Will the Taste Revolution Survive?

by Dwight Furrow

I’m sitting in front of my window on the world sipping a disappointing Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and thinking about travel plans for next summer and fall. I’m proceeding as if everything were normal knowing full well they won’t be, especially not with our “leadership”. Every time I try to write something insightful about wine, these lyrics from the bard of Duluth run through my mind:

Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

—Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

There are many tragedies unfolding as Covid-19 ravages the planet. With the massive loss of life and livelihood, the fate of the wine and restaurant industry is not among the worst outcomes, but it nevertheless saddens me when I think about it. Small, artisan wineries, independent restaurants and their employees are going to take a big hit. That’s a lot of skill, creativity, imagination and determination gone to waste. The chains and mammoth, commercial wine companies will survive by doing what well- financed firms with market power and lobbyists do. But it will be hard for the little guy to survive in a business as tough as the restaurant business or the artisan winery business. (I’m writing from the perspective of the U.S. but I imagine the situation is similar worldwide.) These small businesses are the heart and soul of the wine and restaurant industries and they face an uncertain future. Read more »

Imagination and the Language of Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Research by linguists into wine metaphors have identified several source domains that help wine writers describe the faint and ephemeral features of poetry in a glass. “Wine is a building”, “wine is piece of cloth”, and especially “wine is a person” are a few of the rich diversity of potential likenesses that might uncover facets of a wine. There are after all many ways of being a body or a person with new variants continuously on offer. But how do writers identify, within these source domains, which likenesses will be compelling and how do readers come to understand what a metaphor means? Identifying source domains for wine metaphors must be supplemented by an account of how interpretation works.

Given the importance of variation and distinctiveness in wine appreciation and the need for linguistic innovation to capture these dimensions, theories of metaphor that explicitly link metaphor to the exercise of imagination will be most useful. The use of metaphor in wine language looks backward to conventional, entrenched descriptions while looking forward in order to capture the emergence of innovative taste profiles that require linguistic imagination.

To add more complexity to the mix, the use of metaphor in wine language serves two broad purposes that are sometimes opposed. On the one hand writers use metaphor to communicate an accurate description of the wine they’re tasting, especially by conveying the holistic properties such as elegance, intensity, or balance. On the other hand, metaphor expresses the remarkable experiences of a wine that wine importer Terry Theise calls “sublime”. “Some wines” he writes, “…are so haunting and stirring that they bypass our entire analytical faculty and fill us with image and feeling”. Read more »

Fleshy with a Bad Attitude: Metaphor and Wine Tasting Notes

by Dwight Furrow

The wine community is often accused of being snobby and elitist. The language used to describe wine is one source of this innuendo. Although most people have become accustomed to the fruit descriptors used in wine reviews, when wine writers wax poetic by describing wines as “graphite mixed with pâte de fruit”, even some wine professionals get up in arms.

The general complaint is that metaphorical attributions are too subjective and ambiguous. When a wine is described as “a streetwalker” or “sinewy” it’s unclear to some readers what features of the wine are being described.  The further inference drawn is that these are just attempts to make wine descriptions less monotonous or call attention to the writer’s talent for verbal calisthenics without getting at something important about the wine.

There are several things to say about these objections. Read more »

What is the Problem with Wine Metaphors?

by Dwight Furrow

Wine writers, especially those who write wine reviews, are often derided for the flowery, overly imaginative language they use to describe wines. Some of the complainants are consumers baffled by what descriptors such as “brooding” or “flamboyant” might mean. Other complainants are experts who wish wine language had the precision of scientific discourse. The Journal of Wine Economists went so far as to call wine writers “bullshit artists”. (The feeling is mutual.)

Even the sommelier-trained author of the bestselling book Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker, has reservations about the accuracy of such language. After taking writers to task for using terms such as “sinewy” and “broad-shouldered” she writes: “It seems possible that what we “taste” in a fine wine isn’t so much its flavor as the qualities of good taste that we hope it will impart to us.” She seems to be suggesting that wine writers just make stuff up to sound impressive.

