by Dwight Furrow
Wine language often suggests that wines express emotion or exhibit personality characteristics despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally possess these characteristics. There is a history, although somewhat in recession today, to refer to wines as aggressive, sensual, fierce, grand, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to such talk or is it just arbitrary flights of fancy?
Last month I argued that it's perfectly intelligible to conceive of wine as expressive. Wine expresses the geography and climate of a region or vineyard, the vintage characteristics, and the winemaker's idea of those. More importantly, wine can sometimes express the winemaker's feelings about wine, especially the inspirational experiences that explain their love of wine that they wish to communicate to their patrons. But the aforementioned wine language suggests a broader notion of expression, one in which wine, perhaps like art, can express fundamental features of human experience.
In aesthetics, this question of how art can express feelings has typically been pursued using music as the prime example, because there is a broad consensus that music is deeply connected to human emotion. In trying to answer this question about wine, it makes sense to use these resources developed in the debate about music. So bear with me as I go on about music and the emotions for a bit; wine will get its due towards the end of the essay.
As Jenefer Robinson persuasively argues in her book Deeper than Reason, emotions are a process. They begin with appraisals (sometimes unconscious) of our current situation that are typically accompanied by physiological changes such as an increased heart rate, muscle tension, preparations to act, etc. Some of these appraisals are rapid and instinctual made on the basis of little or no information (“Loud sound, like gun shots! Danger!”). These affective appraisals rapidly focus one's attention, have positive or negative valence and are directed toward an object or situation, but happen too quickly to count as beliefs. Other evaluations become possible as more information is available which modulate the initial, instinctive appraisals. (“The sound came from the TV. No need to panic”). As Robinson explains,
“The emotional response is an automatic and immediate response that initiates motor and autonomic activity and prepares us for possible action. After the initial response cognition kicks in and corroborates or modifies our affective appraisal. And later still we may label our state with an emotion word from our folk psychology in an attempt to understand what has happened to us. The whole series of events is a process and each element in the process feeds back into and affects its development” (p. 310).
Although individuals may have similar initial appraisals of a given stimulus, our overall emotional response will differ from person to person because, during cognitive monitoring, each of us will relate occurring events to our individual past emotional experiences. Emotions thus rest on reaction patterns that differ from individual to individual but have the same basic structure. In summary, emotions are dynamic processes directed by non-cognitive appraisals, monitored by cognitive evaluations, and constrained by previous experiences.
It's easy to see how, in the hands of a talented story-teller, the characters and events in a narrative can be properly arranged to elicit particular non-cognitive appraisals in readers who will respond variously depending on their personal histories and reaction patterns. In Robinson's view, emotions can be embodied in a persona, the characters in the story in the case of literature, which then elicit emotional responses in the reader. Narratives provide us with situations similar enough to real life that we can respond with similar feelings even though the events and characters are in a sense not real.
The puzzle with music (especially music without lyrics to provide narrative context) is that music is an abstract system of sounds, and a musical environment is wholly unlike the natural environment that gives rise to ordinary emotions. How then does music cause these powerful emotional responses that we undeniably have when listening?
There is substantial evidence that music produces physiological effects on the listener by directly affecting the motor system, facial expressions, postures and gestures and even action tendencies like tapping our feet. Some music such as dance music is designed to have that effect. Countless studies show that music listening has an effect on heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, galvanic skin response, etc. Robinson refers to this as the “jazzercise effect”. And these studies are supported by subjective reports that music influences moods. Music can startle, surprise, thrill, bewilder, relieve, relax, excite or calm us. As composer and philosopher Leonard Meyer argued, we respond emotionally to the unfolding of musical structure based on our expectations of how that unfolding will proceed. Thus, music expresses some feelings because it directly arouses them in the listener.
Wine can have similar effects although they are far less pronounced than with music. Like music, wine has a temporal structure the unfolding to which we can respond with emotions such as surprise, bewilderment, relief, disappointment, satisfaction, excitement, or relaxation, at least in part independently of the effects of the alcohol. Experienced, knowledgeable wine drinkers have expectations of how a wine's structure should unfold and will respond with all of these basic feeling states which involve initial, affective appraisals of the wine.
