Vinous Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

Wine grapesContemporary discussions of wine quality tend to oscillate unhelpfully between subjectivism and objectivism. One side argues that wine quality is thoroughly subjective because individual differences among tasters preclude agreement on the nature or quality of what is being tasted. The other side points to objective, scientific analyses of chemical components detected through taste and smell, but such analyses cannot explain what makes a wine distinctive or aesthetically valuable. Thus, neither side can explain our tasting practices and the attention we pay to wine quality. If you're a subjectivist there is no such thing as wine quality. But within objective, scientific analysis, aesthetic quality never shows up. To extricate ourselves from this interminable dialectic we need a clearer understanding of what wine is–an ontology of wine if you will. This might seem like a strange question. Don't we know what wine is? Wine is a thing, a liquid containing alcohol that we drink for pleasure or consume with food. But herein lies the problem. We tend to think of objects in the world, including wine grapes and bottles of wine, as inert substances just sitting there until we decide to do something with them. If the grapes or the wine are of interest, it's because we confer value on them. This is a mistake because it reinforces the unhelpful subject/object dualism just mentioned. But what's the alternative?

I want to sketch the alternative by invoking some recent work in ontology articulated by the political philosopher Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter. Bennett does not discuss wine but her way of linking the ontology of things to an aesthetic appreciation of them can help make sense of our love of wine and expose the limits of these notions of subjectivity and objectivity that persist in our discourse.

Bennett argues that all matter including the inorganic is pulsing with life. Obviously the word ‘life' has a special meaning for Bennett since we don't normally think of inorganic objects as alive. Essentially, by "life", she means the ability to act and be acted upon. When thinking of objects as stable, largely passive objects until acted upon by something else, the most important actors are human beings, fulsome subjects actively manipulating the world to serve human ends. With regard to wine such a picture seems on the surface quite defensible. After all, we make the wine and enjoy the wine, and wine is as deeply a part of human culture as blue jeans and automobiles. But Bennett argues this picture of the relationship between human beings and things is misleading and incomplete. She shows how worms, a dead rat, or gun powder residue have the capacity to act, influencing their environment in ways not intended and often not comprehended by human beings. Worms, it turns out, make vegetable mold and thus seedlings possible and protect buried artifacts from decay, thus helping both to enable and preserve human culture. A bit of detritus, gunpowder residue, can catalyze a jury to judgment. A dead rat surprisingly sparks an aesthetic response.

All things, human and non-human, organic or inorganic, exist in a complex network of relations and each thing is disposed to change in ways that have the capacity to shape that web of relations, without necessarily being thoroughly predictable or immediately available for conceptualization. Thus, things not only have the capacity to block human intentions but also to act as quasi-agents with dispositions and trajectories of their own producing profound effects on the things around them. Things and their powers are not reducible to the contexts in which human beings place them and are not exhausted by the meanings we assign to them.

How does this apply to wine?

Putting aside an important distinction between industrial and artisan winemaking for the moment, the relationship between winemaker and her materials–the grapes and other materials that contribute to the winemaking process–is complicated. Winemaking is inherently a collection of open-ended problems that can be provisionally solved only via experimentation and seldom finally resolved. Grapes are uniquely responsive to differences in climate, weather, soils, and the geology of the site on which they are grown. Even within vineyards, subtle differences in soil composition or aspect to the sun can have profound effects on the character of the grapes. Furthermore, each vintage is a new challenge because each vintage is subject to distinctly different weather patterns, each vineyard has unique characteristics that require individual solutions to problems that may not be generalizable, and even materials such as wine barrels have individual characteristics that influence the wine in ways that are not fully predictable. Thus, the idea that the winemaker is in charge and that the grapes and other materials are lying about waiting to be used, set in motion by the winemaker's intention, is misleading. No doubt the winemaker and her team make a substantial difference in determining the taste of the wine. Winemakers continually make selections that influence wine quality and a wine's distinctive characteristics. But that outcome is seldom a certainty and it is often impossible to give a comprehensive account of whom or what is responsible for causing an effect to occur. The vineyard, grapes, and equipment are agents at least in the sense that they have their own dispositions that are not fully under the control of the winemaker. Thus, there are multiple centers of causal power and the winemaker's intentions play a role, but none of these factors can guarantee outcomes, and to be effective means to make a difference, not to exercise total control.

This conception of winemaking fits well Bennett's ontology in which, for any event, there is no single cause or ultimate source. Events are complex with multiple causes and an array of conditions that explain them. As Bennett writes "any action is always a trans-action, and any act is really but an initiative that gives birth to a cascade of legitimate and bastard progeny" (101).

In addition to this relative independence from human intention, things also have a tendency to persist, to maintain their integrity in the face of attack, to continue their motion, a form of inertia that sometimes requires change and adaptation in response to environmental pressures, which again may have little to do with human intentions. These dispositions and tendencies that don't quite fit neatly into human conceptual frameworks have a vividness to them that Bennett calls thing-power. Thing-power calls to us focusing our attention on its singularity and excessiveness and to the diverse, mutually affective, web of relations in which a thing exists even when its effects don't intersect with human concerns. Bennett characterizes thing power as a kind of wildness, explicitly invoking Henry David Thoreau in her account.