The general objection is that these descriptors are metaphorical and are therefore too subjective and ambiguous to give readers an accurate, verbal portrayal of the wine. However, these complaints are tilting at windmills. Read more »

Book Review: Drink More Wine! A Simple Guide to Peak Experiences NOW

by Dwight Furrow

It’s the holiday season and time to think about presents for the budding wine lover in your life. Of course, any season is the right time to think about that. You should always support your local wine lover. One place to begin is this compelling book by long-time food critic Jon Palmer Claridge entitled Drink More Wine! A Simple Guide to Peak Experiences Now. Most books on wine are meant to inform. This book is no exception, but it is also meant to inspire. It performs both tasks admirably and raises a philosophical issue to ponder as well.

Claridge delivers essential information about varietals and wine regions in easily digestible, bit-sized morsels along with helpful advice on topics such as how to read a wine label, wine and food pairings, setting up wine tastings, storing and serving wines. He covers just enough grape varietals and regions to pique the interest of people new to wine without weighing things down with too much information. (There are, thankfully, no dissertations on soil types or yeast strains.) He manages an authoritative voice without sounding like a snob and most of this information is disseminated via charming, personal vignettes from his extensive travel and entertainment experiences. Most helpful are his recommendations for wines that are affordable and available at even modestly well-stocked wine stores thus avoiding the common complaint that wine writers focus on wines that ordinary consumers can’t find. His advice about buying budget wine in the supermarket is particularly helpful. (Tip: Beware the bait and switch. Stores will use high scores from one superior vintage to sell that wine from a different vintage). Read more »

Wine, Beauty, Mystery

by Dwight Furrow

Among the best books I’ve read about wine are the two by wine importer Terry Theise. Reading Between the Wines is a thoroughly enjoyable account of his life in wine and a passionate defense of artisanality. But it’s his most recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime that really gets my philosophical juices flowing.

Long celebrated for his portfolio of mostly German and Austrian wines as well as grower Champagne, in these two books he articulates a sophisticated, yet non-theoretical philosophy of wine and introduces a badly needed corrective to our fatally constrained and often vulgar approach to wine that confuses marketing with aesthetics. But like any work of philosophy, this book raises profound questions. Here are a few quotes that I think raise the most important questions we need to answer.

Great wine can induce reverie; I imagine most of us would concur. But the cultivation of reverie is also the best approach to understanding fine wine.

What is it about us and what is it about wine that induces a dream-like state, that sets the imagination in motion? Why does wine’s capacity to induce reverie help us understand fine wine?

If wine had turned out to be merely sensual I think for me its joys would have been transitory. I’d have done the “wine thing” for a certain number of years and gone on to something else. What continued to drive me, and what drives many of us, is curiosity, pleasure in surprise, and those elusive, incandescent moments of meaning—the sense that some truth, normally obscure, was being revealed.

How can a beverage reveal truths? What kind of truth is this and how would we know we have it? Read more »

In Defense of Wine Critics

by Dwight Furrow

It’s fashionable to criticize wine critics for a variety of sins: they’re biased, their scores don’t mean anything, and their jargon is unintelligible according to the critics of critics. Shouldn’t we just drink what we like? Who cares what critics think? In fact, whether the object is literature, painting, film, music, or wine, criticism is important for establishing evaluative standards and maintaining a dialogue about what is worth experiencing and why. The following is an account of how wine criticism aids wine appreciation by way of providing an account of wine appreciation.

Wine critics engage in a variety of activities. They evaluate wines by saying whether they are good or bad, often in order to advise readers about which wines they should purchase or seek to experience. Via their tasting notes, they guide their reader’s perceptions of a wine getting them to taste something they otherwise might have missed. Critics explain winemaking and viticultural practices, feature winemakers and explain how their inspiration or approach to winemaking influences their wines. They discuss styles of winemaking, changes in those styles as they occur, and new developments in the wine world. They discuss the quality of vintages, the characteristics of varietals and wine regions, and describe their own reactions to a wine.

The most plausible goal that ties all these activities together is that the critic aims to help her readers appreciate the wines about which she writes. Wine criticism is not just loosely related to wine appreciation; the purpose of wine criticism is to aid appreciation and thus we need an account of what it means to appreciate a wine. Read more »

Expressing Vitality: Wine as the Art of Life

by Dwight Furrow

If a rectangular canvas splashed with paint and lines can express freedom or joy, why not liquid poetry?