But all of this doesn't quite get at the higher order, cognitive emotions that commentators have long attributed to music and to wine. And this is where the controversy heats up. How can music (or wine) express anger or sadness when there is no event to make us angry or sad? Unlike moods and feeling responses such as the startle response, anger, sadness, or fear are laden with cognitive content, with an intentional object and beliefs about that object that are necessary for the emotion to proceed. To feel fear, you must believe that an object is dangerous. The musical environment lacks these fundamental conditions for an emotion; and of course so does wine.
One solution is to simply deny that music expresses such emotions; it only appears to do so. Resemblance theories assert some resemblance between music's dynamic character, the way the music flows, and the dynamic character of people experiencing emotions such as their vocal expression or the contour and attitude of their bodily behavior. On the basis of that resemblance we judge, for example, a sad song to be sad. Down tempo, lugubrious, subdued music in a minor key resembles the contour of someone in the throes of sadness and thus such music is judged to be sad. But just as the sad face of a St. Bernard has nothing to do with the expression of a dog-emotion, the fact that the process of music resembles the process of an emotion does not entail expression since resemblance is a surface phenomenon unrelated to an inward state that is manifested by the expression. It's a trait of the music not of something deeper that the music is expressing.
Partly for this reason, Robinson vehemently rejects resemblance theories arguing instead that a listener imagines a “persona” in the music, which sometimes is the composer, or sometimes a character created by the composer who embodies the complex emotions we attribute to music. Thus sad music is experienced as expressing the sadness of the persona. As a general theory of music's expressiveness this strikes me as implausible. I respond emotionally to a sad song without feeling anything that closely resembles sadness; moreover I do so without imagining a persona that embodies the sadness. To her credit, Robinson does not intend her view to be a general theory, applying only to composers and listeners in the romantic tradition who strive for this kind of transfer of emotion from composer to listener. But for my purposes here, this sort of theory seems utterly inapplicable to wine. I have yet to talk to a wine maker who admits to making wine in order to express anger or sadness. I have tasted wine that makes me angry or sad but that's because the wine is bad, not because it is expressing these emotions.
So how can music or wine express anger or sadness when the cognitive resources needed for complex emotions are missing?
I would argue that music does not typically cause us to experience full blown emotions; rather, we use low-level (largely pre-cognitive) affective appraisals, specifically related to a musical environment, as evidence to construct an interpretation that enables us to hear emotion in the music. That is we imagine how particular emotions could be manifested through these fine-grained, very particular precognitive appraisals and physiological responses unique to a musical environment. Music can directly stir the muscle-tensing, attentionally-focused response that is something like anger in us even though there is nothing to be angry about. For instance, think about a song by Nine Inch Nails played at high volume, with an uptempo, pounding rhythm, with notes played by sharply impacting the instruments, and a simple melody without smooth transitions between the notes. Such music would be instinctively appraised as aggressive and produce feeling states typical of such music, even without howling vocals and lyrics depicting aggression. We might be drawn to the music, find it attention grabbing and thoroughly enjoyable but at the same time feel the anxiety, muscle tension, and action tendencies that in the “real world” would constitute an urge to strike out or flee in response to aggression. In other words, the valences we experience in a musical environment are not simple positive or negative states but very complex mixtures that might be attractive and interesting at one level and repulsive and disruptive at another. The appraisal structures of musically-induced feelings are not identical to the appraisal structure of anger since there is nothing to be angry about. But they can easily be interpreted as angry. It is literally true that the music is aggressive because we feel the aggression. It can plausibly be interpreted as angry because it shares the aggressive dimension with a certain kind of anger.
Similarly, when I listen to Samuel Barber's Adagio, my feeling state seems to retard and slowly swell following the contours of the music. It settles into a calm place becoming reflective but with tension around the edges, then swells in volume and breadth until it reaches a kind of heightened yet brittle intensity, disrupting the reflective mood, and then it induces a temporary relief as it seeks that calm place again but always with a sense of quiet distress. These feeling states are what the music directly expresses and are unique to a musical environment. What is the best interpretation of these feeling states in seeking a label from ordinary emotions? They add up to something more particular than a generic sadness, yet the intensity and surging volume is incompatible with an emotion such as melancholy. The closest I can come in assigning a familiar label to Adagio is that it expresses feelings associated with grief, although the experience is in many respects utterly unlike genuine grief. This is largely a matter of interpretation and hypothesis testing, a highly cognitive task in which I cast about for the name of some general feeling state that roughly captures the very particular feeling state induced by the music.