For Bennett even the most ordinary things are strange. Regarding a glove, some pollen, that dead rat, a bottle cap and a stick, Bennett writes:

"I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics….I achieved, for a moment, what Thoreau had made his life's goal: to be able, as Thomas Dumm puts it,'to be surprised by what we see.'" (4)

As any winemaker or farmer knows, nature resists our attempts to control it and those unique, surprising characteristics that emerge from the grapes or the materials are themselves alluring. That sensitivity to emerging difference, the ability to spot the deviations that nature throws at us, is at the very essence of winemaking. In other words, winemakers are especially sensitive to thing-power. Things have a dual nature in which they have simultaneously a use value for humans and something about them that is unique and enchanting because they are "wild". Their resistance to us itself is alluring.

Instead of thinking of a finished wine as the product of an intention planned in advance, the winemaking process is what Bennett calls "a swarm of vitalities". The task for the winemaker is to "identify the contours of the swarm, and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits". Thus, there is agency and intentionality but neither can guarantee outcomes, and to be effective means to make a difference, not to exercise total control.

In trying to control the winemaking process via intentions, something unintended inevitably emerges. The job of winemaking is to preserve that difference and find a way of presenting it, harmonizing it with other elements of the assemblage of constituents that make up a wine. Without the intentional framework, the new may never show itself. So it's not thoroughly independent of human intention but involves an interface with something initially outside the framework of human meaning.

In the realm of wine, thing-power is not exclusively the province of winemaking. Wine appreciation also requires sensitivity to thing-power. Wine tasters are continually searching for novel taste sensations, new expressions that indicate new directions for a varietal, region, vineyard or winery. It is that sense of discovery that motivates people to travel the world searching for obscure cuvees. Furthermore, today in the culture of wine, the role of context is becoming increasingly salient. The taste of a wine is influenced by price, reputation, atmosphere, music, the people you're with, etc. This contextualization of taste also fits snugly into Bennett's ontology. In our intentional activity, much of what influences us is a background of which we are only dimly aware. Cold air keeps us awake, sounds of machinery can irritate, buildings evoke awe or serenity, the sounds of nature or of music influence our mood, and we are largely only half conscious of these effects. The things we eat and drink influence mood and are influenced by our environment as well. Part of Bennett's argument is that the effects of these objects are not solely a product of social structures or enculturation. Their agency is a product of them being matter that directly influences the body. In this respect, her discussion of the Chinese concept of shi is especially appropriate. She defines shi as follows:

"…it is the mood or style of an open whole in which both the membership changes over time and the members themselves undergo internal alteration… The shi of a milieu can be obvious or subtle, it can operate at the very threshold of human perception or more violently. A coffee house or a school house is a mobile configuration of people, insects, odors, ink, electrical flows, air currents, caffeine, tables, chairs, fluids, and sounds. Their shi might at one time consist in the mild and ephemeral effluence of good vibes, and at another in a more dramatic force capable of engendering a philosophical or political movement" (35).

"Shi" essentially refers to the relative alignment of things, the disposition of forces that enable things to act or to show themselves. Although we can become aware of shi and sometimes modify it, it nevertheless has an agency of its own. Aesthetic objects such as wine seem particularly replete with shi since they often have this capacity to affect us at this threshold of perception.

If we take on board this notion of vinous thing-power, the opposition between subjectivism and objectivism seems no longer appropriate. By definition, thing power escapes subjectivity. It is that part of nature that is not imposed or projected by us. Yet, neither is it definable in terms of objective scientific analysis. There can be no systematic, law-like account of thing-power because thing-power refers to unique, individual assemblages of things. As singular occurrences, it resists the generalizations in which science traffics.

If wine is not reducible to our subjective idea of it, then winemaking and wine appreciation are less about enjoyment and more about discovery, more about unlocking hidden potential than finding something comfortable, more of an adventure than a holiday. It doesn't deny that preferences are subjective but asserts that there is more to wine tasting than preferences. It's about what's interesting, what grabs attention, and piques curiosity rather then what makes you feel good.

Which brings me to the distinction between industrial vs. artisan winemaking. As some of Bennett's examples show, thing-power is not absent from the products of technology. However, while all things potentially have thing-power, it's in contexts where our intentions and plans can be disrupted that thing-power is most salient. Industrial winemaking takes much of the uncertainty and risk out of winemaking, along with the individuality of vineyard and vintage expression. Thus, its potential to generate thing-power is diminished although not eliminated.

Thing power is the recalcitrance and creativity of nature pushing back, reminding us of the importance of the uncanny and the unexpected. The habits of thought that assume we are independent of nature or that nature is a collection of causal mechanisms to be managed by us fails to capture the messiness of reality and we are actually better able to navigate complexity through attentiveness rather than control.

For my purposes here, it gives us insight into the kind of allure wine has. Because, while thing power is in most contexts easy to ignore, and has been ignored by theory until recently, once you acquaint yourself with wine and winemaking, thing-power is unavoidable.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.

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