Works of art are pleasing but they are also intended to communicate or express something. Something is shown or made manifest through a work of art. In many cases what is communicated is some feeling or attitude that in some way belongs to the artist. But not all art is about self-expression. Some works are intended to reveal something about the artist’s materials when worked on in a particular way. For instance, many Impressionist works by Monet and others expressed a singular relationship between color and light, although these works also communicate something about the artist’s point of view regarding what is being expressed.  Some works reveal something about their subject matter when placed in an assemblage with other subject matters regardless of whether they reflect anything about the artist. A landscape may express the relationship between a building and an atmosphere, without expressing something important about the artist’s psychology or biography. To express is to reveal something hidden or not obvious but that need not be restricted to human psychology. Works of art invite us to feel something about them but that feeling need not be something possessed by the artist. Hamlet expresses uncertainty and ambivalence independently of any feelings Shakespeare may have had and there is no need to investigate Shakespeare’s biography to grasp what Hamlet is expressing.

Even when art is expressing some human quality, the expression reaches far beyond facts about an individual artist. The 19th Century German philosopher Hegel argued that art expresses a shared sense of “the deepest interests of mankind, the most comprehensive truths of the spirit”. Art’s role for Hegel is to express something whole cultures can share when brought to light and put on a pedestal.

What about wine? Can wine be expressive in the way works of art are expressive? I’ve argued that wine can express emotion, although only occasionally is that related to a winemaker’s feelings. But here I want to focus on other dimensions of wine’s expressiveness that go beyond the expression of an individual’s emotions or attitudes. Read more »

The Production of the New: Wine Culture and Variation

by Dwight Furrow

Wine writers often observe that wine lovers today live in a world of unprecedented quality. What they usually mean by such claims is that advances in wine science and technology have made it possible to mass produce clean, consistent, flavorful wines at reasonable prices without the shoddy production practices and sharp bottle or vintage variations of the past.

This general improvement in wine quality is to be welcomed but I would argue that for wine aesthetics a more important development is the unprecedented diversity in our wine choices. What wine writer Jon on Bonné, recently referred to as “weird wine”—natural wine, orange wine, wine in cans, wine from unfamiliar locations—is an important part of the wine conversation. Wine is now made in every state in the U.S. and most of those states have their own indigenous wine cultures with distinctive varietals and unique terroirs. Throughout the world, emerging new wine regions from Great Britain to China promise to add to the stock of diverse tasting experiences. Wine grapes are increasingly grown in extreme environments—from high in the Andes, to the deserts of the Golan Heights, to the chill lake sides of Canada. Projects such as Vox Vineyards in Kansas City, Bodegas Torres in Spain, and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, California are rediscovering lost or ignored varietals while the University of Minnesota develops new varietals that can survive Northern winters. If you’re willing to navigate our spotty distribution system, most of this diversity is widely available. Although the best wines from the storied vineyards of France are now available only to the super wealthy, new generations of wine drinkers are growing tired of the hamster wheel of Cabernet/Chardonnay/Merlot and are seeking something more adventurous.

This focus on variation has not always been an intrinsic part of wine culture. As I described in my column last month, in the early 1990’s the growing wine culture in the U.S. was dominated by trends that would tend to increase homogeneity. Excessive ripeness, a reductionist approach to wine science, overly narrow critical standards, and most importantly rapid growth in the wine industry were poised to transform wine into a standardized commodity like orange juice and milk, serving a function but without much aesthetic appeal.

So what happened? How did we avoid that monotonous landscape of homogeneous juice? Read more »

Robert Parker’s Legacy: The Influence of Criticism on Wine Styles

by Dwight Furrow

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 Borrowed and the New: American Wine and French Tradition

by Dwight Furrow

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 »

Wine Worlds and Distributed Agency

by Dwight Furrow

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 »

How Wine Expresses Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

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 »

Wines of Anger and Joy (Part 2)

by Dwight Furrow

Wine-bottle-supplier-300x273Wine 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.

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Wines of Anger and Joy (Part 1)

by Dwight Furrow

Emotion and wineCan 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.

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How to Drink Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_The_Happy_Violinist_with_a_Glass_of_Wine_-_WGA11668The 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.

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The Art of Wine: Part 1

by Dwight Furrow

CezanneAmong 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?

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Wine and Nature’s Rift

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard3Most 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.

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Wine and Epiphany

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard 2Almost 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.

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Wine Quality: Distinguishing the Fine from the Ordinary

by Dwight Furrow

Fine wineWe 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.

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