In these two examples, the music is genuinely expressive because the music arouses genuine feelings. But these feeling states are only roughly analogous to full scale emotions, and the labeling of the music as expressing emotions of grief or anger are tenuous, subject to disagreement as different listeners will interpret the clues differently, and optional as one could decline to engage in such labeling at all. Nevertheless, some interpretations are ruled out; Adagio could not be interpreted as angry because a typical affective response would lack the underlying feelings associated with anger. And the interpretation is not a mere projection since it is based on evidence provided by feeling states directly aroused by the music.
Something similar happens with wine although, as I mentioned above, wine has significantly less ability to induce these highly variable physiological responses. Wine has a temporally extended structure and is therefore in process much like music and emotion. Changes in that structure induce very particular feeling states although they are subtle and unfold more quickly than is typical either of emotions or musical passages. Like music, a wine, as tasted, is a process that might first appear bold or be more reserved, gather momentum or seek repose, and then slowly diminish or reach a crescendo. It might be energetic, become lush and enveloping, and then turn aggressive, or be chilly and austere before releasing ebullient fruit notes. All of these changes induce affective appraisals, feeling states responding to degrees of complexity and novelty, of being surprised, or confused, of being drawn to or repelled in a complex mix of valences, and involving feelings of anticipation and resolution, all influenced by expectations and how the wine meets or does not meet them. We might call these appraisals of interest, appraisals of preference, and epistemological appraisals.
But wine also induces affective states not directly related to attention, pleasure or cognition. We feel as if we're floating, being whipsawed, attacked or caressed by particular wines. Aggressive wines are not just perceived as aggressive but are felt that way—we have to steel ourselves to appreciate them, are irritated by them but feel richly satisfied when they achieve resolution. Wines that are heavy, dense and mysterious are not just perceived as brooding but are felt to induce reflection on something that seems vaguely menacing although there is of course nothing menacing in our environment. By contrast, wines that are bright and fresh induce a vague sense of ebullience and light-heartedness. On the basis of these pre-cognitive appraisals and physiological responses we judge a wine to be angry or joyful or specify a more complex array of emotions just as a piece of music might embody several emotions.
As with music, judgments about which complex, named emotions to attribute to wine will vary from person to person but are not arbitrary because they are constrained by the features of the wine and those aspects of our emotional lives that are widely shared. Someone who calls a delicate, floral, light- bodied Pinot Noir angry doesn't understand “angry” or lacks the experience with wine to discern its features.
A skeptic might object to my argument here that these affective states induced by wine are really just perceptions. We perceive in the wine properties related to human emotion but they are independent of any affective states we might experience. Indeed, I think they are perceptions, but perceptions are laden with affect. We can analytically distinguish perception and feeling but in life perception and feeling are fundamentally linked.
It is of course true that to be so affected by wine one has to make oneself available to these feeling states and develop the perceptual competence to discern them. The features of wine are subtle and one has to seek them out. But that is true of music as well. We can hear Barber's Adagio while feeling nothing. But that is a diminished form of appreciation.
Which brings me to perhaps the most important issue—why do this? Why attribute emotional expression to wine? There can be only one answer. It provides us with a richer aesthetic experience, which of course is the point of consuming wine reflectively. Wine consumption serves many purposes but aesthetic enjoyment is its primary function. All of this suggests that our current habit of analytical tasting needs a reboot. Picking out flavor notes is a helpful starting point for appreciating a wine but we don't drink wine to smell blackberries just as we don't view (most) 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 that broader aesthetic experience.
Nevertheless, it's worth repeating that both music and narrative are more efficient at inducing affective states than is wine. Responding with feeling to music and narrative is instinctive. Although learning is involved, it is learning that is readily available to almost everyone. Our world view is structured by narrative and, as noted, music powerfully influences physiological states. Thus, everyday experience is infused with the affective experiences afforded by both.
By contrast, wine is less distinct and its appreciation more ephemeral. In fact, affective responses to wine are akin to affective responses to non-representational art, which requires focused attention on something that is not part of everyday experience and requires some knowledge and training to appreciate. (This is why I find that, by pairing wine and music, the expressive features of wine can be made more available. More on that next month.)
Yet wine's vagueness is no argument against its expressiveness. If wine is indeed “bottled poetry”, as many have claimed, then it might share poetry's mystery—as E.B. White said “A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.”
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution