by Dwight Furrow
From its origins in Eurasia some 8,000 years ago, wine has spread to become a staple at dinner tables throughout the world. Yet wine is more than just a beverage. People devote a lifetime to its study, spend fortunes tracking down rare bottles, and give up respectable, lucrative careers to spend their days on a tractor or hosing out barrels, while incurring the risk of making a product utterly dependent on the uncertainties of nature. For them, wine is an object of love.
But why is fermented grape juice worthy of such devotion? What is the secret of its allure? It’s not only because it tastes good or gets you drunk. Orange juice tastes good but it is seldom an object of love, and there are far more efficient and cheaper ways of getting drunk. My answer to this question is that wine, unique among beverages, displays some of the characteristics of a living organism. This “vitality” exhibited by wine in its production and appreciation has a distinctive aesthetic appeal that accounts for its capacity to draw people to its orbit. Of course wine is also pleasing to drink and a source of alcoholic cheer, both of which contribute to its aesthetic appeal. But it is wine’s vitality that makes it an object of devotion.
What reasons do we have for conceptualizing wine as a living organism?
Wine of course is a product of culture. Although the fermentation of fruit is a natural process, fermenting grapes produce wine only when encouraged and given direction by human beings. Yet, even though thoroughly embedded in culture, wine exhibits a strong connection to nature. In the wine world beyond the big, industrial wine manufacturers, everything about the process of making wine is unpredictable and subject to constant variation. Grapes are especially sensitive to differences in climate, weather, soil composition, and the geology of the site on which they are grown. Minor differences in aspect to the sun, wind patterns, cloud cover, or temperature variants produce distinctive flavor and aroma variations. Thus, each vintage and each vineyard present new problems that require ingenuity to solve since historical patterns can be only a rough guide and solutions are not necessarily generalizable. Even wine barrels have individual characteristics that influence the wine in ways that are not fully predictable. This constant production of difference is exacerbated by the genetic instability of grapes. There are over 1300 varieties used to make wine commercially throughout the world and the process of creating hybrids, crosses, and clones is a long established and continuing practice, the aim of which is to produce more variation. When you add the fact that each varietal will respond differently to climate and geology, the potential for differences in the flavors and textures of wine is enormous.
It is these differences that wine lovers crave and that wine tasting is set up to detect. The prospect of different and distinctive flavor profiles drives the quest on which artisan winemakers and wine lovers embark and they anchor wine’s aesthetic allure. This capacity of wine to produce constant variation is also one reason to think wine is life-like. Just as genetic and phenotypic variation are fundamental to the perpetuation of life enabling organisms to adapt to a changing environment, constant variation, which ultimately rests on the physiology of grape vines, drives our aesthetic interest in wine and the selection procedures we use to confer value on it.
Additional facts about the wine production process give us further reason to attribute vitality to wine. In living organisms homeostatic processes maintain their integrity in the face of environmental pressure. Living organisms integrate elements in their environment, rejecting, sorting, and discriminating among food, waste and energy sources in ways that maintain their equilibrium and integrity. An analogous process occurs in the aging of wine. In a finished wine, once fermentation has been stopped, there are no cells to undergo catabolic or anabolic reactions and thus no metabolic processes occurring. Therefore, according to strict biological criteria, there is no homeostasis. But there are a series of chemical processes in wine that use oxygen as a fuel to synthesize larger molecules, the chemical bonds being a form of stored energy. When oxygen is introduced it makes the colloids more reactive increasing the capacity of the tannin polymers to bond which protects the wine from oxidation later in the aging process. These larger molecules enable the structure of the wine to develop into a coherent system that would otherwise fall apart, supporting esterification, hydrolysis and other chemical reactions that give wine its character as it ages, and defend that structure from degradation thus achieving an analogue of a homeostatic system. For wine lovers, the aromas and textures that are enabled by these structural bonds and that emerge as the wine ages are another source of difference. These aesthetically-valued aromas are a far cry from the fresh fruit and floral aromas of young wine, suggesting caramel, smoke, dried leaves, cigar box, roasted nuts, yeast, dried fruit, tobacco, leather, etc. Again, it’s an analogue of a living process that supports wine as an engine of difference.
There is a third, related, feature of the winemaking process that completes this picture of wine as a living thing. Despite it being a human artifact, wine is to a degree resistant to human intentions–there is a “wild” aspect to wine. It has its own dispositions, an internal structure and functional integration that in interaction with its environment develops along a trajectory that is not wholly governed by the winemaker’s aims or human aesthetic concerns. No doubt the winemaker and her team influence the taste of the wine. But the outcome of the winemaking process 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 other materials are “agents” in this limited sense that these multiple centers of causal power contain multiple possibilities that can take a variety of unanticipated directions. Winemakers routinely talk about allowing the wine to do “what the wine wants to do”. This is especially true of artisan and “low-intervention” winemaking, a traditional style of winemaking that is becoming increasingly prominent today.
This idea of a functionally-integrated individual that develops according to its own dispositions harkens back to ancient, teleological conceptions of life that stem from Aristotle. While these ancient accounts of life have been supplanted by modern science they do pick out a characteristic that has long been identified as typical of living organisms—a capacity for self-development as well as self-maintenance. Of course, these processes require some intervention from the winemaker to bring elements together at the right time. The slow introduction of oxygen after fermentation—especially in wine barrels in which the porous grain of the wood allows the slow ingress of oxygen—has long been the means of accomplishing this. Modern technology allows even more precise control of the process. Yet, despite the winemaker’s encouragement, once the elements are in place the wine develops on its own, according to its internal structure, in ways that are no longer under the winemaker’s complete control. And once the wine is in the bottle, the slow uptake of oxygen continues through the imperfect seal of the cork, enabling further unexpected developments in these chemical compounds until the wine no longer exhibits features that we find pleasing.
This unpredictable, “wild” dimension of wine’s vitality that begins with the weather’s influence in the vineyard and continues through the winemaking and aging process is itself aesthetically alluring. The narrative of a struggle with and against nature, a careful balancing act in which the vagaries of nature are accepted yet redirected toward serving our aesthetic interest, is at the heart of wine appreciation. The wine life is alluring, in part, because the unexpected is a constant presence.
It’s important to note that if we use conventional definitions of life within biology wine is not alive. Wine does not reproduce itself via natural selection and, as noted, lacks a cellular structure that can sustain metabolic processes. While conventional, biological criteria for life have limitations and are under attack from within biology, I prefer not to rest my thesis on wine aesthetics on a controversial definition of life. Thus, for the purposes of aesthetics it is more promising to claim that the winemaker’s job is to produce an analogue of life, an analogue of homeostasis and development, so that wine behaves like a living organism. This “living” dimension of wine—constant variation, the self-maintenance and development that produces some of these variations, and the wild dimension that makes all of this unpredictable—is what winemakers and wine connoisseurs crave. Sensitivity to emerging difference, the ability to spot the deviations that nature throws at us, is the fundamental skill that lies at the heart of winemaking and wine appreciation. Wine exists at the intersection of the wild and the cultivated, and that delicate dance between nature and culture gives wine its allure, at least for wine lovers who devote their lives to the pursuit of vinous beauty.
If we fully embrace this notion of wine as a living thing, important implications for wine production, appreciation and wine aesthetics follow. Wine production and wine tasting then become a search for meaningful differences and originality. The collaborative creativity of nature and the wine community become part of wines’ allure. Thus, wines that exhibit nature’s contribution—what some people refer to as terroir-driven wines—are the most important exemplars of quality. Furthermore, with the vitality of wine as part of our conceptual framework we might be able to replace the unhelpful concepts of subjectivism and objectivism with a more nuanced view of the dynamic, constructive intercourse between mind and world in aesthetic appreciation. If wine is not reducible to our subjective idea of it, if there are “wild” aspects of wine that resist human intention, then winemaking and wine appreciation are not only about enjoyment but about discovery. They are more about unlocking hidden potential than finding something comfortable, more of an adventure than a holiday. Such a view needn’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 in addition to what tastes good.
The emergent property of vitality would then take its place alongside complexity, elegance and intensity as criteria for wine excellence.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.