As a wine writer engaged in wine criticism, I taste a lot of wine. Some of it is dreadful, most is enjoyable but ordinary, occasionally it is luscious, delectable, and captivating, and on rare occasions the experience is earth-shatteringly profound. Wines such as Screaming Eagle, Vega Sicilia, Chateau Margaux, or Romano Dal Forno Amarone transcend ordinary experience–not merely delicious but life-changing, beyond measure, a vinous work of art.
If you have read many wine reviews you know what makes wine excellent. Intensity of aromas and flavors, complexity, balance, and structure adding up to an overall impression of unity and completeness–these are the main elements in an excellent wine. But the best wines go beyond mere excellence.
What distinguishes an excellent wine from a work of profound, awe-inspiring vinous art? The cynics claim it is fascination with the price or reputation. But I drink a lot of high priced wines of reputation that I find unexceptional, so this explanation can’t really get off the ground. Others will claim it is the story behind the wine that is most fascinating. And there is something right about this. Wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine. But ordinary artisanal wines have such stories, yet they do not fascinate in the way Screaming Eagle or Chateau Margaux fascinates.
Great wines are an achievement of human ingenuity in collaboration with nature and are noteworthy in their originality and expression. For instance, the 1982 Chateau Margaux set the standard for what a great left-bank Bordeaux should taste like. Like an original work of art, it involves a creative idea and its execution, which required solving particular problems that confronted the winemaker at the time of creation. This achievement is part of the aesthetic value of a work. Just as an exact replica of a work of art lacks the value of an original, a $90 knockoff of Margaux lacks the value of the original—they are not achievements, not works of creative originality. But many things have origins and a story and exemplify human ingenuity. Yet they don’t fascinate the way a great wine does.
Great wines stimulate the imagination because, in addition to having an origin and a story, they are beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it. Just as great works of art grab our attention because they promise something more, in great wines we sense an unrealized potential for further experience, we feel our interest aroused, curiosity piqued, as if we can never quite get enough of it. In other words, great wines induce a sense of wonder. They silence conversation and change the mood of a room from lively, sociable chatter to wistful surrender to the sublime, a contemplative state in which the wine itself seems to probe its own nature, searching for a more discursive means of expression.
In this experience we discover the margin that separates pleasure from serenity, satisfaction from awe. The presence of contradiction and anomaly are essential to wonder, for wonder presents something that we can’t quite comprehend. We are transfixed by objects that are capable of harboring incompatible qualities. All of the great wines embody contradiction at their core: power and finesse, complexity and simplicity, weight and delicacy, solidity and agility. The finest wines, which are not necessarily the most expensive, are as mysterious and engrossing as a painting or musical work. They beckon as if avowing “Make me a part of your life and I will promise eternal happiness.