It is fashionable to say that great wine is made in the vineyard. There is a lot of truth to that slogan but in fact wine is made by a complex assemblage with various factors influencing the final product. Last month I argued that the wine quality revolution in the U.S. was a result of a fascination with the French image of wine, new technology, a focus on varietal expression, and the benefits of California sun that enabled grapes to ripen more consistently. However, an additional factor influencing wine quality is the feedback from wine critics who influence consumer tastes as well as production styles. How much do critics influence wine styles and how is that influence transmitted?
Any discussion of the influence of wine critics must start with the iconic Robert Parker who is widely credited with rousting wine production from its complacent slumber in the early 1980’s. Yet, he is also widely blamed, rightly or wrongly, for making wine more homogeneous and less interesting by (1) encouraging more alcoholic, riper wines that lacked nuance while (2) introducing a scoring system for wine judging that made wine more accessible to consumers by suppressing its complexity. Regardless of which side of this fence you’re on, Parker was no doubt extraordinarily influential, and it’s worth looking at the sources of that influence to better understand how wine styles change. Read more »
The wine world is an interesting amalgam of stability and variation. As I noted last month, agency in the wine community is dispersed with many independent actors having some influence on wine quality. This dispersed community is held together by conventions and traditions that foster the reproduction of wine styles and maintain quality standards. Most major wine styles are embedded in traditions that go back hundreds of years and are still vibrant today. Although the genetic instability of grapes and their sensitivity to minor changes in weather, soil and topography are agents of change, most of these changes are minor variations within a context of stability. We create new varietals, discover new wine regions, and develop new technologies and methods but these produce minor deviations from a core concept that sometimes seems immune to radical change. There are, after all, only so many ways to ferment grape juice. Red and white still wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine have been around for centuries and are still the main wine styles on offer. Every wine we drink is a modification of those major themes.
Nevertheless, sometimes wine styles change, often massively. In a community so bound by tradition how does that change take place? One example of a massive change in taste took place in the U.S. in the decades following WWII, where in the course of about twenty years American wine consumers changed their preference from sweet wine to dry. How did such a revolution in taste occur in such a relatively short period of time? Read more »
Discussions of the factors that go into wine production tend to circulate around two poles. In recent years, the focus has been on grapes and their growing conditions—weather, climate, and soil—as the main inputs to wine quality. The reigning ideology of artisanal wine production has winemakers copping to only a modest role as caretaker of the grapes, making sure they don’t do anything in the winery to screw up what nature has worked so hard to achieve. To a degree, this is a misleading ideology. After all, those healthy, vibrant grapes with distinctive flavors and aromas have to be grown. A “hands off” approach in the winey just transfers the action to the vineyard where care must be taken to preserve vineyard conditions, adjust to changes in weather, plant and prune effectively and strategically, adjust the canopy and trellising methods when necessary, watch for disease, and pick at the right time.
Such modesty about winery interventions has not always been the norm. For a brief moment in time, beginning in the 1970’s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century, the winemaker as auteur, a wizard at winery tricks, was ascendant. During this time, new winemaking technologies, viticultural methods, and remarkable advances in wine science were introduced into a formerly artisan practice. Only the wealthy, educated, and connected had access to these advances so the flying winemaker, a globetrotting consultant who made his knowledge and expertise available to the wider community, was common. Grapes were a blank slate upon which the winemaker’s vision could be implemented. This too was misleading; despite new technologies you cannot make good wine from bad grapes. Read more »
Although frequently lampooned as over-the-top, there is a history of describing wines as if they expressed personality traits or emotions, despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally have these characteristics—wines are described as aggressive, sensual, fierce, languorous, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to these descriptions or are they just arbitrary flights of fancy?
Last month on this blog I argued that recent work in psychology that employs “vitality forms” helps us understand how music expresses emotion. Will vitality forms help us understand how wine could express feeling states or personality characteristics?
