by Dwight Furrow
Unlike ice cream, orange juice, and most other things that taste good, wine is peculiar in that it is an object of devotion. Many people abandon lucrative, stable careers for the uncertainties and struggles of winemaking; others spend a lifetime of hard intellectual labor to understand its intricacies; still others circle the globe sampling rare or unusual bottles. Wine has an attraction that goes beyond mere "liking"—a spiritual dimension that requires explanation. Why does wine exert such a powerful attractive force? The beauty of wine seems a natural answer.
However, if we are to make sense of the gravitational pull beautiful objects, such as wine, exert on us we have to distinguish the pretty, agreeable or good tasting from the beautiful. We know from recent history that without a clear distinction between beauty and what is pretty or likable, beauty fares rather poorly. Since the early 20th Century, the art world has abandoned beauty because it was thought to refer to superficial appearances with no ability to represent the more difficult aspects of human existence. In a world embroiled in industrialization, war, and genocide, the creation of beauty seemed frivolous. (The fact that Kant, the most influential philosopher of art, along with his acolytes among formalist critics, concurred that beauty was about appearances only didn't help. Kant neutered beauty with his notion that its apprehension required a bloodless, disinterested attitude.)
But work on the question of beauty over the last two decades provides a deeper conception of beauty, which clearly marks the distinction between beauty and what is merely attractive, and this conception of beauty can help refine our notions of wine quality. By returning to the ancient notion of beauty as a form of eros, we can explain how beauty engages our agency, providing powerful motivations to drink up.
As Crispin Sartwell writes, "Either beauty died around 1895, except to refer to starlets or chrysanthemums, or it became much more difficult and strange, kept developing in a subterranean way." (Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty, p. 10)
To find something beautiful is not just to think it pretty, charming, or good tasting. We feel there is something more to the object that has not yet been discovered and want the experience to be repeated. Things of beauty occupy our thoughts when they are not present and each encounter with them is as if it were a new experience. We want to know more, penetrate the surface, re-experience the beautiful object from different perspectives and connect with the people who created it. Even simple objects or events—a worn cup, a piece of furniture, a ceremony, a glass of wine–can have an aura of incompleteness and mystery about them.
This notion that beauty is deeply connected to agency and mystery has been best articulated by philosopher Alexander Nehamas. Inspired by the novelist Stendhal's quote, "Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness", Nehamas argues that when I find an object beautiful, I desire to have that object in my life and devote part of my life to it. The object promises to make my life better when I become so committed, although it is a promise that in the end might not be kept. To find an object beautiful is to love it and to wish to care for it as well as discover its secrets.
Beauty inspires commitment because it is an inexhaustible source of meaning—our love for the object resists settling on a final meaning. We keep interpreting the beautiful object, feel compelled to discover why we love it, and to the extent we get no final answer, the satisfaction of our desire is always just beyond our reach. If we were to settle on a final meaning, we would fall out of love having exhausted the object's potential.
There is no way of knowing where this desire will lead. To be in the presence of beauty is to be immersed in changing, unpredictable desires, and as we long for satisfaction, we engage with others, for through their insight we hope to find answers to the mystery posed by the object. As Nehamas writes: "the desire beauty provokes is essentially social: it literally does create a new society for it needs to be communicated to others and pursued in their company" (Nehamas, Only the Promise of Happiness, 77) Yet, that vulnerability to the object's call is fraught with peril. This is why beauty is "only a promise" of happiness. There are no guarantees that making something a part of your life will turn out well.
How does this account of the lure of mystery in our pursuit of beauty help understand the love of wine? A wine is full of surprises. As tasters, we are surprised by new, unexpected taste experiences that seem inexplicable despite our background knowledge. For winemakers, every vintage is different and poses new challenges that their textbooks and theories struggle to explain. How a wine will develop in the barrel, in the bottle, or in the glass is unknown even to experts, and predictions about these matters are continually flouted. Even the nature of what is in the glass in front of you is a bit of a mystery. Wine is inherently a vague object, its features difficult to detect even with training. Unlike objects in our visual field, wine gives us only hints of flavors, scents, and textures. Because wine is continually changing, and so are we as we experience it, wine will not sit still for an analysis. It is this mystery, this confrontation with the unknown, which drives people to make wine and study it.
This depth that beautiful objects possess is sensed in the appearance of the object and the pleasure we take in it. But it doesn't stop there. The recognition of beauty is not the mere identification of a quality or collection of properties that an object possesses; it is essentially motivational, a goad or north star that drives further experience. We don't passively look at beautiful objects but are instead drawn to them, they move us, invite our engagement because the recognition of beauty is a form of love. We cannot help but love what we find beautiful and find beautiful what we love, according to Nehamas.
Thus, reference to a collection of properties is never sufficient to define beauty because whether we find something beautiful or not depends on whether the properties connect with our motivational states. The reasons for me finding something beautiful can never be fully articulated. Since we cannot know what has not yet been discovered, we cannot articulate precisely what that quality is that we find so compelling. To experience beauty in something is to see what belongs to it uniquely and that in turn is to see it in a way that is distinctly "our own". This is the bane of all art or wine criticism. We can speak about the beautiful but the words are by necessity inadequate. There are no rules for beauty and each instance of it is unique.
