Wine Appreciation as an Aesthetic Experience

by Dwight Furrow

In giving an account of the aesthetic value of wine, the most important factor to keep in mind is that wine is an everyday affair. It is consumed by people in the course of their daily lives, and wine’s peculiar value and allure is that it infuses everyday life with an aura of mystery and consummate beauty. Wine is a “useless” passion that has a mysterious ability to gather people and create community. It serves no other purpose than to command us to slow down, take time, focus on the moment, and recognize that some things in life have intrinsic value. But it does so in situ where we live and play. Wine transforms the commonplace, providing a glimpse of the sacred in the profane. Wine’s appeal must be understood within that frame.

Thus, wine differs from the fine arts at least as traditionally conceived. In Western culture, we have demanded that the fine arts occupying a contemplative space outside the spaces of everyday life—the museum, gallery, or concert hall–in order to properly frame the work. (A rock concert venue isn’t a contemplative space but it is analogous to one—a separate, staged performance designed to properly frame music that aims at impact and fervor rather than contemplation) With the emergence of forms of mechanical reproduction this traditional idea of an autonomous, contemplative space is fast eroding, allowing fine art (and just about everything else as well) to invade everyday life.

But wine, even very fine wine, is seldom encountered in such autonomous, contemplative spaces. It is usually encountered in the course of life, in spaces and times where other activities are ongoing. Formal tastings exist but are the exception. It’s rare to taste wine in a context where casual conversation or food consumption is discouraged as would be the case at a concert hall or museum. Read more »

Why Wine is an Object of Love

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? Read more »

What Is the Purpose of Wine Criticism?

by Dwight Furrow

Although wine writing takes diverse forms, wine evaluation is a persistent theme of much wine writing. When particular wines, wineries or vintages are under discussion, at some point the writer will typically turn to assessing wine quality. The major publications devoted to wine include tasting notes that not only describe a wine but indicate its quality, often with the help of a numerical score, and most wine blogs and online wine magazines include a wine evaluation component that is central to their mission.

But if, as readers, we are to make a judgment about whether an evaluation is legitimate or not we must know what its purpose is. What are these evaluations aiming to achieve? Is wine criticism similar to film, book, or art criticism? Or is it more akin to the evaluation of consumer products? The practice of using a numerical score to indicate quality is controversial and much has been written about it. But an assessment of that practice depends on answering this question about the goal or goals of wine criticism. Read more »

Should Wine Criticism Strive for Objectivity?

by Dwight Furrow

If by “objectivity” we mean “wholly lacking personal biases”, in wine tasting, this idea can be ruled out. There are too many individual differences among wine tasters, regardless of how much expertise they have acquired, to aspire to this kind of objectivity. But traditional aesthetics has employed a related concept which does seem attainable—an attitude of disinterestedness, which provides much of what we want from objectivity. We can’t eliminate differences among tasters that arise from biology or life history, but we can minimize the influence of personal motives and desires that might distort the tasting experience.

“Disinterestedness” (a barbarous term but it’s the one we have to work with)   refers to a kind of experience in which an object is perceived “for its own sake”, not merely for its usefulness at achieving some other goal. The idea is that in genuine aesthetic appreciation we must consider the object itself without the distraction of practical concerns or personal desires that govern ordinary life. By bracketing or suspending ordinary desires and everyday practical concerns, we are able to have a contemplative, imaginative experience that enables the full range of aesthetic properties of an object to emerge. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher most responsible for this concept, argued that the appreciation of genuine beauty is possible only via disinterested attention, which he thought of as a distinctive type of experience quite separate from everyday experience.

In professional wine evaluation this goal of disinterested attention governs the procedures used in tasting wine. Blind tasting, where tasters do not know the producer, region and in many cases the varietal, is essential to realizing this goal. So is the use of standardized assessment criteria, agreed upon aroma and flavor grids, the practice of spitting to avoid excess alcohol consumption, etc. Read more »

The Community of Lush: Wine, Alcohol, and the Social Bond

by Dwight Furrow

Wine taster

Food begins as a necessity and we tame it so it becomes a civilized want that can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. But wine is a different matter. Wine is not a necessity. Many people neither drink wine nor any sort of alcohol, and for most people who do indulge, it doesn't play the organizing role in life that food does. (Unless of course you write about wine) Yet, the relationship between wine and sociality seems obvious. People get drunk or at least tipsy from drinking alcohol, which loosens tongues, sheds inhibitions, and functions as a social lubricant. Although much day-to-day wine writing seldom acknowledges this, some of the more thoughtful discussions of wine take the relation between drunkenness and sociality as a brutal truth: As Adam Gopnik writes:

“Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing, including Parker's, would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. To read wine writing, one would think that wine is simply another luxury food….Wine is what gives us a reason to let alcohol make us happy without one. It's the ritual context that civilizes the simple need.” (From Gopnik, The Table Comes First)

Since we do not need wine for nutritional purposes, the “need” Gopnik references is the need for a substance to smooth the rough edges of socializing. However, alcohol in general and wine in particular are among many substances that accomplish this. Rituals surrounding tea for instance play this role in many societies. Thus, it isn't obvious why alcohol must play this role. Furthermore, even if alcohol is “necessary” to grease the social wheels, there are many more efficient, less expensive ways of getting drunk than drinking wine. Thus, we must ask how plausible Gopnik's thesis is. Is getting drunk the main reason we drink wine? Does that explain why wine in particular would be associated with sociality?

In fact when we look at how wine is consumed, inebriation plays only a secondary, supportive role in explaining its connection to our social lives.

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