Vitality forms are “the flow pattern” of human experience, “the subjectively experienced shifts in the internal states” that characterize sensations, thoughts, actions, emotions, and other feeling states. Discovered by Daniel Stern and described in his 2010 book Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development, vitality forms constitute the temporal structure of experience, the duration, acceleration and intensity of an experience. Importantly, vitality forms are not tied to a specific sense modality. All five senses as well as thoughts and feelings exhibit vitality forms. “A thought can rush onto the mental stage and swell, or it can quietly just appear and then fade”, as Stern notes. So can sounds, visual experiences, tactile impressions or emotions—anger can explode or emerge as a slow burn. In short, a vitality form is how any conscious experience emerges and changes over time. Read more »
Wine language often suggests that wines express emotion or exhibit personality characteristics despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally possess these characteristics. There is a history, although somewhat in recession today, to refer to wines as aggressive, sensual, fierce, grand, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to such talk or is it just arbitrary flights of fancy?
Last month I argued that it's perfectly intelligible to conceive of wine as expressive. Wine expresses the geography and climate of a region or vineyard, the vintage characteristics, and the winemaker's idea of those. More importantly, wine can sometimes express the winemaker's feelings about wine, especially the inspirational experiences that explain their love of wine that they wish to communicate to their patrons. But the aforementioned wine language suggests a broader notion of expression, one in which wine, perhaps like art, can express fundamental features of human experience.
In aesthetics, this question of how art can express feelings has typically been pursued using music as the prime example, because there is a broad consensus that music is deeply connected to human emotion. In trying to answer this question about wine, it makes sense to use these resources developed in the debate about music. So bear with me as I go on about music and the emotions for a bit; wine will get its due towards the end of the essay.
Can we make sense of the idea that wines express emotion?
No doubt wine can trigger feelings. Notoriously, at a party, wine triggers feelings of conviviality via the effects of alcohol. But the wine isn't expressing anything in that case. It's the people via their mannerisms and interaction encouraged by the wine that are expressing feelings of conviviality. The wine is a causal mechanism, not itself an expression of these feelings.
The concept of expression need not be restricted to feelings. To express is to externalize an inward state. In a very straightforward sense some wines express the nature of the grapes in a particular vintage and the soils and climate of the vineyard. But for better or worse, in aesthetics, we tend to be more interested in the expression of psychological agents rather than pieces of fruit. Perhaps that is a mere prejudice, but one we are unlikely to dispense with given the importance of human emotions to our sensibility. If wines are expressive in the sense that is of interest in aesthetics, it will be because they express some human quality.
Of course a wine expresses the winemaker's idea of what the grapes of a particular vintage and location should taste like. But that is an idea, not a feeling or emotion, and at least historically, the concept of expression in aesthetics has focused on feelings as the central case. Thus, although wine expresses ideas and nature, it will be via emotion that it earns any expressivist credentials.
The most discussed expression theory was formulated by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, and we can begin to unravel the sense in which wine expresses feelings by considering his theory. While implausible as a general theory of artistic expression, Tolstoy's "transmission" theory has the virtue of being an intuitively plausible account of how some works of art express emotion, and I think it directly applies to at least some wines.
According to Tolstoy, a work of art expresses emotion when an artist feels an emotion and embodies that emotion in a work of art in a way that successfully transmits that emotion to the audience who then feel the same emotion as the artist. Thus, for example, a composer might intend to express sadness via her music using a minor key and lugubrious rhythm. If the audience then feels sad as a result of hearing the composition, the work is successful as an expression of sadness, according to Tolstoy's theory.
The wine world is never short on controversy. Among the most persistent are worries about how wine quality is assessed. Are scores the best way of assessing quality? Why do I disagree with wine critics so much? Why do price and quality often seem unrelated? Are cult wines worth their cost? And what about those florid tasting notes and esoteric descriptors wine critics use that seem to have nothing to do with what I taste?
We need some distinctions to sort out these issues.
Begin by distinguishing two distinct objects of evaluation.* First, there is the process by which we become aware of the aesthetic properties of the wine. This is the process of appreciation, and the object of attention is an experience which is of course guided by the wine. Secondly, instead of evaluating the experience of wine, we could evaluate the wine itself. This might sound odd. How can I gain access to a wine without experiencing it? And indeed, sometimes there would be no difference between my evaluation of the experience and my evaluation of the wine. However, sometimes there is an important difference because each is focused on a different kind of value. When we focus on evaluating an experience we are focused on intrinsic value, the value of an experience independently of how it is used or for what purpose. We enjoy experiences not because they are useful for some purpose but because they are good in themselves. By contrast, we can evaluate a wine for its instrumental value in causing our experience. Wine is good if it brings about an experience that we enjoy.
Here is why this is an important distinction, although I will use something less esoteric than wine as an example. Most of us value cars because they get us where we want to go. Some people value cars because they are fast and can win a race. In both cases the value of the car is instrumental and there are reasonably objective criteria for evaluating cars as a means of transportation. But some people value cars because they like to drive them or look at them. This is also instrumental value but in these cases the car is useful at causing an aesthetic experience.
Among the most striking developments in the art world in the past 150 years is the proliferation of objects that count as works of art. The term “art” is no longer appropriately applied only to paintings, sculpture, symphonic music, literature or theatre but includes architecture, photographs, film and television, found objects, assorted musical genres, conceptual works, environments, etc. The Museum of Modern Art in New York proudly displays a Jaguar XKE roadster as a work of art. As Jacques Rancière writes regarding the modernist aesthetic that begins to emerge in the 18th Century:
“The aesthetic regime asserts the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroying any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself.”*
Rancière argues that with the proliferation of objects that now count as art, contemporary art is neither autonomous from nor fully absorbed into everyday life but occupies a borderland between the everyday and the extraordinary that is art's function to continually negotiate. Art is about having a certain kind of aesthetic experience; it is no longer about a particular kind of object.
Wine is among the most prevalent of everyday objects that have no function except to provide an aesthetic experience. And so the question naturally arises: Can wine be a work of art?
Most of the wine purchased in the U.S is an industrial product made by mega-companies that seek to eliminate the uncertainties of nature in pursuit of a reliable, inexpensive, standardized commodity. But most of the wineries in the U.S. are small-to-mid-sized, artisan producers who lack both the technology and the inclination to make a standardized product immune to nature's whims. For these producers and their customers, the call of the wild is at least a murmur.
Although wine is one of the most alluring products of culture, its attraction is in part due to its capacity to reveal nature. When made with proper care, wine in its structure and flavor reflects its origins in grapes grown in a particular geographical location with unique soils, weather, native yeasts, bacteria, etc. Although the grape juice becomes wine via a controlled fermentation process and is the outcome of an idea brought to fruition by means of technology, the basic material came into existence through natures' bounty– roots, trunk and leaves interacting with soil, sun, and rain. Despite the technological transformations that occur downstream, the character of the wine is thoroughly dependent on what takes place inside the clusters of grapes hanging on the vine in a particular, unique location. As any winemaker will tell you, you cannot make good wine from bad grapes and the character of a wine will depend substantially on those natural processes in the vineyard. When you savor a delicious wine you savor the effects of morning fog, midday heat, wind that banishes disease, soil that regulates water and nutrient uptake, bacteria that influence vine health, native yeasts that influence fermentation, the effects of frost in the spring, of rain during harvest—an endless litany of natural processes over which winemakers and viticulturists often have only limited control.
In this respect wine differs from most other beverages some of which are made in a factory by putting ingredients together according to a recipe; others which are directly a product of agriculture but don't display so readily the unique character of their origins. Orange juice from California tastes like orange juice from Florida. Beer can be made anywhere without significant geographical effects on flavor or texture. Not so with grapes. For most wine lovers, it is that taste of geographical difference that fascinates, a difference that is, in part, nature's murmuring.
Almost everyone connected to the world of wine has a story about their “aha” experience, the precise moment when they discovered there was something extraordinary about wine. For some that moment is a sudden, unexpected wave of emotion that overcomes them as they drink a wine that seems utterly superior to anything they had consumed in the past. For others it's the culmination of many lesser experiences that overtime gather and build to a crescendo when they recognize that these disparate paths all lead to a consummate experience that should be a constant presence in their lives going forward.