The examples of art to which Nehamas refers in order to illustrate his claims about beauty are primarily from the visual arts. But wine and food lovers fit Nehamas's conception of seekers after beauty. The wine lover who scours auctions for rare bottles or travels the world seeking unique expressions of terroir has fallen in love. The much discussed "aha" moment when wine is recognized as a suitable object of devotion is not the bloodless apprehension of aroma notes but the felt promise of a mystery to be cultivated.
There are many who would argue that wine is pursued as a status symbol rather than as a lure for aesthetic desire. Drawing on the work of the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, there is no shortage of commentary asserting that our idea of what tastes good is determined by our aspiration to join an elite rather than sensitivity to aesthetic quality. On this view good taste is a mark of distinction that sets one apart and confers high status on those who possess it. This refined sensitivity to subtle distinctions is defined against and excludes what is "popular" and identifies one as a member of a select group, not as a symbol of wealth but as a mark of social knowledge and cultural capital.
No doubt there is a lot of showing off in the wine world, and the whole cult wine phenomenon, where well-heeled patrons spend thousands on a bottle because it's hard to get, is in part driven by status seeking. Yet there are far too many shifts in style and taste preferences for the devotion to wine to be explained by a set of social norms enforced by an elite to which wine lovers aspire to conform. In the mid-20th Century there was an insular wine elite who were too comfortable with their tasting conventions and relied too much on reputation. Then along came Robert Parker with his iconoclastic attitude, love of ripeness, and 100 point scale to take down that elite. So who was reflecting a class interest? The old elite or Parker? More recently, Parker's preferences were challenged by people seeking lower alcohol, higher acidity and more balance. Who is the enforcer of a class interest here? Today, higher alcohol seems no longer a taboo and low intervention winemaking, bio-dynamics, and natural wine are all the rage. Are advocates of natural wine to be thought of as gatekeepers to an elite culture ensuring people "toe the line"?
These shifts in preferences and style suggest some people are capable of independent judgment. The desire to conform does a poor job of explaining the emergence of novelty. What drives shifts in wine styles is the search for something new and different. For new styles to take hold there must be people of independent judgment willing to shatter norms and followers willing to step off the beaten path in the search for new beauties. Aesthetic sensibility rather than status seeking alone is the best explanation of style shifts.
It is somewhat more plausible to argue that what attracts people to wine are lifestyle considerations—what we might call a search for the fine life. To drink fine wines and eat fine food while surrounded by bucolic loveliness in an atmosphere of conviviality and good cheer is surely one of the attractions of the wine world. It is the pursuit of a life in which everyday aesthetics is an everyday affair. Yet wine lovers typically do not seek only a series of superficial, pleasurable experiences. Once hooked, taste becomes a practice, a discipline, an intellectual challenge for which the payoff is in part intellectual. The world of wine, among the fully committed, is a world in which knowledge and understanding matter, a world in which the characteristically human practice of creating meaning is its reason to exist. Nehamas is right to posit this search for understanding and the unraveling of mystery as a persistent component of the phenomenology of beauty. Wine lovers come for the lifestyle and stay for the obsession. As Nehamas claims, there is a desire not merely to enjoy the beautiful object but to possess it, to make it part of one's life.
Yet, I wonder if Nehamas provides us with a complete picture of the experience of beauty. One peculiarity of Nehamas's view is that although we are attracted to mystery, to hidden depths that future experience will reveal, through understanding we seek to dispel mystery. If we succeed we fall out of love with the object since it would have no more to offer. It seems to me that if it is mystery that attracts, one possible response to a beautiful object is to revel in the promise and mystery, to enjoy it for its own sake. After all, not everyone who finds an object genuinely beautiful becomes obsessed with grasping the reasons for their judgment. The search for understanding is only one response to beauty.
Although wine lovers might devote inordinate time and attention to investigating a particular wine of a particular vintage, there is typically something more momentous than mere understanding and possession of an object at work. A wine is part of a larger cycle of repetition and differentiation. The wine itself will change as it ages. The next vintage will yield new insights. A shift in production methods will prompt new revelations. The presence of new wines, vineyards, and wine regions will be a source of new distinctions and interpretations. What the wine lover is drawn to is not just an individual wine but the pursuit of vinous beauty itself. I suspect this is true of art and music lovers as well. To love a single work is to open up a world that extends far beyond that work and it is that world that is the source of mystery and the engine of desire. The desire is not to possess an individual object but to possess beauty itself, a vain and hopeless task since, contra Plato, there is no such thing as beauty itself. It is an attempt to possess something that cannot be possessed, to seek more difference, and even higher experience, an ever-entangling mystery. The experience of beauty induces a kind of spiritual restlessness that will endlessly sacrifice the present object for a new expression.
The Greeks viewed eros as a kind of madness. They were right.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution