Is Wine a Living Thing?

by Dwight Furrow

Wine in barrelsThe claim that wine is a living organism is something I hear often from people in the wine world impressed with the capacity of wine to evolve. Writer and sommelier Courtney Cochran writes:

Wine, with its clear ties to the lifecycle of plants, its ability to evolve and change (to grow) and its delicate fragility in the face of danger (TCA, oxygen, light), fairly screams "alive." In today's overly sanitized, automated world, could our wine be more alive – perhaps even more ‘human' – than us?

Wine grapes react in a very sensitive way to the conditions under which they are grown. They are a product of an ecosystem as well as a reflection of that ecosystem with the characteristics of the vineyard, community, winemaker and weather living on in the wine—a storehouse of the past, a series of "memories" that are transmitted to the consumer in the flavors and textures of the wine.

Even after the grapes are harvested and fermented, wine as it ages responds to stimuli, adapts to its environment, and like a child, requires guidance and nurturing to reach its potential, expressing its aesthetic worth through its own "evolutionary" path, influenced but not wholly directed by the winemaker. People in the culture of wine think of it as "living" because wine not only persists but changes and in some cases improves with age. There is a trajectory of maturation that is in some respects similar to the development of living organisms.

The claim that wine is a living thing has also received philosophical endorsement. In philosopher Nichola Perullo's introduction to his edited, online anthology "WineWorld: Tasting, Making, Drinking, Being", he advocates treating wine as a living thing in order to reform tasting practices and gain a deeper understanding of the aesthetics of wine production, especially in light of the fact that wine is ultimately assimilated to our own living tissue. If we take this view on board, wine is best understood not as a commodity but as something with emotional resonance and authenticity, an object we can engage with as emotional beings, not just through analytical tasting.

But is wine really a living thing or is this discourse just making use of a particularly resonant and vibrant metaphor?

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