For me it was the former. As a casual and occasional consumer of ordinary wine for many years, I had my first taste of quality Pinot Noir in a fine Asian “tapas” restaurant. I was blown away by the finesse with which the spice notes in the food seemed to resonate with similar flavors in the wine. The wine, I now know, was an ordinary mid-priced Pinot Noir from Carneros; Artesa was the producer. But to me in that moment, it was extraordinarily beautiful and I resolved to make that experience a regular part of life.
A simple Google search will turn up any number of these stories. The Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague interviewed several wine lovers about their “aha” moment. One became intrigued by wine while an art student in Italy, another when he discovered he had a discerning palate, many report childhood experiences of being impressed by the serious conversations about wine among the adults in their lives, others were intrigued by wine's complexity or the sense of adventure and risk involved in the winemaking process. Teague herself reports the wine talk of her study-abroad family in Ireland as the catalyst that launched her career as a wine writer.
These stories have two things in common. In each case the experiences are motivating. Like all experiences of beauty we don't passively have them and move on. The recognition of genuine beauty inspires us to want more.
We who are absorbed in the philosophy of wine are usually preoccupied by questions about objectivity, meaning, the nature of taste, aesthetic properties, and other exotica that surround this mysterious beverage. But wine considered as an aesthetic object can never be wholly severed from the commercial aspects of wine, and no philosophy of wine is complete without taking into account the influence of commercial categories.
If you stand perplexed before the thousands of choices available on the wine aisles of your supermarket, or if it all tastes like fermented grape juice to you, here is a primer on distinguishing the good stuff from the ordinary.
Any discussion of wine quality must begin with a distinction between commodity wines and premium or fine wines. Commodity wines usually sell for under $15, although the “commercial premium” sector is growing rapidly and pricier wines will increasingly fall into this category. A quality commodity wine is reliable and familiar, with no obvious flaws, easy to drink and designed for immediate consumption. It will spring no surprises that would offend the casual drinker. Unlike the situation 20 years ago, when $10 might have bought you an attractively packaged bottle of battery acid, there are few bad wines on the market today. The technology of mass wine production has made extraordinary advances. Wine connoisseurs will think these wines uninteresting, but they may be full of flavor, food-friendly, and satisfying to drink.
This is what it is to go aright, or to be led by another into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs…. (211 c-d, Plato's Symposium)
We throw the word “love” around without really meaning it. We “love” ice cream, sunsets, or the latest soon-to-be-forgotten pop song. But such “love” requires no commitment and hardly seems worthy of being in the same category as the love of one's child or spouse. Yet, some objects or activities are worthy objects of love because they solicit our sustained attention and care—a great work of art, a career, baseball, a religion. For some people wine seems to fall into this latter category of worthy objects of love. 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 seeking to sample rare and unusual bottles. Wine seems to have an attraction that goes beyond mere “liking”—a spiritual dimension that requires explanation.
The spiritual dimension of wine has a long history. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was said to inhabit the soul with the power of ecstasy—the Ancient Greek word ekstasis meant standing outside the self via madness or artistic expression, and wine was thought to encourage that transformation . The Romans called the same God Bacchus with similar associations. The Judeo/Christian world tames the ecstasy yet still acknowledges the virtues of wine. Judaism has long included wine in its rituals for which it incorporates a specific blessing, and of course, for Christians, wine represents the blood of Christ and gets a number of mentions in the Bible. Other alcoholic beverages have existed for as long or longer than wine, but none have its spiritual connotations.
Today, wine is just one among many alcoholic beverages consumed in great quantities. Yet it sustains its sacramental role—as status symbol, fashion statement, a sign of class, refinement, or sophistication, a source of intellectual delight, the object of a quest for a peak experience, or the focal point of social life—all contemporary renditions of “spiritual” some more debased than others.
The vexed question of wine tasting and objectivity popped up last week on the Internet when wine writer Jamie Goode interviewed philosopher Barry Smith on the topic. Smith, co-director of CenSes – Center for the Study of the Senses at University of London's Institute of Philosophy, works on flavor and taste perception and is a wine lover as well. He is a prominent defender of the view that at least some aesthetic judgments about wine can aspire to a kind of objectivity. His arguments are worth considering since, I think, only something like Smith's view can make sense of our wine tasting practices.
The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind”. On the one hand, there are objectively measurable chemical compounds in wine that reliably affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms—pyrazines cause bell pepper aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon, malic acid explains apple aromas in Chardonnay, tannins cause a puckering response, etc. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive wine flavors. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting and how to evaluate wine. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. According to subjectivism, each person's response is utterly unique and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Statements about wine flavor are statements about one's subjective states, not about the wine. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.
The problem with the subjectivist's view is that no one connected to wine really believes it. Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating those distinctions to others. If wine quality were purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality–wine education would be an oxymoron. In fact our lives are full of discourse about aesthetic opinion. The ubiquity of reviews, guides, and like buttons on social media presupposes that judgments concerning aesthetic value are meaningful and have authority even if enjoyment and appreciation are subjective. In such cases we are not just submitting to authority but we view others as a source of evidence about where aesthetic value is to be found. Wine tasting is no different despite attempts by the media to discredit wine expertise. So how do we accommodate the obvious points that there are differences in wine quality, as well as objective features of wines that can be measured, with the vast disagreements we find even among experts?
The first important distinction to make is between perception and preferences. As Smith points out:
I think when critics say it is all subjective they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be a difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don't see why critics couldn't be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can't they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it's not to your taste.
This is important but all too often goes unremarked. Wine experts disagree in their verdicts about a wine and in the scores they assign. But if you read their tasting notes closely you will often find they agree substantially about the features of the wine while disagreeing about whether they like them or not.
Wine is useless. It bakes no bread, does no work, and solves no problem. The alcohol loosens tongues and serves as social lubricant, but wine is an inefficient delivery system for alcohol—there are faster, cheaper ways of getting drunk. No one needs wine. Wine does nothing but give pleasure.
Love of wine is thus a useless passion, an arena of pure play, but therein lies its peculiar power. It joins the realm of those objects that express rather than perform–objects like old musical instruments, ancient manuscripts, childhood toys, or Grandma's jewelry. Useless but precious because of the experiences they enable.
When we are consumed by a useless passion, we become more attuned to the allusive meanings and hidden dimensions of the object of love. The object acquires an aura of mystery when unmoored from practical function and can serve as a universal talisman to which all sorts of meanings can be attached. Those moments in which we experience a useless passion and grasp the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of things are not only moments of pleasure but moments in which we glimpse a world of the imagination yet one in which matter resists conceptualization, the hard surfaces of reality resist manipulation because they have their own capacities and developmental direction, and meaning expands beyond what can be calculated or measured.
Among objects of love, wine has its own peculiar attractions. Wine, when considered aesthetically, brings traces of the sacred to our lives that are otherwise thoroughly enmeshed in practical tasks. The demand to slow down and savor opens a time and space in which we can be receptive to multiple ways of understanding the interplay between nature and culture because wine partakes of both.
According to some theories of art, for something to be a work of art it must have meaning. It must be about something and represent what it is about. Last month, on this blog, I argued that some culinary preparations are works of art when they perform this representational function, much to the consternation of some of my Facebook friends who are convinced that something as humble as food should never be associated with the pretensions of the art world. Yet, it is the very humbleness of food that, in part, qualifies it as art. Food can be about many things, but one thing it surely is about is the home. Some foods provoke our memories and imaginations as a representation of domestic life. We call such food “comfort food” because its filling, uncomplicated features haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home. Exemplifications of the taste of home are only one way in which food serves this representational function but are nevertheless central to its significance.
What about wine? Can wine have meaning just as a work of art has meaning? Specifically, does wine evoke feelings of “homeyness”–security, nourishment and being cared for? For most Americans, probably not. Few Americans grow up with wine as a crucial component of their meals. But cultural norms are quite different in, for instance, France, where traditionally wine is served with most meals and children are occasionally encouraged to have a taste. However, most children (thankfully) do not really acquire a taste for it until later in life, so I doubt that it quite has the resonance that familiar foods have. Nevertheless, if we think of “home” more broadly, not as a domicile, but as the bit of geography that constitutes the center of one's world, where one's roots are planted and physical and psychological sustenance is gathered, wine can evoke “homeyness” at least in those parts of the world where generations have struggled to squeeze magic from grapes and where the notion of “terroir” is taken very seriously–France, Italy, and Germany, among many others. The U.S. is a relative newcomer to the vinous arts but even here many wine communities are beginning to develop self-conscious traditions based on the features of their soil and climate and their influence on flavor, the understanding of which is handed down through generations.
It's not like “reading tea leaves”. Fermented grape juice will not foretell the future. But wine does tell a story if you speak its language. Now, I'm not getting all mystical here by attributing linguistic ability to fermented grape juice. The story a wine tells is quite concrete and palpable like mud on the boots and mildew on leaves. The flavors and textures of wine are not merely sensations but qualities that say something about the land on which grapes are grown, the people who made the wine, the world they live in, and the person who is drinking it. Discovering these details gives a wine resonance and meaning that cannot be gained by mere consumption.
A wine has flavor because it is made from a specific grape, from a specific piece of land, and by a winemaker who intended the wine to taste as it does. The winemaking process and decision to plant those particular grapes is a centuries-long process of adapting grapes to climate, soil, and taste preferences. Thus, when you taste a wine you taste the residue of geography and culture. Taste opens up a world with a rich assortment of connections just like any good book.
Of course, anything we consume has a history and a process that produced it. And with sufficient knowledge of how it was produced, we might identify features of that process by attending to its flavor. But wine is unique because when you pay attention and understand why winemakers make the wine they do, the wine says something about them, their family, what they like to drink, and their motivations for making wine. A can of Coke tells you little of importance about the people who make it or the place it comes from. It can be made anywhere by anyone if the price is right. Not so with non-industrial wines. They are inherently artisanal products, and inherently a product of place, and they tell a very human story. Wine is one of the few products where geography, human culture, and aesthetics meet with such intensity, variability, and beauty. It is thus full of meaning waiting to be interpreted.
In many traditional wine regions of the world wine, like food, has been a marker of identity. Wine, when properly made, expresses the character of the soil and climate in which grapes are grown, and the sensibilities of the people who make and consume it. Thus, it is a form of cultural expression that sets one culture or region off from another, drawing a contrast with the rest of the world and inducing a sense of local uniqueness and particularity. As a bulwark against the homogenization of wine produced by global corporations for a world market, the authenticity of a wine's expression thus becomes one criterion by which wine quality is assessed. Wine that does not taste of its origins is branded inauthentic.
But just as creative chefs are confronted with the problem of being innovative while maintaining links to traditions, winemakers are faced with a similar dilemma. Wine lovers are nothing if not diviners of secrets. We strain to find the hidden layer of spice that emerges only after an hour of decanting, alertly attend to the ephemeral floral notes from esters so volatile that a few seconds exposure to air whisks them away forever, and obsess over the hint of tobacco that begins to develop only after 10 years in the cellar. If a wine is to qualify as a work of art, it must repay such devoted attention, revealing new dimensions with repeated tastings, especially as it develops with age. It should be an expression of the vision of the winemaker or the terroir of the region in which the grapes were grown, and like great art, a great wine should be a bit of an enigma, yielding pleasure and understanding while leaving the impression that there is something more here to be grasped. But most importantly, a vinous work of art must be unique. Just as Van Gogh's rendering of Arles is great because no predecessor had been able to capture with paint what Van Gogh saw in an ordinary Cyprus tree, a work of vinous art will uncover new dimensions in flavor. But that seems to contradict the demand that wine reflect the traditional flavor profile characteristic of the region from which it comes. How does a winemaker achieve originality while remaining wedded to tradition?
Among philosophers who think about art and aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.
Food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant came along to break up the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day and continues to influence philosophical writing on the arts.
What were these powerful arguments that succeeded in removing taste from the agenda of aesthetics? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not only to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.
Kant was wrong to argue that “mouth taste” does not provoke contemplation. Connoisseurs of wine, cheese, coffee, and beer, as well as the flavorists who analyze our food preferences for the food industry show that food and wine can be thoughtfully savored, and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.
A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, “apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party.”
I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:
By Tolu Ogunlesi
On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.
Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.
Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”