. With appreciation we’re concerned with our own experience of the wine, an experience that has intrinsic value. We enjoy experiences not because they are useful for some purpose but because they are good in themselves and the appreciation of wine is no exception. We can appreciate a wine regardless of whether anyone else does and regardless of how it compares to other wines. Since the primary focus is not on comparing a wine to others except for purposes of classification and understanding, wine scores, producers, and prices have only a minor role to play in the process of appreciation. But wine talk and our ability to articulate what we are tasting is essential, because it is through shared experience that we sharpen our perceptions and acquire knowledge.
When the goal is appreciation, some of the paraphernalia of wine tasting—sniffing and swirling, tasting notes, type of glass used, temperature at which the wine is served, characteristics of the region it’s from, etc.—become very relevant. These practices make the characteristics of the wine more available. When the goal is appreciation, clowns who complain about “know-it-all” wine tasters are being the jerks. They should find a good sports bar and belly up.
Finally, we might drink a wine in order to evaluate it. For purposes of evaluation I’m interested not primarily in my own experience but in the capacity of a wine to interest others as well. So evaluating a wine brings instrumental value into the picture. In evaluation, we treat wine as a stable object that other people also have access to and as useful in generating aesthetic experiences. So we’re trying to answer the question “How good is this wine in general at producing pleasure when compared to other wines?” Comparison and judgment are essential to evaluation so wine scores and prices, if they help in the process of comparison, are essential tools as is knowledge and trends in the market, what other people are inclined to like, etc. When the goal is evaluation, people who form strong opinions and express them are playing the game correctly; people who don’t like judgments should find a beach and soak up rays, with a bottle of cheap Chardonnay within reach.
If we pay attention to how drinking and talking about wine serves a variety of purposes, peace in the wine world will reign—and maybe it will spread.
Well, we can hope can’t we?